Hotel innovation and unveiling the Hidden Star with AccorInvest

The hospitality industry is among those most impacted by the pandemic, and interestingly, one of the fastest to transform and recover. As foot traffic returns, hotels – particularly premium and luxury hotels – find themselves facing challenges and opportunities like never before. 

Ahmed Disokey, VP of Hotel Technology, AccorInvest, shares how the group’s strategy has enabled them to roll out innovations faster than others – plus the role of payments in simplifying processes across AccorInvest's properties, and delivering the highest service quality.  


Speaking in this episode


Ahmed Disokey, Vice President, Hotel Technology, AccorInvest

Ahmed Disokey, Vice President of Hotel Technology, AccorInvest leads the hospitality group in its innovation and business solutions for premium and luxury hotel brands. With over 15 years of experience in the hospitality industry, Ahmed’s focus is in driving business innovation and hotel technology. Ahmed oversees, assesses and validates pilot developments and roll-out opportunities. He believes in unlocking the full potential of sustainable long-term strategic solutions through real transformation via leveraging data, customer insights and technology. 


Mark Rademaker, Global Head of Hospitality, Adyen

Mark Rademaker is the Global Head of Hospitality at Adyen. A global strategic business leader with expertise in reducing friction in travel and hospitality payments, Mark helps drive creative solutions using payments innovation and technology. His strong background in developed and emerging markets, and understanding of the premium and luxury hospitality landscape, helps put him in the perfect position to offer tech-focused payments solutions to an increasingly digital-based and forward-thinking hospitality brands worldwide.

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Episode transcript

Warren (voiceover): This is Warren Hayashi, President of Adyen Asia Pacific and you're listening to Adyen’s Behind the Figures podcast. Our guest for today's episode is Ahmed Disokey, Vice President of Hotel Technology at AccorInvest. Listen on to find out how Adyen is partnering with the world's leading hospitality group, catering to guests’ demands for digital experiences and to power seamless guest journeys and its properties worldwide.

Mark: Hi, I'm Mark Rademaker, Global Head of Hospitality at Adyen. Ahmed and I will be chatting on the transformation of the hospitality industry, particularly how things have changed in Asia Pacific. We're going to touch on some topics that are on the minds of many hospitality leaders, including how hotels can go low-touch in a high-touch environment, using payments innovation and technology.

Plus, as an added feature, a revolutionary check-in experience that's making guest journeys more seamless than ever. And our conversation will also uncover how hospitality brands can leverage customer insights and use technology for a long-term strategy moving forward. So, let's get started.

Mark: So, Ahmed, great to have you here today. Thanks for joining the podcast. 

Ahmed: Thanks, Mark. Thanks to have me today, with you.  

Mark: And for our listeners, just to give you a little bit of background, I had the opportunity to meet Ahmed in, I think it was around November 2018. I remember the meeting well, because we had met in the afternoon and I remember going to the hotel a little bit before, just to kind of understand and see. 

I often like to go to hotels around that peak time and check out, you know, it's just busy and everybody's coming in and out. And I mean, for those who don't know the Swissôtel [the Stamford], Fairmont [Singapore], where Ahmed was working, it's a huge property. It's around over a thousand rooms. It's an intersection of business travelers [and] tourism. You've got cabin crews; you've got city guests; you've got conferences going on. It's complete mayhem. But yet, at 12 o'clock, I remember walking in and it was completely, just silent [and] organized. You had these lines of check-in kiosks, check-out kiosks for the guests to kind of expedite all of that.

And it kind of like, you know, made me think this hotel's got something here. So that was my mindset before I met Ahmed. And I recall a quote from the composer, Miles Davis – Ahmed, I don't know if you know him – but he had this great quote, which he said, “you know, you have to learn the rules before you can break them”. And it's just a great quote, which I love when I hear about innovation. And when I think about your hotel and kind of what you did, and this was a couple of years ago now. Maybe you can give our listeners a little bit of insight into kind of where you learn the rules, your background, and when you started to learn to break them. 

Ahmed: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for the introduction, Mark. I will start first with Swissôtel and Fairmont before [that] even, I will talk about the experience and how I learned. And, also talking about not only Swissôtel, [I will] talk about Singapore in general. We all know about the path of Singapore [that] we need to be a smart nation. 

The thinking [of] how do you always become the top, is actually one of the things encouraging me to think about it. And I'll be honest, I'm lucky as well to meet with you. When I met with you and I discussed, and I found a lot, which is I'm going to speak about later on [more] about our relationship and what became in the end as a successful project.

But let me start, as I said first, for Swissôtel and Fairmont, as you said, it's a big complex. We are talking about more than 2000 rooms – massive operations: groups, MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conference/ Conventions and Exhibitions/ Events), leisure, all kinds of businesses we have at the hotel. 

