Besma Boumaza: “A hotel is a business – but it can also be a refuge”
The general counsel of Accor Group looks back at a year the likes of which she won’t want to see again – but which nonetheless forced adaptation for the better.
Leaders League: From a legal standpoint, how have you managed the Covid-19 crisis?
Besma Boumaza: Accor’s problems are shared by all members of the hospitality industry. Legally speaking, however, three principal issues stand out. The first concerns the relationship with hotel owners under the Accor banner. We needed to lend them immediate support and reassurance when the decision was made to shut hotels. We immediately put our teams to work studying the rules and protocols in each market in order to adapt our response to the constraints each hotel operator was faced with. That’s without even getting to the application of force majeure, which lawyers all over the world had to grapple with.
We have also had to carefully manage our relationship with clients. A large number of reservations had already been made prior to last spring’s lockdowns, both by individuals and for events and conferences, which all had to be cancelled or modified. Here, too, regulations vary from country to country. We helped clients and hotels manage the situation, both taking into account the needs of the establishment, which does not wish to lose revenue, and those of clients who do not want to end up paying for rooms they can’t use. It was a big challenge for us.
Lastly, I would cite the relationship with suppliers. Like many businesses in the current climate we have looked to reduce our expenses by suspending certain services. Accor was lucky enough to have a healthy balance sheet and, thus, no short-term liquidity problems. That said, faced with an uncertain timeframe for a return to normal operations, we were forced to take certain cost-cutting steps.
How did Accor adapt to this new reality?
Obviously, the pandemic has hit the tourism sector very hard. For those establishments that were able to remain open, we had to give guests the peace of mind that we were doing everything possible to ensure their comfort and safety. Working with Veritas, we came up with the ‘All Safe’ certification. However, with our clientele’s needs evolving with the pandemic, we have had to continually evolve, proposing new solutions and services.
We took the decision early on to make rooms available to vulnerable members of society, including victims of domestic violence, people without a place to stay, the homeless, and the sick, including those who’d contracted Covid-19 and needed to go into isolation but for whatever reason could not do it at home.
Concerning our own staff, we set up special, secure work areas for those that could not or did not wish to work from home, in locations close to where they lived, in order to help them avoid having to use public transport. A hotel is a business, but it can also be a refuge, and our properties will surely have other uses in the future.
What challenges will you face going forward?
The number one concern is anticipating what is going to happen in the future, because every new use of our hotels must have a proper legal framework. Here in-house counsel really earn their money because, when it comes to Covid-19, almost everything has legal implications.
After a successful legal career both at law firms and with a major French bank, what do you find most satisfying about your current job?
At Accor, where I have been for the last nine years, what I love most is the sheer range of legal problems that come across my desk and the operational and workforce issues related to them. Every day is different. I believe that the diverse range of experience I have accumulated dealing with different partners has been an asset to the company. Having accrued experience in several sectors, I am able to approach numerous subjects with a critical eye.
Another thing I like about my job is the fact that it involves regular human interaction. I am a firm believer in the power of collective intelligence and am certain that we are much more effective when we are all part of a team, working toward a common goal. I am committed to the common good, which I probably get from having spent years working at the ministry of justice.
I also like having complex problems to solve, finding solutions where there initially appear to be none, when the situation appears dire or even insurmountable. These are the things that excite me on a daily basis.
You’ve mentioned that Accor’s legal department plays an integral part in the corporate life of the company. What exactly does this entail?
To be an effective legal counsel, you have to be yourself. I have learnt over time that counsel must have the courage of their convictions. This is how you win the trust of clients. The days of counsel being a pure legal technician are long gone. One must now take into account company strategy and play an active role in shaping it. Working in-house means you have to be in all the meetings, whether operational, financial or commercial, in order to be able to offer the best advice to your company.
This is especially true at a company such as Accor, since it has become asset-light and is concerned with managing the concerns of hotel owners. Accor’s activity is now built on the foundation of brands, contracts and people, and each of these has a strong and distinct legal aspect. The legal department is vital to the success of this activity and brings its knowledge and vision to bear for the betterment of the company as a whole.
Coronavirus aside, what have been the other main challenges or developmental hurdles for Accor recently, and how has the company handled them?
The first major challenge for us was to create strong communal bonds in our legal community. Accor is present in 110 countries around the world and we have more than 100 lawyers in total working in-house. I pay special attention to this as it allows me to ensure that people working in my team are all pulling in one direction, especially when it comes to the issues we face in our relationship with hotel owners and clients.
Going digital has also been a priority for our teams. When a company is growing, as ours is, staff must cope with increased demands on their time. This is why we began a major programme of digitalization when I was named group general counsel. Nowadays we extensively use contract management software, which allows us to store all contract details in one place, manage them and generate them automatically. This piece of software allows us to spend more time on tasks that have greater added value for the company and be more focused on the business side of the job and less on admin.
You also handle compliance for the group. What does this involve?
Compliance has been a prime concern for legal departments for a number of years now. When I launched our group’s compliance programme in 2015, few saw the need for it. Today, I am happy to report that the subject is widely understood and has been enthusiastically embraced. These days, compliance programmes at multinationals are a given, as compliance affects all branches of business: staff must continually ask themselves the question, “what should I do and what am I allowed to do?”, all the while keeping in mind that a solution exists. But being in compliance means more than preventing corruption. It includes protection of personal data – a growing preoccupation – and respect for competition regulations.
Compliance has almost become a mindset, and a chief compliance officer’s role now covers any and all problems a group may be confronted with.
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