By his own admission, Jean-Guilhem Lamberti was a little surprised when he got the call from hospitality giant Accor Group to build an in-house creative studio. He self-effacingly describes himself as a ‘fashion weirdo’, given his extensive background in luxury, fashion and beauty. But, it turns out, the group’s president Sebastien Bazin knew exactly what he was doing.
Coming from the agency world, about 20 years ago Jean-Guilhem was managing director at Publicis Conseil before he jumped to the brand side where he started to create internal studios. His first port of call was Bulgari, which at the time was working with three agencies. Little by little, they started to internalise everything - not just advertising and asset management but everything pertaining to image and customer experience, from events, PR, store design, packaging and visual merchandising. Highlights of this time included a famous Julianne Moore campaign and an extravagant anniversary exhibition at the Grand Palais. And soon enough Dior came calling so that he could do the same for them. And for a more hands-on creative challenge, he joined Jimmy Choo, where he got to work on the flagship store in London.
Sebastien Bazin, it turns out, was on a mission of transformation, shifting the group’s focus to premium and luxury experiences. Though at first unsure, Jean-Guilhem was captivated by the pitch.
“He is a visionary man and he told me that he thought the hospitality industry is too much about communicating products and properties, but there isn’t so much work done on brands,” says Jean-Guilhem. “There was a lot of potential and we needed to build upon it - and the luxury and fashion industry has done that wonderfully. Every touchpoint, from the quality of the paper of an invitation, is thought through so that you really build your entire experience and eventually your brand’s values way beyond the product. He said that he would like to do the same with hospitality and take the lead. I thought it was a great pitch. I loved it.”
Excited by the journey ahead of him, Jean-Guilhem had one request - that he could house his studio outside Accor’s giant corporate HQ. After all, if his team was to be charged with dreaming up delightful experiences and environments, they should probably be in a delightful environment themselves. And so they set up shop in a charming studio in Paris, with a sun trap terrace.
Since joining in early 2019, Jean-Guilhem and his team have gotten their creative mitts on all manner of juicy projects that touch every part of the experience and allow them to dig deep with some of the most glamorous brands in travel.
Most recently, there has been a huge campaign push for the Sofitel brand. ‘French It!’ is a playful yet high fashion take on travel. It draws from the brand’s French heritage by creating quirky vignettes inspired by French idioms. ‘Poser un lapin’ for example becomes an urge to clear your schedule and have a ‘selfish’ at a Sofitel. Produced in-house and directed by Jean- Guilhem himself, it’s a campaign that runs across social media, print, outdoor but also throughout the Sofitel hotels and a perfect example of what happens when the worlds of hospitality and luxury collide (you can read more about the campaign here
For Novotel, where the strategy is to create its own restaurant brands rather than inviting in external restaurants or franchises, the team is charged with designing eateries from the ground up, from the menus to staff uniforms to lighting, interior design. It’s like the challenge of creating a flagship store for a luxury fashion brand, but this time Jean-Guilhem gets to bring all of the senses together.
For Swiss hotel brand Mövenpick, the team was inspired by the fact that, since the 1960s, it has had its own ice cream brand (a co-venture with Nestle and R&R Ice Cream). There's a Swiss chocolate sense of ‘yumminess’ inherent in the brand which was a starting point to devise a new cohesive concept for the design of the hotels. They’ve created what Jean Guilhem calls, “a creamy, chocolatey world. We wanted it to be like Hansel and Gretel, that you could almost take a piece of the wall and eat it and it would be gingerbread”. That yummy concept was evolved and expanded over every touch point including ‘yummy’ amenities.
Some of the brands under the Accor Group umbrella have a truly unique heritage and history. There’s the glamorous vintage charms of Raffles, home of the Singapore Sling, the American icon the Fairmont and even the deliciously iconic Orient Express, which to this day conjures up visions of hat boxes and Poirot. Rummaging in the archives has unearthed so many gems and next year the team will be publishing a book on the Fairmont. For example, one hotel under the Fairmont remit is the Banff Springs Hotel, built in 1888 by the Canadian National Railway. Surrounded as it was by pristine natural landscapes, the Railway ended up lobbying the government to create the first Canadian national parks in order to preserve their tourist trap. From that, they’ve also created campaign assets and found ways to weave that unearthed history into the complete hotel experience.
