Accor wants to take Orient Express beyond the rails and into hotels

May 27, 2022

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Thanks to Agatha Christie, the brand Orient Express conjures up images of ultra-luxurious train travel, a mustache-twirling detective and murder — fictional murder, that is.

Ever since Paris-based hotel conglomerate Accor took a 50% stake in the Orient Express brand in 2017, it appears poised to veer off the rails and into a luxury hotel concept phase. The company plans to open some hotels over the next few years in Rome and Venice, and they announced that a relaunched train service — Orient Express La Dolce Vita — is on track for next year.

Accor now categorizes Orient Express in the same ultra-luxury category as its Raffles brand. A brand fact sheet on Accor’s website indicates Orient Express hotels in markets like London, Istanbul, Paris and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, are also in the works as well as an additional train service. The brand is expected to have 10 hotels by 2030.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to take a brand that people dream about — a true luxury brand is one that you can fall in love with,” Stephen Alden, Accor’s CEO of Raffles and Orient Express, said in an interview with TPG. “It’s one that makes you dream [and], when you mention it to somebody, they think in terms of journeys. They think in terms of the romance and the mystique of travel. I think that is an advantage because it conjures up in people’s minds a type of travel that they would like to undertake. Who hasn’t dreamed of taking a trip with Orient Express?”

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Orient Express, which originated in 1883, might be rooted in luxury rail service spanning continental Europe from Paris to Istanbul (with a stop in literary history with Christie’s novel “Murder on the Orient Express”). However, Alden reminds travelers this isn’t the iconic brand’s first dalliance in the hotel orbit.

Orient Express co-owner, the French railway company SNCF, licensed the brand out in the 1970s to a U.K.-based company to attach the moniker to a restaurant, hotels, rail lines and river cruises. That company, Orient-Express Hotels Ltd., eventually rebranded as Belmond in 2014 and was acquired by luxury conglomerate LVMH four years later.

It might be a little confusing to some, as Belmond renamed most of its hotels and trains under its newer moniker — but still operates the Venice-Simplon Orient Express under its original branding. Interestingly, Belmond leaders indicated the name change back in 2014 stemmed from the brand’s deep association with luxury train travel and not hotels.

The Accor team is bullish on expanding the brand once again from railways and into guest rooms. It isn’t even Accor’s first time at the helm of a hotel brand originally associated with trains: It operates the design- and wellness-oriented Pullman chain of hotels.

Pullman was originally a U.S.-based railroad car manufacturer; the Pullman hotel brand dates back to a European rail company founded by a man who was impressed by the train company’s sleeper cars and aimed to replicate the service in Europe.

(Photo courtesy of Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express)

Initial hotel and train rollout

The first Orient Express hotel under the Accor partnership will be in Rome and is slated to open next year. The Orient Express Venice Hotel, expected to open in early 2024 within the historic Palazzo Donà Giovannelli, will feature 45 rooms and suites and overlook the city’s famed canals.

La Dolce Vita, the first train line out of the Accor partnership with Orient Express, will include deluxe cabins and suites as well as a restaurant that pay homage to the 1960s and 1970s — a time when Italian glamour and artistic flavor exploded inspired by Federico Fellini’s acclaimed “La Dolce Vita” movie.

Accor’s development guidelines for Orient Express hotels show the brand is likely to appear only in some of the world’s largest cities and resort destinations. Hotels are likely to be no more than 200 rooms and feature restaurants, bars (including a brand-specific Wagon Bar reminiscent of some of the train’s rich design), a rooftop terrace or garden, luxury fitness facilities and a spa.

Initial hotel expansion of the brand is expected across cities touched by the original train route, but don’t rule out an Orient Express hotel from ever appearing in faraway destinations like North America.

“I think once we have the first three or four in historically relevant cities to tie in with the train, we’ve got a good base,” Alden said. “But there’s already strong expression of interest from other cities around the world, and I don’t see why we wouldn’t consider those cities as well, provided they can support a hotel like an Orient Express.”

A vibe to build and grow on

The Accor team doesn’t think it’s that much of a leap to ramp up expansion of Orient Express in both trains and hotels. It all boils down to the overall vibe and experience: Accor wants that same allure of ultra-luxury travel associated with the train at its new hotels.

“The original Orient Express was about a luxurious lifestyle; it was about rich materials; it was about craftsmanship; it was about exceptional service. It was about a great wine list, a great culinary experience, traveling through the night, and there is a certain romance tied in with travel and a certain curation,” Alden said. “It’s that magic of the journey, which inspires how it should feel in a hotel — not the literal interpretation of the train physically.”

It’s not the only brand where Accor is trying to up the ante when it comes to unique experiences. The company’s well-documented push into the so-called lifestyle hotel segment is all about better connecting with a property’s surrounding neighborhood with bars, restaurants and other amenities like co-working facilities that are inviting to locals just as much as they are to overnight guests.

Accor also expanded its presence in the soft-brand space in the last year, launching its high-end Emblems Collection of luxury hotels with the planned Guiyang Art Centre Hotel in the Chinese province of Guizhou. Earlier this month, the company announced it would add the famed Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise ship (now permanently docked in Dubai) to its MGallery Hotel Collection, another Accor soft brand. It will be Accor’s first and only floating hotel.

“For us, that is really important for our brand power to build the flagships,” said Agnès Roquefort, Accor’s chief development officer. “We want to set the bar for our brands to be really selective and be super proud of what we are developing … and set the level where we want to be in terms of brands.”

Some would argue Accor is akin to soccer and Aussie superstar Kylie Minogue: enormously popular in every part of the world but the U.S.

But laying the groundwork for further expansion that appears to embrace the cool factor and experiences as much as it does scale can make a company like Accor a formidable opponent in the home court of competitors like Marriott and Hilton.

“Innovation is part of our DNA and brands as well,” Roquefort said. “Combined with the brands [and] combined with innovation, both in lifestyle and luxury, we saw ways that will allow us to access and to win this kind of [business].”

Featured image courtesy of Accor.

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