Picture this: You’re on the trip of a lifetime to see your all-time favorite band. You’re eating breakfast at the hotel and next to your plate, you find a signed photo of the lead singer, addressed to you.
Or you’re on a weekend trip with friends, and while you’re all out shopping together, you lose track of the group and you realize you’re lost in an unfamiliar city. You call your spouse in a panic, and someone overhears your conversation and offers to take the subway with you back to the hotel. They work at the hotel, and even though they’re not working, they’ll show you the way.
Or you’re taking your kids skiing for the first time. After a long, cold day, you get back to the warm hotel room and your kids are delighted to find a plate of heart-shaped cookies waiting for them.
Everyone wants to feel welcome, right? Hotel guests always want to be delighted by their travel experience. Consumers all over the world now seek unique, increasingly authentic experiences, and have forced hospitality players to reinvent themselves. AccorHotels sees this as an opportunity to strengthen the bond of trust that it shares with its guests.
When AccorHotels finalized its purchase of Toronto-based Fairmont Raffles Hotels, it expanded to more than 4,000 properties worldwide, including three separate luxury brands: Fairmont, Raffles and Swissotel in addition to its existing luxury brand, Sofitel.
Moving through integration posed some new challenges but also provided a much bigger opportunity to reinvent hospitality and the guest experience for the entire brand portfolio.
Offering guests a different experience, creating emotion, forging lasting relationships built on courtesies, moments and memories, also means allowing spontaneity, encouraging initiative and letting every employee express their personality. AccorHotels sees a “Heartist®” in each employee — a master of the art of hospitality who serves others from the heart, with curiosity and inventiveness.
There are growing signs of this cultural transformation. Each employee is empowered and autonomous, learns from others, is engaged in sharing knowledge and experience, and relies on new digital environments. The promise to guests is that they will feel welcome, and the promise to employees that they will feel valued, that the talent in each of them will be recognized and they can be the actors of their own progress.
While working with AccorHotels I was introduced to the Heartist journey and got to spend a little time with director of talent and development, Kyla Devereaux, to understand both the impetus for and execution of this cultural transformation.
Setting a Vision for a Global Brand
After the merger, the AccorHotels brand transformation team held eight sessions around the world. Their goal? Create a common language and set of shared values, and answer these questions: What do we want to be known for? What do we want our employees and our guests to say about us?
Company leaders knew they needed a cultural transformation to survive in a world of personalization and digitization. They knew they needed something special to get 4,000 different hotels aligned around a single, shared purpose.
They came up with the idea of “Heartists.” Kyla explains: “All of the 25-plus brands within Accor have their own brand promise. Heartist was designed to wrap the arms around all 4,000 properties and say, ‘What makes us the same?’ Heartist is 85 percent about a common guest and employee experience, and 15 percent about the unique brand’s voice. So, for example, the Fairmont is about turning moments into memories. Swissotel is about vitality. Each brand has their own brand identity, but as Heartists we’re all more similar than dissimilar.”
“Heartist” is heart plus artist. Around the world, across all the languages spoken by AccorHotels employees, everyone understands what it means to be a Heartist. “It’s about leading with your heart. It’s using your creativity, innovation and empowerment to heart-warm, spotlight and genuinely connect with the guest,” Kyla says.
For example, Kyla points to a common hotel experience that’s consistently mediocre: checking in. Instead of asking guests the obvious question, “Hi, are you checking in?” the Heartist might consider asking “What is the purpose of your stay? What brings you here?”
“When you answer that question, I can customize and create a heartwarming experience for you. It’s about customizing the experience around that individual guest’s needs, preferences, hopes and expectations,” she says.
“You might think, ‘I don’t have time to connect with every guest I’m checking in. There’s a line of 50 people,’ ” she says. Her response? “You can be short and curt to someone, or you can be inquisitive, supportive and empathetic. It’s in your tone and your way of being. People just want to be listened to. They’re not always looking for a grand gesture.”
The Heartist vision makes guests feel welcome and like they belong.
Turning the Vision into Reality
The idea of creating Heartists around the world is nice, but the real challenge was taking that vision and getting it out into all 4,000 properties. Kyla says that after the transformation team defined the Heartist approach, they identified and trained “super-transformers” around the world.
The super-transformers took the message on the road, and taught transformers from each hotel how to implement the Heartist vision. Now hotel leaders are focusing on one Heartist campaign at a time to master the guest experience.
The Heartist training is experiential, to put employees in the guests’ shoes. “We want our employees to have the opportunity to feel heart-warmed, incredible and welcomed before we ask them to do that for a guest. You can’t do something if you don’t know what it feels like.” In the training, every employee draws the name of a secret buddy. Their assignment is to spend a few weeks learning something about that colleague and doing something to heart-warm them.
“You can’t just do something generic,” she says. “You have to find out what they’re passionate about. Being heart-warmed is something that’s personalized, something that touches the heart and something that is unique to the individual.”
Building a Great Employee Experience — to Build a Great Customer Experience
Building a consistent, positive global brand really starts one layer deeper than the customer experience. It all starts with the employees.
“You need to have a great employee experience before you can have a great guest experience,” Kyla says. “Our process is rooted in recruitment, training and leadership. We create a culture where we hire for attitude, train for knowledge and skills, and help people be Heartists.”
One of the key Heartist tenets is about how employees feel about their work. AccorHotels describes the optimal employee experience as one where employees can say:
“I feel valued. I feel free. I feel sparked. We are one.”
Improving the employee experience is good for everyone. “Engaged employees equals satisfied customers and repeat business,” Kyla shared.
Lessons on Cultural Transformation
Kyla also shared that the AccorHotels Heartist journey continues. “Cultural transformation doesn’t happen overnight. You need patience. You can’t rush everyone through it just to get it done and check the box. It takes time to change mindsets and behaviors. You have to reinforce and celebrate the small wins along the way.”
AccorHotels used to be a hotel group and today has emerged as a leading global hospitality and travel brand. The range of services and experiences they now offer include luxury, lifestyle, prestige private rentals and concierge services. The cultural transformation is proving to be the catalyst to create meaningful growth well into the future.
According to Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Sébastien Bazin,“The hospitality and food and beverage industry culture is based on a traditional hierarchical model. We firmly believe that the Feel Welcome experience cannot simply be decreed, but must be driven by each of our employees. Therefore, at every opportunity for contact with our guests we break with conventions by allowing each of our employees to take more initiatives and express their personality. That is precisely the objective of our approach to cultural change. Known as Heartist®, this policy recognizes in each of our 250,000 employees a passion for their profession and the art of transforming our guests’ experience into a memorable moment.”
Heart + Artist = Heartist at AccorHotels and they are absolutely winning by mastering the fine art of connecting and serving others.