Rumours abound that the premium hotel market has reached saturation point but CEO of Sofitel Yann Caillère shrugs off the idea and for that matter, the spectre of a global financial slowdown. “We want to take risks,” he declares with the Gallic confidence and flair that pervades the new vision of Sofitel.

Sofitel, which has newly become a separate unit within its parent company, Accor, is armed and ready for the challenge with two new brands, aiming to become “one of the leading European luxury brands” by 2010. The chain has been redefined at every level, from its new logo and website, to the rejuvenated management team headed by newly appointed chief operating officer, Robert Gaymer-Jones.

“The Pullman brand will be boosted with 60 new hotels culled from the Sofitel network.”

In an all-encompassing brand strategy as elaborate as the hotels themselves will be, the first step has been to streamline the current global hotel network of 192 hotels by passing them on to the mid-market Accor brand, Pullman, formerly known as Frantel and then Societe Francaise des Wagons Lits following successive mergers. The Pullman brand will be boosted with 60 new hotels culled from the Sofitel network.

The man behind the vision, Caillère explains: “When you look at our brands so far, we had an inconsistent network, starting from a three-star plus to a five-star plus hotel so the idea was to remove roughly 60 or 70 hotels out of the 208 hotel network we had, in order to have a more clean network.”

Caillère quashes claims that the market will not welcome yet another luxury brand. “The fact is when you look at the world’s companies, such as the Sheraton, Hilton and Marriot, most of them start by saturating the luxury upscale hotel business and then step by step they go down, they enter the extended market and then they enter the mid-scale market, and then they enter the economy market. So we didn’t see any reason why we should not reach up and enter the upscale market. After all, we are strong in the economy and we are strong in scale.

“This is why the Accor core is very strong in terms of competition because we have the strength of the group, as you can imagine we can leverage power much quicker than any other group. [Accor is] managing almost 5,000 hotels, and we are already signed for the next three years, to launch another 40-45 hotels.”

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The streamlined network paves the way for the two new luxury brands: Sofitel Legend and SO by Sofitel, both modelled on scale of Hyatt and the Intercontinental. Caillère says: “When you look at the way the hotel business is actually structured in terms of luxury hotels, you have two big groups: the first is the Anglo-Saxon group with Four Seasons; Carlton and so on, and then you have the Asian: the Mandarin, Peninsular, Shangri La, Taj, Oberoi and so on. The funny thing is, when you look at these, 80% of the the general managers of these hotels on both sides are European: Swiss, French, German, Italian, British.

“Most of them are European and in the middle of all this you have no real European brand.” This presents a niche that Sofitel plans to fill.

“With the top luxury hotels of the network, we are talking about historical hotels,” says Caillère, “Iconic ones such as the Old Cataract in Aswan, the type of hotel with a long story. These hotels will be called the legend of Sofitel.

“To give fresh air to the Sofitel brand and the luxury hotel business, we’re also launching the SO by Sofitel label. It’s a kind of trendy, boutique/fashionable hotel. We are aiming at gen-x with this. We think now in the luxury hotel market, there are young, wealthy people who are looking for a different experience, they want something more lively and you know some of them feel bored with the type of luxury hotel that is being offered.”

“We want to leverage areas where we have a sense of legitimacy.”

Caillère’s philosophy is a simple one – to embrace the story and historic tradition or ‘legend’ of a location: “We think we have a story to tell. The idea with these hotels is to make them very local, so if we are in London, it will be very London, but each time, what we will do with all these hotels, is we will bring the French touch. Our ethos is that any given Sofitel boutique will have the soul of the city but through a French window; we must feel somewhere, something French, but in an elegant way, of course some French are considered arrogant people, so we don’t want to be represented in that way.”

This French touch is to filter down to every level including catering, as Caillère asserts: “We want to leverage areas where we have a sense of legitimacy, for instance when you talk about the quality of bread, everybody knows French bread so of course we want to offer the best French bread in the city, but what we want to do as well is to give an opportunity in countries where the local bread is also good, as you know, such as India, Morocco, Italy, to also be offered. So I need to say okay, you come here, and you can have of course the best French bread but we will make you discover the local bread and we’ll make it a nicer story.”

Rival luxury chains, Fairmont, Hilton and Jumeirah have all announced similarly rapid expansion plans of late, but will the French touch be enough to distinguish the Sofitel brand portfolio? Caillère says: “We want to do this in a very elegant way, we don’t want to impose anything. We try to bring our guests into an environment which is not too neutral, because we feel as well in the hotel business so far, some luxury hotels brands are too afraid to make something special. Nowadays, you have the feeling with some hotel chains and I won’t mention any names, that you feel the same wherever you are. We want the guest to feel as if he’s in New York if he’s is in New York, even though there will still be a French touch.”

“Caillère’s philosophy is a simple one – to embrace the story and historic tradition or ‘legend’ of a location”.

Approximately seven Sofitel hotels will become Sofitel Legend properties over the next two years: the Grand in Amsterdam, Netherlands; the Palais Jamaï in Fes, Morocco; the Winter Palace in Luxor, Egypt; the Old Cataract in Aswan, Egypt; the Santa Clara in Cartagena, Colombia; the Hua Hin resort in Thailand; and the Metropole in Hanoï, Vietnam, which will be the first hotel to open under the Sofitel Legend ensign in mid-2008. With the SO by Sofitel brand, between 15 and 20 hotels are in the pipeline.

But it seems the company is determined not to let the accelerated growth plan get in the way of dedication to detail. While it is customary in Accor for up to 50 brands be managed at one time, Sofitel is breaking the trend by deploying individual training managers per Sofitel.

Caillère explains: “It is not just a matter of being deluxe, we want a hotel with a story, like the Grand in Amsterdam, it was built in the beginning of the eighteenth century and is one of the oldest in the city and the Palais Jamis in Fez: these are fabulous hotels with a long story to tell. These are the kind of hotels were aiming for.”

With not only new brands, but a new interpretation of the demands of the luxury market, we can only wait and see how indelible Sofitel’s French touch will be.