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Selling a brand: Orient Express


Crest of the Wagons-Lits company that used to run the Orient Express (photo © Presiyan Panayotov).

Crest of the Wagons-Lits company that used to run the Orient Express (photo © Presiyan Panayotov).

If you are like us and five-star hotels are not quite your style, then it may have escaped your attention that a number of Europe’s most celebrated and expensive hotels were quietly rebranded this past spring. Reid’s in Madeira and the Cipriani in Venice (don’t the names just trip off the tongue?) have for many years been promoted as Orient-Express Hotels.

OE Hotels become Belmond Hotels

Okay, the name Orient-Express Cipriani was a bit of a mouthful, but it had a certain cachet. We’d have been up for a glass of wine at the Cipriani if only for the train connection. But the train has hit the proverbial buffers, and Orient-Express Hotels Ltd is no more. In March the company which owned the Cipriani, Reid’s and a bevy of other fine hotels changed its name to Belmond Ltd. The new name was devised by New York based AgencySacks (they are very fussy about that spelling, so don’t be tempted to render it differently).

AgencySacks (tagline: We influence the affluent) suggests that ‘Belmond’ is cosmopolitan and international, carrying connotations of ‘the beautiful world’. The French is a bit dodgy. Belmond sounds more Manhattan than Montmartre. Johann Strauss the Younger got it absolutely right with his 1857 quadrille entitled Le beau monde. AgencySacks may be very good at managing brand transition, but French may not be their forte.

So we’ve saved ourselves the cost of a coffee or glass of wine at the Cipriani, now that the venerated Venetian hotel turns out to have nothing whatsoever to do with the Orient Express. The back story here is interesting. French rail operator SNCF owns the Orient Express name and has for the best part of 40 years licensed the hotel chain to use it. The Cipriani was in fact the first property to be branded thus.

The Orient Express Train

SNCF continued to run a regular scheduled night train from Paris to Vienna with the name Orient Express until mid-2007. Thereafter the Orient Express ran between Strasbourg and Vienna until December 2009 when it was axed altogether. The train was of course nothing like the Orient Express of yesteryear. But now SNCF is toying with the idea of using the Orient Express brand itself. As Orient Express Hotels Ltd morphed quietly into Belmond Ltd, SNCF began to draw up plans for a restored Paris to Vienna service, using modern rolling stock but with an added dash of style to justify the Orient Express brand.

For readers interested in the history of the Orient Express (ie. the train with all its attendant cultural baggage), there’s an excellent exhibition on just now at l’Institut du monde arabe in Paris. Four beautifully restored carriages from the heyday of the Orient Express and a locomotive that pulled them are on display. The exhibition runs until the end of this month.

Copyright © Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. All rights reserved.
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About The Authors

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

Nicky and Susanne manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers and the authors of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of that book was published in 2022 and reprinted in July 2023. You'll find a list of outlets that sell the book on this website.

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