London Orient-Express Hotels, the luxury travel group that runs trains, river cruises, restaurants and hotels around the world, has announced it is changing its name. From March 10 the company will market its products under a new brand name chosen from a list of 650 contenders – Belmond. The group will spend $5m in the next year promoting the new name, created by New York-based marketing company AgencySacks, with another $10m in subsequent years.
The decision to abandon a globally recognised name synonymous with prestige travel and laden with heritage in favour of one whose main association is with a Turkish watchmaker may at first seem bizarre. But Orient-Express, which is registered in Bermuda but has headquarters in London, does not own the current brand, instead licensing it from French rail operator SNCF, which registered it in 1977. SNCF had, until recently, made little use of the name but this is about to change: later this month it will unveil details of a subsidiary company which will launch products including upmarket luggage and mattresses under the Orient Express name. In the longer term it is also aiming to relaunch a Paris to Istanbul train service, which will incorporate lavish, newly designed carriages.
Both parties insist that SNCF did not initiate the ending of the licensing agreement and SNCF says it has no plans to operate hotels. Instead, after a long period of negotiation, Orient-Express Hotels has decided to withdraw from the agreement, apart from retaining a licence use for its Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train. The company said it had wanted a name that encompassed “the broad scope” of its offerings. But also significant are its expansion plans: the company at present owns all its properties (either outright or in part) but it now intends to grow by becoming a third-party manager of properties for other owners. A strong brand will be crucial in attracting owners that might have been put off buying into a brand controlled by another organisation. Existing Orient-Express hotels will now emphasise the Belmond name: the Cipriani in Venice, for example, will now be known as the Belmond Cipriani.
The third-party management strategy is becoming increasingly popular. Others following it include the Oetker Collection, owner of properties such as the Le Bristol in Paris and the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, which is expanding aggressively. Orient-Express has yet to reveal detailed plans but says it hopes to open one or two properties per year in key cities.