In the midst of overseeing the rebirth of the legendary Orient Express train, the launch of its sister hotel brand and the planning of 15 Raffles properties down the road, Stephen Alden, CEO of Raffles & Orient Express, grants Prestige an exclusive interview during a work trip to Singapore in April. Mavis Teo reports.
In the stately living room of the Sarkies Suite at the Raffles Singapore, the head honcho of the hospitality group is keeping me guessing as to whether Japan or Bangkok will be the birthplace of the first Asian Orient Express hotel.
“We are currently in talks with potential partners in both countries,” says Stephen Alden, despite being nudged for more clues. Naturally, we are curious. In 2019, Accor announced that the first Orient Express hotel would open in the King Power Mahanakhon Building in Bangkok by end-2019. However, by 2022, the hotel that opened in Thailand’s tallest building was The Standard hotel.
However, Alden is not here to discuss this. Understandably, he doesn’t want to dwell on the subject as he only took office after the event – on May 3, 2021, to be exact – during the second year of the pandemic when no end to the waves of new infections was in sight. It was a time of anxiety and apprehension for many in hospitality. However, after more than 35 years as a hotelier and having weathered some storms in the industry, Alden is unflappable as he leads Accor’s ultra-luxury brands through unchartered territory.
Alden wants to concentrate only on what’s coming up, clear the next hurdle or rather, fence – an appropriate description since Alden is a keen show jumper. This discipline of equestrian sport calls for focus, decisive thinking and calm confidence. Alden’s propensity for single-minded focus when he’s in the hot seat is also reflected in his love of watching F1 racing.
TO GREATER HEIGHTS
Alden’s fortitude and strong presence of mind have served him well in his career. Since setting his heart on a career in hospitality when he was 18, he has never looked back. Fortunately, being able to balance multiple tasks and adapt in different environments is something Alden is adept at.
In addition to his native tongue, Maltese, the polyglot speaks English, French and Italian fluently. Although his family lives in Milan, where he spends his weekends, he is based in Paris during the work week as the city is the home of Accor group’s executive management office.
One of the major players Alden served at previously was Starwood, where he had a long and stellar run, and later led the St Regis and Luxury Collection brands globally. Then, for nearly nine years, he took the reins as CEO of the Maybourne Hotel Group, which owns Claridge’s, The Connaught and The Berkeley in London. Needless to say, he is now ready to commandeer Raffles & Orient Express in what he calls “a transformational moment”.
Alden is not just referring to the changes in the hospitality industry and the way people travel post-pandemic, but the changes ahead for the two separate entities he helms. For the Orient Express, he has been tasked to revive the train travel brand, which is an icon that harks back to 1883 but currently not in operation, and to launch a sister hotel collection under the same name. As for Raffles Hotels & Resorts, the brand has spread its wings far beyond Beach Road since its conception in Singapore in 1887. Its enduring success and loyal guest base have given Alden the confidence to expand its current portfolio of 17 properties aggressively: “Raffles Hotels & Resorts is set to grow two-fold in the coming years.”
Doha, London and Boston are three of the most anticipated openings this year. Closer to home, the all-villa Raffles Sentosa Resort & Spa Singapore is expected to debut in 2023, while Raffles Bali became the most recent Asian launch last December. A total of 15 Raffles properties are in the pipeline.
While chatting with Alden about the legendary Orient Express, it is inevitable that Belmond, another luxury hospitality brand, is brought into the conversation. This is because Belmond’s Venice-Simplon Orient Express sounds so similar. As it would require another article altogether to flesh out the history of the train, the name and its various incarnations, it should suffice to say that Accor’s Orient Express is the original fabled luxury train company, with Accor holding a 50 per cent stake in the venture, and a completely different entity from Belmond’s.
NEW TRAIN, OLD WORLD
Accor’s brand-new iteration of the Orient Express is set to debut in Italy in 2023. “The enquiries we have received so far are very encouraging,” adds Alden, who says that reservations will open this September. The Orient Express La Dolce Vita will launch six different trains across 14 Italian regions, three international routes and more than 16,000km of railway tracks.
From Rome, the service will also extend to Paris, Istanbul and the city of Split in Croatia. “The transcontinental and cross-cultural element is what makes the adventure magical,” says Alden. And to add to that magic, well-known Milan-based design firm Dimorestudio has been entrusted to give the same refined style of the original Orient Express to the new – so expect the plushest carpets, swanky brass accents and the lushest interiors – without replicating it. The menus will also reflect the terre of the regions that the train threads through.
And just like in the sepia-tinted age of rail travel, when affluent passengers would leave their cabins to stay overnight in a magnificent hotel in a city, guests of a 21st-century Orient Express train have the option of checking into an Orient Express hotel. The first of this is the Orient Express La Minerva, which is housed in a 17th-century Baroque palace near the Pantheon in Rome and slated to open in 2024. A second Italian Orient Express property has just been announced to open at the Palazzo Donà Giovannelli in Venice in 2024. Planned for 2025 is one more in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
While negotiations with interested partners are underway, it is still unclear as to where the first one in Asia will open. However, one thingis clear: While the Orient Express is set to evoke a deeper sense of imagination with elements of fantasy, mystery and grandeur as compared to Raffles’ more stately yet homely ambience, we can expect the same refined elegance, Old World romance and white-gloved service that will have travellers “arrive as guests, stay as friends and return as family”, quips Alden, echoing the famous Raffles philosophy.
(Main and featured image: The Owo)
This story first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore.
The post CEO of Raffles and Orient Express Stephen Alden on transforming the hospitality group appeared first on Prestige Online - Singapore.