Sophie Lam: It's all change for the Orient Express brand

Something to Declare

What’s in a name? For Orient Express, a lot. You will be familiar with the venerable train service, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express. Similarly The Royal Scotsman, though you might not have known it was operated by the same company. How about the Copacabana Palace, Savute Elephant Camp, Jimbaran Puri Bali and El Encanto? Some of those grandes dames may register, though perhaps not under the Orient Express banner.

The high-end leisure company owns and manages 45 of the world’s most luxurious hotels and travel experiences, from Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, to the Road to Mandalay river cruiser in Burma. While each  is a stand-alone destination in  its own right, the cachet imparted by that fabled train journey is invaluable – the Orient Express insignia speaks of a near mythical travel experience: old-world opulence, unparalleled service.

And yet this week, the company announced that from next Monday, it will be known as Belmond. Has it been bought out by a Turkish watch manufacturer? Is it relocating to Iowa? In fact, neither (the Midwestern US city has relinquished its succinct website in favour of an extended Henceforth, Belmond, from the Italian for “beautiful world”, will be the badge for all but the Venetian train service.

The original Orient Express service ran between Paris and Istanbul. But it retreated from Turkey in 1977 and ceased its operation completely in 2009.

Orient Express Hotels Ltd began licensing the name of the train service from the French state railway company, SNCF, in 2001, and it has just re-affirmed another long term. The company won’t divulge the cost of that licence – and disassociating its hotels, cruises, safari outfits and other rail services from the Orient Express brand will undoubtedly make savings, even after the £9m rebranding exercise. But what about that intangible emotional value?

Five years ago, specialist safari operator Conservation Corporation Africa made a statement of intent when it rebranded as &Beyond. The new name reflected its move beyond the African continent into India, and from a conservation-focused tour operator to luxury travel experience provider. The adventurous use of an ampersand caused some consternation at the time – it even had its own peculiar font – but now CC Africa feels almost archaic.

More baffling was Rail Europe’s recent counter-intuitive rebranding as the resolutely Gallic-sounding “Voyages SNCF”. While owned by French Railways, it continues to sell train tickets from the UK to thousands of destinations right across the Continent.

That same French railway company will be launching its own Orient Express company next month, with a resuscitated train service on the horizon and a luxury line of luggage and mattresses in the pipeline.

The new Belmond brand will surely mean there will be less likelihood of confusion between the two enterprises and will undoubtedly help elevate awareness of the landmark hotels. Meanwhile, the Orient Express – in whichever incarnation – continues to intrigue and seduce. That name is as valuable as ever.

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