“Europe is not united. The only thing that unites Europe is the euro; every country is completely different no matter what people think,” Duncan O’Rourke tells me. It’s not a particularly startling omission. The notion of a fractured continent riven by cultural, economic and political differences became apparent long before Brexit entered the lexicon. When that admission comes from someone tasked with overseeing 1,100 hotels across 30 European countries, however, you take their word for it. More specifically, O’Rourke is talking about the Northern European region he is now in charge of as CEO at Accor. The area has since expanded from 400 properties across the UK, Benelux and Nordics to a territory that starts somewhere in Dublin and snakes all the way to Vladivostok, which O’Rourke reminds me is “on the Sea of Japan”.

It is a position that the 54-year-old has spent his career building towards. Formerly at Kempinski Hotels, first as general manager, regional director and COO, he joined Accor in 2016, managing European luxury and premium hotels, before being promoted to COO for Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Now, he takes charge of one of the company’s fastest-growing regions during the worst pandemic since 1918.

“I’ve only ever done hospitality,” O’Rourke says. “I’ve been in Moscow when [Mikhail] Gorbachev was overthrown and [Boris] Yeltsin came in. I’ve been all over the world and been through military coups, 9/11, financial crashes. I’ve [even] been through other pandemics, but I have never, ever seen anything like this.”

After being promoted in October, O’Rourke was charged with getting 13 countries aligned around five or six different offices before merging them into a cohesive team. It meant an endless chain of Zoom calls. “There are about 14 people in my executive team, some of whom I’ve never met in person,” he says.

The challenge was to try to work people out over the internet, to understand what drove them and why they were coming at things from a particular angle in a particular place. Invariably, some discussions were easier to have than others. “With this new structure, some people didn’t have a place to go and you couldn’t physically fly in there and talk to them,” O’Rourke explains. “I had to [let people go] electronically as well, which has been challenging. It’s never nice to do that.”

Then there was the short-term impact of the pandemic. Guessing what each individual country might do next – and how that might hamper hotel development plans going forward and for how long – became a game in itself.

Planned upgrades of assets and properties to fit Accor’s rigorous brand standards were put on hold. O’Rourke had to learn some new skills of his own: not only did he have to become more technologically proficient – Zoom is “not my forte”, he admits – but hone his accountancy skills.

“[The pandemic] put the handbrake on everything: projects opening, our development, our strategy – because money becomes tight. In my position you start to change your skill set, and you start to negotiate payment schedules for financial planning. I’m more of a banker now,” he says with a grin. Planning for eventualities, both in an economic and social sense, hasn’t just been about cautious money counting. Even before the arrival of the pandemic, Accor had grand development plans in Northern Europe. Now, the arrival of vaccines and lower rates of Covid-19 in several key countries sees Europe’s largest hospitality group doubling down on strategic expansion.

This year, Accor is set to open over 65 hotels across the region before the end of the year. The luxurious end of that portfolio includes two Fairmont properties in Windsor Park and Ireland (Carton House). The latter marking a brand debut in the country. Meanwhile, the group’s iconic Raffles Hotel marque will open in London and Moscow, respectively, in 2022. The former, situated in the Old War Office on Whitehall, has generated interest on account of its Churchillian heritage. In the broader lifestyle segment, Mondrian, Accor’s long-favoured lifestyle brand, is set for a return to London in the form of Mondrian Shoreditch, formerly The Curtain hotel. The move coincides with the launch of Tribe, a mid-level lifestyle brand with Australian roots, described by O’Rourke as a “four-plus product, but not at a four or five-star rate”, and a brand that is indicative of Accor’s wider strategy to think of hotels as “restaurant and bar experiences with rooms”, rather than the other way around.

To that end, it’s hard to think of Accor’s lifestyle-centred philosophy without its most recent acquisition. In November, it was announced that the French hospitality giant would partner with independent lifestyle specialist Ennismore to form the world’s largest lifestyle group, encompassing 13 brands and around 250 hotels.

“Each of those founding members are still a very important part of this group, and they will continue to play a pivotal role,” O’Rourke explains. “What we will do is drive development, top line, financial services and talent acquisition. We still have a very important role to play, but that day-to-day management [side of things] will be managed separately by each brand.”

With flagship properties based in London – Ennismore’s The Hoxton brand was born in Shoreditch, and another is set to be unveiled in Shepherd’s Bush – what does O’Rourke make of the recent clamour for a specialist UK hospitality minister? How can an industry that employs around three million people not have a designated representative in the cabinet?

“Do I think that corporate business will come back as it was before? No, I don’t. We might lose around 10% and 15% in that segment.”

“It’s very, very surprising. I think this industry throughout Europe is underappreciated,” O’Rourke says. “I think it requires us to come together a little bit more and put our foot down, because it’s the third-largest employment provider in Europe, and it gets little or no representation. I think we all have to get together and become stronger and more united.”

But O’Rourke remains optimistic. “People want to travel,” he says. “We have safety protocols in place.

“However, I’m also going to be very transparent with you. Do I think that corporate business will come back as it was before? No, I don’t. We might lose around 10% and 15% in that segment. But I really believe in this industry. I think we are well positioned now that we’ve gone through the restructuring [process]. We have a very dynamic team.”

Inspiration from elsewhere

Our conversation briefly ventures into a discussion of Uefa’s ongoing European Championship in football. O’Rourke is constantly looking to other industries and high-performance cultures to glean insights on team management and leadership. A lifelong Arsenal fan, he is fascinated by sports psychology. Hospitality, he says, can learn a lot from Europe’s top football managers and their relentless drive for success.

“I often say to my guys, ‘Look at the top football teams: even when they win championships or the top leagues, they are letting players go, bringing in new players; they’re always looking to improve.’ I think you can learn a lot from sport.”

In an industry that continues to weather the ongoing chaos of the pandemic, at least one thing is clear. O’Rourke will do everything in his power to ensure Accor’s long-term hegemony in a divided Europe.