Following his recent appointment as COO of Luxury Brands Europe for Accor, Marc Dardenne took time out of his busy schedule to speak to Sophie Harper about the importance of connecting with your audience and the future for luxury brands within the hospitality industry.
With nearly four decades of global hospitality experience in both hotel and real estate groups, Marc Dardenne is a seasoned and well-respected figurehead in the industry. A Belgian national, who was born in France and grew up in Switzerland, he describes himself as being “truly European”. As he gets settled into his new role as Chief Operating Officer for Accor’s Luxury Brands Europe division, I wanted to find out more about the hotelier’s background, beginning with his entry into the hospitality sector. He tells me, “I studied at the Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne and my early career, beginning in the early 1980s, was spent in increasingly senior roles at Hilton, Sheraton and Hyatt throughout the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia. In 2000, I shifted my focus to the luxury segment with a move to Ritz Carlton taking the role of General Manager. Bali followed as I was assigned Vice President and Area General Manager based in the UAE with responsibility for hotel operations in Dubai, Doha, Bahrain, and Sharm El Sheikh.”
After five years, Marc joined Emaar Properties, where he started their hospitality division and worked closely with Giorgio Armani to shepherd the expansion of the Armani brand into hospitality with ultra-luxury hotel openings in Dubai and Milan. “I have also been involved in developing unique luxury and lifestyle brands such as The Address Hotels and Resorts, Patina Hotels & Resorts and Zabeel House,” he adds.
More recently he has held the role of COO of Amaala, an ultra-luxury resort destination project on the Red Sea sponsored by the Public Investment Fund. Before that he was Interim CEO and COO at Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts in Dubai, where he was responsible for 19 hotels, overseeing 14,000 colleagues. He exceeded financial results, colleague engagement and guest satisfaction goals during his tenure with the group.
He openly discusses his passion for the luxury industry, which is evidenced by his solid track record of putting successful processes and structures in place to support the growth of the luxury brands he works with and he holds an enviable collection of industry awards. The Feigenbaum Leadership Excellence Award (Middle East); CEO of the Year, the Hospitality and Tourism Sector, CEO Middle East; and General Manager of the Year by Hotelier Middle East are the accolades proving Marc Dardenne is a man fully invested in his craft.
Accor announced Marc’s new appointment in August this year, which has him overseeing the operations of 43 luxury hotels in Europe and 14 properties under development. This includes top-tier brands like Orient Express, Raffles, Fairmont, SO/, Sofitel and others as well as flagship properties such as Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam and The Savoy in London. “My role at Accor is to ensure a proper understanding of luxury hotel management in Europe with a high focus on product and service quality, exceptional guest experiences and increasing the portfolio of hotels with numerous new flagship properties,” says Marc.
Having established itself as a leader in the global luxury hotel market, Accor has a dedicated portfolio that includes many of the world’s most prestigious luxury and premium brands across more than 620 properties. Accor, although a mega corporation in the industry, prides itself on honouring the distinct personalities and histories redolent in each of its hotel brands. It also understands its customers and actively seeks to create quality long-term relationships. Marc tells me the group aims for a high degree of personalisation across its brands, be it within its wellness, design, or culinary offerings, to inspire guests to feel healthier, happier, and more enriched by staying in one of the company’s hotels. “Accor is an augmented hospitality group that goes beyond the boundaries of hotels,” he says. “We stand out for our portfolio of Live / Work / Play brands that connect different parts of our customers’ lifestyles, as well as our business accelerators, which bring in best-in-class solutions in distribution, experience, and operations.”