But at the same time, [the] hospitality [industry] in Singapore: we are facing a challenge, which is manpower. We don't have enough manpower to work in hospitality. So we always need to think [of] what we can do. I don't want to use “think out of the box”, but that's the reality. If we are not able to find alternative[s], it will end up [that] hotels will stop operations. I can say I am lucky [that] I came on[board] at a time where the both hotels [were] going for renovations. So, it was like how we can say, that, it was a great opportunity to give you all the success, if we use the right way.

We thought about it: how we go [about] for the automation, we thought about what [is the] meaning of increasing productivity, in support where the direction, as I said, from the government, to be very specific, it was STB (Singapore Tourism Board), they [supported] the ideas of, okay, let's go for automation. 

But now, thinking about automation, it’s not a simple word. Not only because we are talking about technical or talk[ing] about IT point, no. Because also [for] automation, [we] need people to get used to work[ing] with automation. Just to be clear, even if you have the perfect system and you don't have customers to be comfortable to work with such technology, it's considered zero. So, this is what I call the most difficult thing. You [don’t] want to make something super easy in front of the guests and become super complicated on the back end.

And, that's where we spent approximately a year and half to come up with the first automation, full automation using facial recognition. I want to say [it’s the first] in the world, but I will be [pleased] enough to say it is the first in Singapore.

Mark: So, Ahmed, give us a sense of the timeline. When did this renovation take place? And when did you have this opportunity to restart? We're talking pre-2018, right? 

Ahmed: That's correct. We started first with Swissôtel and that was in 2017. And, actually I joined these two hotels in 2017. Before I used to be also leading the innovation and the technology in Dubai, in one of our properties in Dubai, which is still under the umbrella of – during the time it was FRHI and then I moved in 2017. And since I came, there [has been] a lot of renovations [that] are happening. It is not only in Fairmont and Swissôtel, but also it was in Raffles [Hotel]. So yes, you are absolutely right. I joined [in] January, 2017 after ten days from joining, okay – this is the file, we are going to start the renovation. So, it was like a very fast movement. 

Mark: Obviously you should get credit for some of the innovation that happened, which is really much more common now, right? As we sort of see the need for digital transformation from COVID. But let's be honest, I mean, a lot of that you had already had in your mind prior to that, obviously COVID in many cases for hotels, they saw the need to have that digital transformation. Can you touch a little bit about that? I'd love to hear your thoughts around where you see digital transformation going; how COVID impacted that in your hotel. It sounds like you were well-placed and prepared for that. And, I imagine that there were a lot of hoteliers around the world asking for your input to seek a similar solution for their guests.

Ahmed: Absolutely. Basically, as we always say, the old view for IT is technical support, which is still part of the IT job. When we started, we started thinking about, it's not only [doing] one part for our job actually, which is a technical support [but] we can [also] innovate. We can think, we can think out of the box, we are trying to help the operation. And, that's exactly what happened by [the] time when COVID came and you can see that amount of demand that's happening right now, and the technology and transformation. And even you and me, [what] we are doing right now, the podcast via what [digital platform] – you see the demand right now, and the technology.

Mark: Let’s talk about the game changing H-butler check-in experience that kickstarted our partnership.

Ahmed: We were thinking ahead during the time: how we can make everyone use that technology to make our life easy and more achievable, let's call it that way. And also, the demand of using phones and mobile [devices], it keeps increasing rapidly. 

That's also when we think – okay, we need to go read out of normal, traditional computers, laptops, and all of these things to make the customer to have everything on their fingertips. So that you can check-in same like the airlines. What is the difference between airlines and hotels? It's actually a willing[ness] of having everything up to date or advanced. So, we captured the idea, like, if you talk specifically about the, what we have done during COVID and why [we] also came up with one of the most brilliant idea: the contactless solution – we even [started] thinking about this before COVID. It was a part two or phase two of the automated check-in. Because we learn. Our customers teach us what we need, like, when they start using in Swissôtel, the automated check-in. They said, it would be great if we have this [automation], even before we arrive. Then we said, yeah, it's a brilliant idea why [do] we have to wait for the customer to come to the hotel and start doing the check-in, even from their own side and we even spent some time in the front desk until they get all the process[es] done. Why we cannot make them do it before the arrival? Then they just only need to do one step [or] maybe one or two steps inside the hotel and done! Everything is done so it’s easy for the hotel, easy for the customers and both sides are happy. 

Mark: So, do the guests need to download an app or [are] there added instructions that they need to do before they arrive at the property?

