The popular idea of how a start-up begins is certainly romantic, if a little limited. The corporations of tomorrow are supposed to begin in a garage, or else some kind of basement, run by twentysomething entrepreneurs who are plucky and well meaning, yet endearingly naive. But what is most important is the idea – that glimmering epiphany lying at the heart of the enterprise. It is always, without fail, meant to change the world.

The reality is invariably more prosaic. More start-ups fail than succeed and their ideas are rarely earth-shattering. A select few, however, persist long enough for much larger corporations to appreciate their ideas for what they’re worth, before either partnering with the founders or buying up their businesses wholesale. And increasingly, this is what start-ups all over Europe are looking towards Thibault Viort to do. As chief disruption officer for AccorHotels, it’s his job to ascertain what ideas are worthy of being brought into the fold of Europe’s biggest hotel operator, and when.

“Being a chief disruption officer is, first and foremost, a position that embodies the state of mind of constantly being on the lookout for new ideas,” Viort explains, somewhat philosophically. “This requires an ability to anticipate future changes and track down new growth opportunities for the [Accor] group.”

It’s a careful balancing act. Get it right, and Viort has a chance at imbuing hotel operations with a new-found sense of dynamism. Invest in the wrong ideas, however, and the operator may find itself out of pocket in a failed attempt to compete against not only other hotel giants, but also the growing threat posed by the online rental sector.

Old hat

Time was that AccorHotels only needed to rely on a single concept. When Paul Dubrule and Gérard Pelisson broke ground on the first Novotel in 1967, they were proposing a sharp break in how hotels in continental Europe had been managed and marketed up until that point. Simply put, the emergent French middle class had little choice between staying at luxury hotels or local offerings with wildly divergent definitions of what constituted comfort. With Novotel, however, they now had an affordable place to stay with guaranteed standards across multiple properties.

It proved immensely popular. Accor followed up this success with Novotel, and with new economy and mid-scale brand offerings over the next two decades, founding Ibis in 1974 – a ‘short name that meant the cost of signs could be reduced’, according to the company history – and Hotel Formule 1 in 1985. The acquisition of Sofitel in 1980 and an exchange offer with Compagnie International des Wagon-Lits in the early 1990s allowed the operator to extend its reach into the luxury end of the market. Whatever the value of these achievements, however, there was no disputing one essential fact: Accor was in the hotels business, and there was little chance of that changing.

We focus on start-ups with strategic value for the group, which is why we pick them up based on their capacity to grow into leaders in the industry.

It took the emergence of online travel agents (OTAs) and rental platforms to blow that model apart. The former served to erode hotel operators’ profit margins and push up distribution costs, while the latter not only helped to drive down costs for travellers, but also boosted accessibility to the destinations consumers wanted to visit. One only needs to visit Paris, where AccorHotels is headquartered, to see their impact. In a city where it has remained notoriously difficult to build new hotels, Ibis hotels are restricted to a middling orbit brushing the 18th, 4th and 7th arrondissements. Affordable Airbnb listings, meanwhile, are available within a stone’s throw of Notre Dame.

Digital focus

In 2013, AccorHotels appointed Sebastien Bazin as its new CEO. The fourth man to hold the role in seven years, Bazin came from an equity background, and within a year had cut costs by halting its programme to operate more hotels and focusing on an ownership model. AccorHotels’ new CEO then announced a €225 million digital transformation strategy, as part of an effort to retake ground yielded by the operator to OTAs and online rental platforms. In 2015, the group opened its booking platform to independent hotels in a bid to compete more effectively with the likes of Booking. com and Expedia (the scheme has since been abandoned after it emerged customers were more interested in booking stays at Accor properties). Then, in April the following year, it sank €148 million into the acquisition of Onefinestay and bought a 30% stake in Oasis Collections. That very same month, Viort was hired as AccorHotel’s – and the industry’s – first chief disruption officer. Bazin had announced, after the acquisition of Onefinestay, that AccorHotels would ‘dominate’ the luxury rental space and the operator was now keen to hire someone capable of identifying future growth opportunities for the group. It found a willing partner in Viort, a serial entrepreneur who forged his reputation creating games for Facebook before starting the online travel agent Wipolo, which had been snapped up by AccorHotels in 2014.