It’s clear that Accor’s values and aims for its luxury brands aren’t simply spin for the customer, but it takes a great level of understanding and empathy to deliver a complete package for everyone. It’s only hearing how connected Marc is with the customer journey that makes me realise how well-balanced Accor’s offerings are. “Luxury is much more an emotional experience than expressed through material comforts,” Marc tells me when I ask what luxury means to him. “Nowadays, beautiful lobbies, fine linens and marble bathrooms – while still in demand and highly appreciated – are merely the basis of luxury. Whereas the feeling of entering a magnificent space where one is greeted by name, with a favourite cocktail ready and waiting, is very appreciated by guests. This is a thoughtful intimacy that makes guests feel they are being treated with personalised care and surrounded by luxury.” I agree, to a point, but the draw in the first instance surely has to come from what the customer is seeing on face value if you haven’t experienced the service before. Marc agrees that design is hugely important, but that it’s more about how the design is used to conjure an emotional response: “Design is key in our hotels and our main objective with design is to create emotion,” he says. “Luxury hotels serve as a second home, evoking feelings of community, comfort and safety. Furthermore, today’s luxury travellers seek to connect with brands that share their values and aim to make the world a better place for people, wildlife and surrounding communities. The group also aims to meet the needs for sustainable luxury and eco-design through its Planet 21 programme.”
Accor collaborates with key designers across its luxury brands to deliver that all-important connection, while also giving the design team the freedom to truly express their creativity. “We have several collaborations with key designers for many hotels, such as Christian Lacroix for SO/ Bangkok, whose uninhibited imagination emanates throughout the hotel,” says Marc. “In terms of design, our hotels also increasingly attract local residents to our bars, lounges, spas and fitness clubs.” He adds: “There is a fantastic, lively energy when locals and international visitors come together, so we design spaces that are more connected to the neighbourhood, create programming that engages local residents and treat the design of our spas and fitness areas as standalone facilities that invite local guests to enjoy our services and in some cases, even join as members.”
Marc discusses the ways in which travel has changed over the years and what that means for the hospitality industry, “The way people travel and move about the world, as well as how they organise their lives, is constantly evolving. As a result, our design, services and amenities must be flexible to reflect these ever-changing interests, with a high degree of personalisation and individual recognition.” As an example, he describes how guests are more inclined than ever to keep up their usual fitness routines while travelling and how Accor accommodates those needs: “We produce challenging and unique fitness activities, workout gear delivered in-room and video-on-demand fitness instruction, along with nourishing menus that provide nutrition and bespoke options.” It’s the same story for guests needing to combine leisure with work, Marc says: “The distinction between business and leisure travel is increasingly becoming blurred. Coined by many now as ‘bleisure’, it is a growing trend, due in part to an increasingly mobile culture, and the influence of the millennials who frequently extend business trips into leisure weekends and often will do business remotely while on personal vacations. The millennial and Gen Z generations are the clients of today and tomorrow. We believe that these consumers will want to stay in a place that has been fully tailored to their needs. To achieve this hyper-personalisation, we will definitely rely on technology, but also on our people.”
Travel, as you might imagine, is a main feature in Marc’s life. Constantly on the road, he tells me how he travels multiple times every week from Europe to the ‘States, the Middle East and Asia. “As I recently joined [Accor], I am currently travelling extensively to visit all hotels and meet all relevant stakeholders. Days differ from one week to another – for example, I will be travelling to London soon, visiting our current hotels and meeting the teams.” Happily, it’s not all work and no play when it comes to travel and Marc very much enjoys taking time out when he can with his family, he tells me, “My future leisure trips include trips to Africa for a safari and visit to Burma, which have been on my bucket list for a long time. My favourite trips have been family trips with my wife and two kids including their partners. Last year we went to Mexico and had a very memorable time.”
On reflection of his new role, Marc tells me how well he’s settling in. “I really enjoy working for prestigious luxury brands at Accor. I am also very excited to accompany Accor pursuing new and exciting opportunities to further ‘globalise’ its luxury brands and achieve the strongest position in Europe. Being in contact with our hotel teams and dealing with our owners on a daily basis gives me the most satisfaction. Hospitality is a people business and that is one of the reasons I chose this career path.”
In the pipeline, Accor has a plethora of exciting new projects on the horizon, “We have a long list of [hotels] opening very soon such as a Raffles Hotel in Moscow and one in St. Petersburg and a Fairmont in Prague,” Marc says. “We have allocated many resources to ensure that all our openings are successful as I always say that you only have one chance to open a hotel and a successful opening lays the foundation for a bright future.” We couldn’t agree more… watch this SPACE.