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The Big Interview: Thomas Dubaere, COO, Hotel Services, AccorHotels UK & Ireland

Bonnie Howard 10 April 2017
The Big Interview: Thomas Dubaere, COO, Hotel Services, AccorHotels UK & Ireland

Thomas Dubaere discusses how disruption can empower traditional hotel industry players and the people in them

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to your current role?

I first joined AccorHotels as a Maitre D’ at the Novotel Bruges Centre in 1990. From then, I have held numerous positions in the company before being appointed to head up AccorHotels in the UK in 2012. This kind of longevity in the group is not unusual – we try to give our people the opportunity to work in different countries, roles, or segments of the industry from budget right through to luxury to help them develop.

What is the best part of your job?

It’s the people – that’s why I got into the industry in the first place. I enjoy giving people the chance to show what they’re made of and watching them develop as individuals. I’m working on setting up a new task force at the moment comprised of Millennials within the company, who are tasked with coming up with innovative solutions to genuine business challenges through the eyes of Generation Y. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

What are the key issues for the sector at the moment?

For me, the biggest change is the disruption of the non-traditional business models. In the last 15 years there has been a major shift. First came the innovators – the online travel agents, replacing the traditional travel agent. Then the aggregators, such as Kayak and Trivago, which brought together lots of information from different places into one site and made the booking decision-making process much easier. And now in the last couple of years, the disruptors such as Airbnb and Uber have arrived. Traditional players have to adapt to survive and thrive.

What’s driving this disruption?

The way people see travel and the way they interact with it is changing.  Our increased reliance on technology is an important factor in this. Things like free Wi-Fi are a must for Generation Y now, they want to be able to do a lot of tasks on their mobile phone like checking in and out. Consequently, hotels are investing a lot of time and money adapting to this new reality. In 2014, AccorHotels launched a €225 million digital transformation plan which impacts every part of our business. One example of this is our app which hosts everything – all our hotels, all our brands, you can check in and out, read the newspaper and find out about the city you’re in.

Have you noticed any trends emerging in how the industry is responding to this challenge?

A lot of industry players have been focussing on the introduction of consumer technology. This is true of AccorHotels too, and digital and technology is a vital part of our growth strategy. But we have to remember that the technology supports and empowers our teams to enhance the customer experience.

The new technologies improve the direct relationship between the guest and the host. The more time we have to deal with the guest and less on the administrative burden, the better.  This is why we have been getting rid of traditional reception desks for the past two years because tablets and apps have freed up staff from the static desk, reduced the levels of admin on arrival, and enabled focus on the personal connection with the guest.  

What else have you been doing to tackle the disruption?

We have acquired stakes in numerous homestay and rental companies such as Squarebreak and Oasis. We have also fully acquired Onefinestay – the high-end hospitality service provider, specialising in luxury private home rental. These businesses give us a lot of digital know-how and entrepreneurial spirit that will help to accelerate our transition.

We have also opened up our own channels and created a marketplace in which is open to independent hotels with less cost commission than an online travel agent.  We’re re-thinking our F&B offering too, introducing new bar, restaurant and coffee shop concepts that are destinations in their own right and consequently much more profitable. So we are using the disruption to empower our business.

How do you see the future for the hotel industry?

I think we’ll see hotels continue to invest heavily in digital to encourage more direct bookings through online and mobile platforms. Tech within hotels will also continue to develop and must be there to support and empower our teams to enhance the customer experience. Smart appliances are a growth area – lighting, temperature, blinds, alarms, TV, radio and room service will all be routinely controlled from a single tablet device or app. If the innovators, the aggregators and the disruptors were waves one, two and three of the transformation of the industry, then we see data as the fourth. This move towards data driven customer experience from a whole host of sources can be incredibly powerful for the hotelier, and if used properly, can create the best guest experience possible.

What are your plans for the future?

We have strong growth in the UK. We currently boast 226 hotels and are looking to grow to 300 in the next 2-3 years.  We will continue to invest in the best digital tools and services to empower our people to make all our guests feel welcome across the portfolio. We will also focus on our sustainable development and foster a move towards positive hospitality to reduce food waste, water and energy usage. And the most important, we will continue to invest in our talent and ensure that everyone has a voice in our company in order to share their ideas and aid greater innovation in the face of constant change and disruption.

Quick fire questions…

Last hotel you stayed at?

Ibis Cambridge

Your favourite food?


The one item of technology you can’t live without?

Sonos System

What is the most important life lesson you’ve learnt?

I really like Nelson Mandela’s quote – “Don’t judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.’