It’s a role that he tends to approach as a science, rather than an art. “It is an exciting challenge to understand how the different interfaces work and to comprehend the tools available to stakeholders, [including] owners, general managers, online travel agents [and] platforms for customers. In these situations, my engineering mindset quickly takes over, because the more complicated it is, the more I like it.”

Search and acquire

The way Viort has approached this problem is twofold. His disruption and growth department scouts for useful start-ups in the wild, searching for firms of a certain maturity where partnership or a strategic investment might be of mutual benefit. “Looking back at our acquisitions these past few years, you’ll find this is a common trend,” explains Viort. “Needless to say, we focus on start-ups with strategic value for the group, which is why we pick them up based on their capacity to grow into leaders in the industry.”

This certainly applies to the acquisitions of Travel Keys and Squarebreak, two luxury rental platforms that were merged into the Onefinestay late last year, boosting its property portfolio from 2,500 to 10,000. The move has also been complemented by AccorHotels’ acquisition of Availpro, a provider of digital services to independent hotels, and its purchase of an 80% stake in the concierge service John Paul.

AccorHotels has also invested significant resources in accelerator competitions across Europe.

“Firstly, it allows us to recognise startup talent and bring [it in] directly, creating loyal relationships and partnerships at an early stage,” Viort explains. It almost goes without saying that AccorHotels’ involvement in the competitions also constitutes an unparalleled networking opportunity for the operator.

“Throughout our involvement in these widespread, globally integrated events, we are able to project our involvement in the area,” says Viort. “Within the past year, we co-managed with Innov Lab, another innovation team from AccorHotels, about ten partnerships [including] Techstars, Paris Pionnières, The Camp [and] Global Startup Weekend Women.”

Existential crises

Moving from an entrepreneurial background to working from a hotel operator – turning into the hunter after being hunted, as it were – initially brought its own challenges for Viort. “The two environments have different ways of working, thinking and evolving,” he explains. “When I arrived, AccorHotels was mostly focused around a ‘projectmanagement’ culture.”

In this respect, things are beginning to change. Now, ‘product conception’ is central to AccorHotel’s internal thinking, “exemplified by the launch of the Jo&Joe concept,” says Viort of the millennialfriendly hotel brand. “The start-ups our team acquired and the new hotel brands that have recently increased AccorHotels’ portfolio have brought new people into the group, [who] progressively contribute to an enriched and agile group culture.”

So far, Viort has had some notable successes in his choice of start-up investment and partnerships. To what extent this work has shored up AccorHotels’ defences against the greatest hospitality start-up of them all, however, remains unclear. Curiously, the chief disruption officer is reluctant to admit that the two are on the same playing field, let alone in competition with one another.

“While we recognise that we are ‘disrupting’ the modern hospitality market, modernising traditional hospitality alongside other actors in the technology and hospitality sector – namely, Airbnb – we continue to feel confident in our ability to uniquely secure our niche,” explains Viort. That, he claims, encompasses vast swathes of the hospitality market beyond alternative accommodations. Even the work the disruption and growth department is doing in that sector does not overlap with that of Airbnb.

“With the acquisition of Onefinestay, Travel Keys and Squarebreak, and their recent integration, we were able to establish ourselves as a leader in the luxury private rental niche, a very particular section of rentals,” he explains. Their clientele, says Viort, “are interested exclusively in luxury opportunities”.

In fact, the chief disruption officer is content to see the online rental start-up as an example of what is possible in the hospitality industry than a clear and present danger to AccorHotels’ market share. “We believe that through our leverage of our uniquely influential and global hotel brand name, our multiple domains of investment interest, and our focus on the luxury industry, we were able to distinguish ourselves from Airbnb and [other] competitors,” explains Viort.

The idea that AccorHotels, via Onefinestay, is not directly competing with Airbnb is perplexing, especially since the latter has been experimenting with luxury rental offerings for some time now. Even so, it is fair to say that the operator’s increasing willingness to invest in all areas of the booking process – from OTAs to rental platforms and services that augment its legacy properties – will likely put it in good stead in what looks like a volatile future for the hospitality sector.

Certainly, Viort’s time at AccorHotels has led him to an inescapable conclusion: change is, in fact, the only certainty in his line of work. “This is one of the reasons our team was created: to be able to observe, follow and anticipate these changes and, more importantly, to be able to act upon them.”