Ahmed: Thank you so much for asking this question. So basically, if we go that path, I believe [the] customers [are] not going to do it. Because, there is a lot of apps right now. And if [for] every action the customers need to download an app, I believe this is not going to be helpful. We have enough apps on our phones. So, no. We also changed this method and we think also to play it differently – no need to download any app. It's just the link, a web link [requiring] 2, 3, 4 steps maximum; and you’re checked-in. Very simple and you do [not] even require any kind of instruction or [any additional steps]. Hence, it's very simple – next, next, next – you are done.

Mark: So that works for Singapore and you have a good product there that you have put in place, but how could other hotels, as an example, be able to leverage that experience? Because I would imagine that regulation and other things, when you are identifying certain individuals who will stay at the hotel, obviously, there's payment concerns as well. How did you overcome some of those obstacles?

Ahmed: Using and dealing with a company [that is the] same as Adyen, it makes our lives easy. And I'll be very honest on this, Adyen helped us so much with the innovation as well and the latest technology to calibrate with what exactly [are] our needs to make this easy. So, you actually asked two questions. One, is the country regulations, and one related to payment. Country regulations, if we talk about Singapore here – yes, there is a lot of regulations we must comply, and this is very, very important to have it inside our system. While in other countries, in Europe specifically, maybe this regulation is not going to be the same. And the good thing about our system: it’s fully customized based on [the] country, based on the hotel needs, so it's not like a fixed template you must use – no, it's not actually that way. We are able to make it with the way to make it fully customized. Talking about the second part, which is the payment, then I have to [go] back to the first time we met, and this is [a] very important point to discuss where you start presenting your system and you opened the door of “what is the meaning of innovation for payment as well?”. So, it's not only hotels or this – no, you are also ahead of the game. And it was easy to plug and play [with] your system and within our contactless [system] and it works. It works very smoothly and in [a] harmonious way with our product. So it was successful. And the story here, it becomes successful because we are actually [in] partnership together on this.

And we also show, since it [has] not existed before, such as like, we can give multiple types of payment, regardless [of] what cards the customers are [using]. Also, we give [the] opportunity to differentiate between debit card and credit card which is used before, which is not going to be the case. Those kind of things, it makes us have a brilliant system, as one package to present ourselves that we are the most innovative in front, compared [to] the other players in the market. We change the game even as a hospitality [brand] to start to produce products from their side, instead of waiting [for] someone coming from outside to come to them and say, “hey okay, I have this product, do you want to try, or no?”. We are actually now, look[ing] at the game differently. 

Mark: Yeah, that's fantastic. And I remember having a conversation with one of the GMs of the hotels that are using your contactless guest journey. And I asked them, “how is it going?” You know, and he paused and he said, “I think it's okay.” Like he goes, “I don't hear anything so that means there's no problems, so I think things are working well”, which of course, is good news for us [be]cause we definitely want to be in the background to help support that. And that's optimally, what you want is not something that breaks. So as long as it's smooth and things are seamless, that's really ideal for us.

Mark:  On the topic of GMs, did that take some convincing because you work with some extremely luxury hotels, right? These are iconic brands in many cases. And I have to think there were maybe some concerns around, can we offer a low-touch experience in a high-touch environment, right? And you have hotels that sort of embody what we think of as luxury travel and they have guests arriving that they may not have that ability to interact with. Tell us a little bit about like, was that a convincing process and what has been the result and outcome that you've seen so far? 

Ahmed: Mark, it's really surprising [to] me you know so much about hospitality. It looks like I know what is [in] your future. Maybe you want to change that? No, you're absolutely right. Basically we're normally focused on technology. We always look for the technology and mid-scale brands, economy brands. That's where the customer is not focused that much about the customer touch. What I am saying is, mainly the focus on mid-scale [brands], [is on going] into the room itself, [where] customers need to go, they have a business [meeting] and so on. While on the luxury side, it's more about human touch. [The] services, it determines how we’re ready to make our customer satisfied and so on. So, we always think that: in luxury, we use less technology, or in economy, we use less technology, especially in front of the customer. But now it's not like this anymore. Now, we are giving a technology in the luxury [segment] and we segregated down to economy. Because the customers in the luxury [space] as well, their needs change. Now, we can see the customer sometimes he doesn’t want to meet anyone in the hotel. He wants to have everything requested [from his] phone; they want to order from their phone; they want to submit the request on their phones; they want to check-in from their phones; and whenever they face a challenge, they want to call a colleague or they want to call one of the employees. But basically, they want to be kind of contactless – “I want to go to the room, I don't want to talk to anyone”. I just need to be focused on this unless they are looking for a specific service where the technology is not able to provide. And that's exactly where, when we create the system, we've been very careful on how we treat our customers. And you are absolutely right. We have that system up and running in very iconic hotels. One of the top luxury hotels in the company, we used it also now in mid-scale, we use it in luxury, so we use it in different segments and the feedback that’s coming right now is great. And again, back to the main point I have highlighted about the system: it's not a fixed system or fixed template. It's customized based on the customers’ needs. And also it gives the opportunity to, and I have to say this again about Adyen, it gives opportunity to the hoteliers to see also the revolution and innovation in the payment [space] as well. Because we [are] always talking about the customer, but we didn't go to one of the big important points, which is the back office.

