As one of the largest hospitality companies in the world—and the largest in Europe—Accor is both an observer and a key player in the evolution of travel. Its expanding portfolio of more than 40 brands now encompasses over 5,400 hotels in 110 countries, with a workforce of more than 290,000 people. The company says it seeks to “reimagine hospitality” as it anticipates and caters to travelers’ changing needs and expectations.
In June, McKinsey’s Aurélia Bettati explored the future of hospitality and travel in interviews with three Accor executives—chief digital officer Alix Boulnois and, from the company’s premium, midscale, and economy brands division, chief marketing officer Alex Schellenberger and chief design, technical services, and innovation officer Damien Perrot—at Accor’s headquarters near Paris. An edited version of their conversation follows.
McKinsey: People’s travel habits changed a lot during and immediately after the pandemic. How do you think travel—and hotel stays in particular—will change in the coming years? Paint a picture of the hotel guest experience in the 2030s.
Alix Boulnois: When I think about the hotel experience in the 2030s, I think of augmented hospitality, which is this idea we have at Accor that the hotel is more than just a place to stay. It’s not just a travel destination; it’s a location people can enjoy even if they live in the neighborhood. You can eat at the hotel, go to the spa, or enjoy the gym. In the future, a ton of other services could be offered at the hotel, like your bank, your mail, your laundry, and so on.
Damien Perrot: The hybrid model—where the hotel becomes a place dedicated not only to travelers but to locals as well—is an important and growing trend in the hospitality sector. In fact, I’ll make a provocative prediction: in the 2030s, many people will choose to live in hotels instead of in apartments.
Just to give you an example: today, you may have a dining room in your apartment, and you invite people to come and share a meal there perhaps once a week or once a month. Do you need those dining-room square meters every day? No. So you don’t need such a big apartment; you can live in a smaller place so long as you are able to get certain services when you need them. And a hotel can definitely meet those needs.
The rise of the ‘bleisure’ traveler
McKinsey: That’s a fascinating prediction—and one that Accor clearly believes in, given the company’s recent investments in branded residences. What about business travel? What trends are you seeing among business travelers?
Alex Schellenberger: Business travel is rebounding. We’re almost, but not quite, at prepandemic levels. But we also see that the nature of business travel is changing. This trend of what we call “bleisure”—mixing business with leisure—will probably continue for the next few years. Looking ahead to the 2030s, it’s likely that all these different elements of life—business, private life, play, going to restaurants, meeting friends—are going to intertwine.
That means hotels will need to provide multipurpose rooms and spaces where people can work, eat, and socially connect throughout the day. Now that many people can work from anywhere, hotel rooms need to be able to transform in a couple of minutes, so that you can potentially have a small in-person meeting with some of your colleagues or, at the very least, you can have a proper, professional video call.
Damien Perrot: Thanks to remote working, many people can now visit a place and stay there for a longer time. People would like to reduce their carbon footprint, but they still want to discover the world. So, for example, instead of going to Indonesia three times during your life, you might decide to go only once and stay there for one or two months. Instead of just seeing the architecture or visiting all the tourist attractions, you can take the time to live in and experience the country. So the hotel—whether it’s a city hotel or a resort—needs to be a place where you can work in very good conditions. Today, the extended-stay business in the hospitality sector is booming. This trend will accelerate. We plan to make our extended-stay network three times bigger in the next three years.
Alex Schellenberger: Another trend we’ve seen arising since the pandemic is a strong focus on mental health and well-being. As a hotel company, we have a responsibility to help our guests recharge, sleep better, and feel restored when they stay with us. In the past, you might have felt more tired returning from a business trip. Now, it’s up to us to give you the opposite experience.
For example, one of our brands, Novotel, which caters to this bleisure segment, is partnering with the meditation app Calm. If you’re staying at one of our Novotels, you’ll be able to use the Calm app and, hopefully, get to a better mental state.
Sustainable travel choices
McKinsey: Damien, you mentioned that people are more concerned about their carbon footprint. What role will sustainability considerations play in future hotel design?
Damien Perrot: Sustainability is the starting point of everything we do concerning design. When we talk about sustainability, we are talking about not just reducing the carbon footprint and energy consumption but also improving the quality of work for the employees—so ergonomics is also very important to integrate into design. Sometimes, design becomes a word that just means, “It looks nice.” But it’s much more than that: design is a tool which, when used properly, can make a property very efficient in terms of guest experience, employee experience, and sustainability.
Alix Boulnois: I believe our hotels will have evolved in the 2030s, with sustainability at the heart of this change. We can imagine some hotels whose energy is powered in a different way, hotels that may choose not to have a spa, or where traditional comforts are transformed with the good of the planet in mind. This is already happening, and I think it’s just going to accelerate.
Damien Perrot: Indeed, in the 2030s, the design and architecture of hotels will be completely different. Biophilic design, which increases connectivity to the natural environment, will completely shape the future of hospitality. A range of technologies, many of which already exist today, will be integrated into hotels to make them more self-sufficient.
