Over its long history, Aix-en- Provence has stirred many of its residents to produce great continued to inspire them long after their departure, whether it was in the scheming residents of Zola’s country town of Plassans or the splendour of Cezanne’s tender landscapes of the Provencal hill country.

Perhaps Frederic Chevalier was thinking something similar would happen for the residents of ‘thecamp’, a start-up accelerator he founded a few miles west of Aix-en-Provence in 2013. Chevalier was an expert in marketing; in 1990, he founded HighCo, a communications firm that specialised in promoting new technology start-ups. Within six years, it underwent its first initial public offering, and Chevalier became a rich man.

Then he stopped working. Chevalier moved south, to Corsica, where he sailed and spent time with his family. He didn’t stay retired for long. From his boat, Chevalier saw a world brimming with technological innovation, albeit one where many start-ups were stymied in their work for lack of funding and broader recognition. His itch to contribute a solution overcame him, and so he founded thecamp, a kind of university where people from all disciplines would meet and discuss the problems facing the world today.

The initial approach, which applies to everything I do, is to take into account the landscape or the environment.

Cultural landscape

The site officially opened in September. Designed by the architect Corinne Vezzoni, the core of the facility lies in its vast central hub, a flat-roofed structure cut into the shape of a teardrop. “The initial approach, which applies to everything I do, is to take into account the landscape or the environment,” said Vezzoni, in a promotional interview for the project.

“Choosing this land means creating a place where students, researchers and academics can work in a peaceful environment, providing them with all they need to study, and ultimately far from the hustle and bustle of the city.”

Tragically, Chevalier did not live to see his experiment begin; he died in a motorcycle accident a few months prior. By that point, however, he had convinced a prestigious roll-call of French and European companies to invest in the project, including SNCF, Sodexo and Airbus. Also joining the scheme as a private partner was AccorHotels. It was, perhaps, the corporate partner who had the most to gain, or lose, from thecamp’s success.

AccorHotels was founded in 1967 as the Société d'investissement et d'exploitation hôteliers. Beginning with a single property in Lille, in the years following, it went from strength to strength, launching the Ibis brand in the mid-1970s and thereafter growing by acquisition, snapping up Courtepaille, Mercure, and Sofitel. By the 2010s, it was in an enviable position as one of the world’s pre-eminent hotel operators, with a market capitalisation of over €7 billion.

What followed was an existential crisis for not only AccorHotels, but also the entire hospitality sector. In 2007, Joe Gebbia, Brian Chesky and Nathan Blecharczyk had created airbedandbreakfast.com, a website that aimed to make short-term leasing and renting of property easier. The idea caught the imagination of Silicon Valley’s venture capitalist brigade, who invested millions of dollars into the project. Since renamed Airbnb, its market valuation is estimated to be over $30 billion. Were it not for the merger between Marriott and Starwood last year, Airbnb’s current capitalisation would make it larger than every other hotel operator on the market.

Airbnb-listed properties can now be found almost anywhere, in all shapes and sizes, from studio apartments to an entire Panamanian island. There is also a growing sense among industry observers that the future of hospitality lies with the company, or at least its business model. In September 2017, Airbnb revealed that the average age of the nearly 17 million people who had booked stays at its properties that year was 35. The following month, the it announced that it was no longer limiting itself to the booking business, with the announcement of a series of branded time-shares on the Florida coast: ‘Niido, powered by Airbnb’, In other words, a hotel.

Mixed response

The reaction to the rise of Airbnb among hotel operators has been an understandable mixture of moderate worry to existential crisis. Some have chosen to respond by going granular with their brand offerings, offering as many unique experiences – for the young and the old, the fashion-conscious or the fitness-fanatic – as they can. AccorHotels, meanwhile, decided to go one step further and forge relationships with entrepreneurs and startups outside of the traditional hospitality orbit, hoping to harness the same kind of raw ingenuity that had fostered the likes of Facebook, Uber and, of course, Airbnb. It was this end that the operator hired Thibault Viort as its first chief disruption and growth officer.

“Our job is to foresee, three to five years ahead, new sources of income for the Accor group,” said Viort, in a recent interview. It also saw the operator throw its weight behind start-ups and products that they felt would grant it the necessary edge in what is becoming a heavily disrupted market. One of these new revenue channels was OneFineStay, a start-up of which the business model mixed the booking aspect of Airbnb in high-end properties with elements of traditional hotel service.

The firm was acquired by AccorHotels helping to establish its master of sciencein August 2016 for $17 million. Even so, Viort was equivocal about the risk such an approach might bring.“We are not psychics, so we can only guess which paths to take,” he said.

It was, however, a task that could be made immeasurably easier if one was building the paths instead of treading them. Instead of waiting for entrepreneurs to approach them with the next big idea, AccorHotels has gone to them. The hotel group is a sponsor of the Viva Technology show, an annual event that connects over 100 established corporations with nearly 5,000 start-ups, with around 30 of the latter encouraged to exhibit their wares in Accor’s 400m2 ‘Hospitality Lab’. It is also a strategic partner of the Innovation Factory, another contact point between entrepreneurs, investors and think tanks, and has gone to great lengths in cultivating educational institutions, not least the École hôtelière de Lausanne in helping to establish its master of science in hospitality course.

The decision to invest in the future of thecamp followed in this vein. AccorHotels would be able to trap and harness the power of ideas from individuals across multiple industries, breaking down the abstract concepts they advanced to change the world into concrete business propositions that would advance its wider interests.

Start-up fever

“The idea is to really break silos,” explains Damien Perrot, senior vicepresident for design and technical services at AccorHotels. “AccorHotels, Sodexo, Credit Agricole, Vinci Energies and other partners will not be able to address all the trends, or reinvent the future on their own.”

However, the campus in Aix-en-Provence would not be open until late 2017, and its sponsors decided to kickstart the innovation cycle early with a Europe-wide start-up competition. The Spark Life Contest, as it became known, would pit firms against one another in three categories for prize money of up to €40,000, and a stab at a working partnership with one of the partner corporations at thecamp.

“We launched that contest in March, in Paris,” recalls Perrot. After that, the organisers decided to set up events promoting the competition in multiple European cities. “We went to Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Barcelona, Lisbon and then Aix-en-Provence.”

In the end, more than 100 start-ups applied, of which over 40 managed to proceed to the semi-final at the VivaTechnology Festival in Paris. “Then, we did the final in London with seven start-ups,” says Perrot. The winner was Eelway, a French service that picks up hotel guests’ luggage in the place that is most convenient for them, whether it be at the arrivals hall at the airport, on a station platform or even at home. AccorHotels signed a working partnership with the firm almost immediately.

“It would really help our clients,” Perrot says. He imagines a scenario where a businessman is due to leave his accommodation hours before he is set to leave the city he is visiting. “[Eelway] takes care of your luggage, and you are completely free.”

A baggage service may not sound like the kind of earth-shattering innovation that the hospitality industry is hoping for. Even so, Accor’s deal with Eelway is just the opening salvo of a wide-ranging campaign to attract entrepreneurs into its orbit and fold the newest, most exciting products and services into its offering. Perrot mentions entertainment, mobile technology, sustainability and artificial intelligence as areas where AccorHotels is keen to divine new insights from visitors. Nestled in the dull heat of the Provencal hills, only time can tell whether these breakthroughs can be made.