Grand Hotelier

An Interview with James Sherwood

The Orient Express train and name evoked such interest on the part of their readers and viewers that they felt it was appropriate to be there. Of course, Princess Grace was also there, which didn’t detract from the appeal of the event. I bought two sleeping cars at the auction. I almost didn’t get anything because the first two cars were sold at rather high prices to the King of Morocco. It turned out that his agents only wanted those two cars, so I was able to buy the next two cars, which I considered equally good, but for a much lower price. I sent them to a warehouse we owned in southern France.

Then I set about to try to locate other cars of the same vintage. I went to the Wagonlit company, a Belgian company that owned all of the cars and had, in fact, been the company that started the Orient Express service in 1882. They were very helpful. I was able to acquire 25 of the first-class Orient Express cars, a mix of sleeping cars and restaurant cars. Most of them were languishing out of service in Spain. Wagonlit made a very good deal for me on the basis that their workshops in Belgium, which were underemployed, would be able to do all of the refurbishment of this train. That’s what happened. We sent the cars to Belgium and they did a fabulous job. It took several years. As the project developed, I then felt that we ought to include Britain — that service should really operate from London, as well as Paris, down to Venice and Istanbul. There was no Channel Tunnel in those days. You had to cross the English Channel by ferry. And it just so happened that we owned the ferries, the Sea Link ferries, which crossed the Channel.

We then went and found a number of historic cars, what are called Pullman cars, in Britain: first-class cars which were out of service. We restored them as well. They’re all of the same period, from between the wars. They were the height of luxury train travel in that time. We had those restored. When the Orient Express service in 1983 — 101 years after the first Orient Express made its initial journey — the passengers could get aboard the British train at Victoria Station in London and take it down to Folkestone and get aboard one of our ferries, which would take them across the Channel to Boulogne, where the main continental Orient Express train would be waiting for them.

From there, the train would proceed to Paris, then overnight to Switzerland, and then through the Alps during the second day. It would arrive in Venice in the late afternoon of the second day. That’s how that started. To this very day, there are a large number of travelers on the Orient Express train that get off in Venice and go to the Hotel Cipriani. It’s provided, as I had anticipated, a great source of guests.

OR: Is it the nostalgia that, in your opinion, was the real draw?

Sherwood: Yes. The experience combines a lot of things. The scenery is spectacular. You’re going through the Alps in the daytime, from seven in the morning until almost five in the afternoon. Visually, it’s very interesting. Trains provide a moving visual experience which hotels cannot. They provide a context for a holiday which air travel doesn’t offer. The leisurely pace appeals to many travelers who are stressed out by their urban lives. And the cars have been very sensitively refurbished and are just as they were in the 1920s, so you have the experience of traveling as they did in those days.

We have wonderful cuisine on board. The chef is Paris-based and has been with us for the last 25 years. He produces spectacular food. It’s really a rewarding experience to be able to travel in the atmosphere of these vintage cars, just as they were and to see Europe at a leisurely pace in comfort.

OR: How were you able to put together such a series of iconic properties to create the Orient Express portfolio?

Sherwood: I looked for properties that had fallen out of favor which could be refurbished and re-launched as five star to regain their reputation. The Copacabana Palace in Rio, the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg, and the Mount Nelson in Cape Town are examples. All are more than 100 years old and are the best in their markets today.

Much of my strategy, too, derived from my shipping experience. In Brazil, all the shipowners were located in Rio. I had to go to Rio every year to see them, the customers, for the containers. The grand old lady among hotels in Rio was the aforementioned Copacabana, which was owned by a woman named Mrs. Guinle. She had let it run down terribly, had really put no investment in it. It was shabby and noisy, but a beautiful, beautiful structure. I said to myself, “What we need to do is to acquire this hotel from Mrs. Guinle.”

Her son was managing the hotel. I went to see him. He said, “Oh, my mother gets an offer once a month to buy this hotel. She has no interest in selling. She’s refused them all.” I was very close with the Brazilian Ambassador in London. The next time I went to Rio, he arranged a dinner party for me and my wife in the Leblon district of Rio. I was seated at dinner next to a little old lady — who identified herself as Mrs. Guinle. I said to her, “You own the Copacabana Palace.” “Yes,” she said, “I do.” I said, “I know you’re not interested in selling the hotel, but if you ever decide that you want to sell, would you please keep me in mind?”

She looked at me and said, “I’m dying to sell the hotel. I’ve been wanting to sell the hotel for years.” I said, “Well, that’s not the information that I had got. How do I arrange to buy it?” She said, “Tomorrow morning, you go and see my lawyer.” The lawyer confirmed that she wanted to sell. We were quickly able to sew up a deal. It transpired, however, that the son, who was managing the hotel, had been siphoning off a lot of the revenue for his horse-racing interests. He did not want anybody to find out what he had done, particularly his mother.