For example, hotel facades will be inspired by nature. Using plants that are integrated into the facade, we will be able to retain the rain needed to maintain this vegetation. The glass used in the hotel’s exterior will capture solar energy. Hotel rooms will get direct light from outside; hotel corridors and hallways will be more like promenades or terraces. A hotel will be like a landmark in a city—you might not even be able to identify it as a building at all.
Alex Schellenberger: It’s no secret that the tourism and hotel industry is responsible for a big chunk of carbon emissions, so we have a big responsibility to lead in this sector. As of the end of 2022, 84 percent of our hotels had removed 46 different single-use plastic items, and we’re continuing on our journey to achieve a full 100 percent.
We’ve just announced partnerships with Green Globe and Green Key, which provide eco-certifications of hotel operations. Our recent research revealed that 65 percent of travelers would opt in if presented with more sustainable travel choices. And we want to incentivize people to make more sustainable travel choices—so when people search for hotels on our booking platform, they’ll be able to see sustainability certifications and labels, and the eco-certified hotels will appear as the first options.
We also offer, through our loyalty program, an option for people to donate their loyalty points to support sustainable causes. And, of course, we offer our guests the choice to forgo the daily change of bedding and towels. All of these little choices actually do help.
The technology of tomorrow
McKinsey: Another game changer across all industries is data and digital technology. How might the hotels of the future use technology to improve operations or guest experiences?
Alix Boulnois: Think about micropersonalization. You can imagine a world in which every single touchpoint with a guest is unique. On our digital channels, we’ll be able to recognize the guest, know their history and their background, and contextualize what we show them.
But it doesn’t stop at our digital channels. When the guest arrives at the hotel, we’ll also use technology to provide hotel staff with information so that they can serve the guest in a personalized fashion. They need to be able to say, “Hello, Mr. X, we know you’re traveling with your kids—and we know you love chocolate, so we’ve left some chocolate in your room,” and so on. One thing that will be really cool is that we’ll allow each guest to personalize many details of their stay: the temperature in the room, the scent, the layout, what side of the building the room is on. Technology will help make sure that we provide consistency across the entire customer journey and that we offer something distinctive for every single guest.
Damien Perrot: You will be able to book your room directly from the app, which will be personalized so that it can propose the best hotel and the best room for you depending on your preferences and the reason for your stay. You can also decide to go straight to the room with your mobile app, so the reception and transactional process will disappear if you prefer. That will free up the hotel staff to dedicate their time to helping guests in more active, less transactional ways.
Alix Boulnois: I also believe AI and, more specifically, generative AI will change the distribution of hotels in the future. Today, there is a lot of intermediation when it comes to booking hotels. The process is actually fairly traditional: people visit a website, they start a search, and they get a range of hotels to choose from. And everyone sees the same price at any given point in time.
In the future, some of this intermediation might disappear. You can imagine something way more fluid, where customers interact directly with the hotels through a generative-AI-powered marketplace, where they can see offers from the hotels and potentially trade with other customers. For instance, if you can no longer travel on the specific dates that you booked, you can resell your room to another customer. AI will show exactly the right hotel at the right price to every customer—so customer A and customer B won’t see the same offers.
You could also imagine that when you’re booking a trip, you see more than just the hotel and transportation options. In the future, you’ll most probably be able to book experiences, restaurants, and activities in the area.
McKinsey: What about extended reality (XR), like augmented and virtual reality? In what ways do you see the hospitality industry using XR technologies?
Alix Boulnois: We’re already seeing some usage of augmented reality and the metaverse to allow people to project themselves to a different location and explore new places virtually—but we don’t see it replacing travel entirely. The technology is still very nascent: the helmets are still heavy, the goggles usually give you a headache after 30 minutes, the entry cost for a customer is still prohibitive. So augmented reality is not necessarily something that we’re pushing in the near future. We are, however, exploring NFTs [nonfungible tokens]—we believe there’s potential for us to use them to provide unique experiences and allow customers to auction them off or exchange them with one another.
Our role is to provide unique moments to our guests, and technology is super important to our ecosystem. At Accor, we are actively looking at many new technologies, especially AI—and, more specifically, generative AI—which we truly believe will shape the future of hospitality.
Alex Schellenberger: I agree. AI’s impact is going to be huge, and that’s true in marketing as well. It is certainly going to help us be more predictive. Based on the previous booking history of our guests, we’ll be able to determine what they will like in the future, so we can make better suggestions to them about hotel brands, destinations, and guest experiences. We might soon be able to use AI to determine what our next marketing campaign should be.
But as a marketeer, I believe we need to keep the creativity, and AI will never be able to replace that. Marketeers must continue to be the voice of the guest and fly the flag for our customers. We need to continue to be the creative force that drives commerciality, because humans—not AI—will be the ones who can build strong and resilient brands over time.