Yeah, the customer is important for us, but also operations – it's super important. Your system in the back end, let's call it that way, the contactless in the back end, it's even easier so that our colleagues will be able to see all the transactions. They will be able to do the check-ins and be able to monitor the health of the system. They are all automation. We are also increasing all the productivity here. So it's not required additional work on the back end because in front of the customer is going well, then we brought all the workload to the back office – no, actually it's not. Same as easy to the customer, same as easy to the operations. It's complicated as a system itself for the programming part. That's where, so far, no one [has] yet able to do exactly the same smooth operation as we'd done.

Mark: So if I hear you right, you've definitely seen luxury hotels being able to offer more different types of guest journeys, because you may have the guest that still wants to have that interaction at the front desk. But like you said, you'll have the other guest who came off a 12-hour flight, like you did recently and just want to just go to your room and take a shower. And so that gives you that flexibility, which is great. And do you think that as we see technology try to keep up, are we keeping up with technology, rather, what will happen in the future? Obviously, I think this is here to stay, I think we've seen that guests love this experience. But what do you sort of envision around that and maybe we can get a sort of a peek under the hood in terms of what your thought processes around how you want to evolve this product in the next couple of years to come?

Ahmed: Hotels before used to compete [with] each other, or let me call it the other way, seeing the segment based on the services they provide in terms of stars. Like, we call it like this: hotel stars, hotel luxury... Actually, now one of the key elements is going to be what technologies you are offering. And this is something [that has] become now super important – what TV you have and what the channels you are actually producing, [is it] capable to interface with your phone, yes or no; I'm able to, right now, to order from my phone, yes or no; right now, if I need to reserve a slot [for] the swimming pool, am I able to do it from my phone,  yes or no; if I need to buy a voucher, [a] digital voucher, can I do [it] from my phone, or no. All of the things right now, you'll find [that] technology needs to be involved. Moving forward, it may be, will be, this is how our lives we're going to be. Same like before, who [would] expect that the customer will do the check-in from the phone? Now it [has] become a usual. 

Mark: Now, that's perfect. And you talk about stars, I think that's great. And I think, you know, at Adyen, we love to support innovation, as you know, in a way being that hidden star, right? To help you get and achieve the goals that you want. So we're really excited about that. I'm thrilled to kind of see your path and hopefully be along for the ride. We definitely see a, you know, a very cooperative relationship and I think that's  fantastic. This has been really great for our listeners. You know, you've really hit on a lot of the key points. I'm very excited about where the future lies, Ahmed, and yeah, let's carry on and help innovate the industry.

Okay, Ahmed, one last question before you go. If you were in a room with other hotel industry leaders, what would be one sort of payment related advice you'd be able to offer them? 

Ahmed: Well, I have to tell you one of the things all hospitality leaders need to think about is: no need to focus on a part of any solutions. Like, I want to give you an example. So, maybe we face a challenge as of today for something related [to] ecommerce. So we focus to have a module of ecommerce. Then maybe tomorrow I have an issue on POS, then I need to focus on POS. But what I'm trying to say here is, there [are] multiple players on the market. They are proposing all-in-one in the payment industry. I think same like what Adyen, they are doing right now, we need to focus on a package, one package or one solution, [to] provide all what we need in one interface. Not necessarily, you may not require to use it as of today. But when you want in the future, it just like click, one, one click, one one, and I’m really, instead after this, okay, in order to go for this, I need to change the payment again. And then, after two or three more years, or we miss this, I need to change the payment again and again, and again and again. So, we need to, as leaders right now, we need to think with a short- and long-term strategy and this is one of the things [that] has become now very important with the payment industry as well.  

Mark: Perfect. Thanks Ahmed. You’re ending off on a great note. Thank you so much for your time. It's been really great learning more about your journey. I think it's safe to say, you know, we love the innovation that you've been doing and we really look forward to seeing what is under the hood, what's in the future and hopefully being a part of that. So thanks for your time today. And, I'm sure we'll be catching up soon. Thanks.

Ahmed: Thank you so much, Mark. And I'm looking forward to more success stories together and looking forward [to] our next project. 

Warren (voiceover): You've been listening to Adyen’s Behind the Figures podcast. We look forward to sharing more business stories with you. Be sure to follow and subscribe to get the latest updates.