But the group isn’t about languishing in history - but rather making that heritage relevant to a new audience. So, for Raffles, the team discovered an old ad from 1887 which proclaimed the hotel was ‘patronised by royalty and nobility’. It was a selling point from the very beginning. With that in mind, the new campaign is a slightly arch and fashion-forward twist on the current popularity of shows like The Crown. They’ve cast real modern royals like Prince Nikolai of Denmark, Princess Maria Olympia of Greece, and the Maharajah of Jaipur.
While the in-house studio allows Jean-Guilhem and the gang to rummage around in the archives and construct big brand stories woven across every piece of content, every surface… it also allows the team to be nimble and reactive, jumping on PR opportunities and chances to engage in different ways. During Covid-19, France has experienced a series of curfews, which hit the hospitality industry hard. Instead of throwing their hands up in despair, the team decided to throw a (Covid safe) party. Playing on the French phrase ‘to eat with the chickens’, which means to eat early, the team organised early dinners serving chicken, accompanied by a DJ wearing a chicken outfit, playing chicken-themed covers of massive hits. A press release went out and early restaurant bookings swelled.
So what’s the secret sauce to the studio’s success? After all, the challenge is one of scale multiplied by depth. Accor Group encompasses 40 hotel brands, 5200 hotels in 110 countries - and the team can be tasked with anything from developing and producing content to designing a restaurant brand from scratch or collaborating on online touchpoints or responsive PR ideas. Recently they developed an experience for Accor Group at the Dubai Expo.
“We wanted the agency to be built in a very modern way, meaning communication has gone on a super fast track,” says Jean-Guilhem. “With social media, etc., you need to be reactive,you need to embrace the brand’s DNA, and you need to multiply your asset production by 1000 because it’s not about creating just one campaign visual.”
The core studio team of around 30 people encompasses people from over 10 nationalities to reflect the international nature of the group and its guests. Many of the team come from that fashion and luxury background, to ensure that sense of finesse and detail. Internally there are some of the roles we see in traditional agencies - an account team liaises with internal stakeholders as the group encompasses so many different brand marketing teams and regions. There’s a strategic planning director, a creative director, as well as in-house art directors, graphic designers and an illustrator and a photographer. The production director is a former agency producer from McCann, and the art buyer used to produce for Vogue. But given the variety of projects they can be tasked with, there’s also a constant ebb and flow of freelancers, brought in to beef up specific capabilities when needed.
“We’re making sure that we can turn any idea into a reality,” says Jean-Guilhem.
In terms of the content calendar, that truly international perspective means that they spend as much time creating content and events around festivals like Eid, Diwali and Spring Festival as they do for Christmas.
Of course, in this age of metaverse, even in-person experiences like a hotel stay are woven through with digital elements. The team is working on the design side of booking systems and loyalty programmes.
Throughout the pandemic, the in-house studio has been working hard to both reassure customers and ensure that every part of the experience is and feels safe. They also had to work on internal communication tools to keep all of the individual hotel teams up to speed with hygiene standards, and to supply signage. Since most of the harshest of lockdowns have let up and travel has opened up, Accor is seeing a surge of interest and bookings. Their 'Unveil the World' campaign playfully unwraps iconic global landmarks as if they've been carefully stored away during the pandemic. Having been stuck in the same place for two years, there seems to be a particular appetite for the luxe experiences offered by the group’s high-end brands. Jean-Guilhem is cautiously optimistic about 2022 - though he resists making predictions given the possibility of new variants. T
“It's difficult to say, of course. Travel is a growing industry and it's kind of a desire for everyone. So, travel will grow strongly and people will expand to new types of travel and horizons, new experiences and there are some strongly growing trends like wellness. Of course, with coronavirus, we tend to monitor it on a daily basis and we may have little bumps in the road. We need to make sure that first and foremost we address these for guests, making sure that we are delivering and anticipating their needs.”
But one thing is for sure. This experience has been one of the most varied and stimulating of Jean-Guilhem’s career - and it turns out that his merry band of ‘fashion weirdos’ is exactly what the hospitality sector needs right now.
“I think what I’ve liked more than anywhere else in my career is the possibility to go 360 on things. Really with a focus on every touch point,” he says, sharing that he feels incredibly empowered to bring ideas like the Fairmont book to life. “There’s been a great level of trust. Of course, not from the beginning. First they wanted to see what these weirdos from the fashion world would do. But then, after a while trust grew and we’ve been able to go deep and wide on things.”