Hoteliers: Airways & Railways

radit mahindro
18 min readNov 2, 2020

Orient Express (now Belmond). Fairmont. InterContinental. Le Méridien. Swissotel. Okura Nikko. All major players in the modern hospitality sector, and all are distinctive, globe-spanning hotel chains with its own identity and slew of loyal guests. Yet they all have the same, intriguing origin story: before becoming global brands they were airline and railway offshoots, doubling as essential accommodation for staff as well as travellers.

Westin, for example, was a sister company to what’s now United Airlines. Radisson Blu was linked with SAS Airlines, Swissotel was born out of Swissair, Orient-Express was a luxury train linking several major cities in Europe. As for Le Méridien, InterContinental, and Okura Nikko, it was owned and / or operated by Air France, Pan Am, and Japan Airlines, respectively.

Pan Am and InterContinental
In the history of American commercial aviation, there was no airline more influential, important, and better known than Pan American World Airways. It was not the first American passenger airline, nor did it ever meet with much success in the domestic market, but Pan Am (as it was more commonly known), represented a new adventurous image of the United States to the world. When filmmaker Stanley Kubrick produced his landmark vision of the future in the 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he envisioned Pan Am as the space carrier that would take men and women regularly into space.

Pan Am fictional spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The idea that airlines should operate hotel chains came not from some entrepreneurial airline CEO, but from FDR, and in the 1940s, grew into an effort to help promote American tourism overseas after World War II. He turned to one of the country’s most high profile businessmen, Pan Am owner Juan Trippe, for help, suggesting Pan Am expand beyond flying and into hotels. The result? InterContinental hotels, formed as a subsidiary of the airline on 4 April 1946. “It was an early definition of branding, to try to own the relationship with the customer,” Bjorn Hanson told Condé Nast Traveler — Bjorn is a retired NYU professor and founder of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ hospitality and leisure practice.

It also streamlined trip planning, making it easy to book a hotel and flight together. With no internet or even global Yellow Pages, sourcing a hotel in a far-flung destination suddenly became much easier for pioneering, globetrotting tourists in the 1950s and 1960s. There was another benefit, too: airline-owned hotels could act as de facto dorms for the staff deployed across the world, especially the armies of glamorous flight attendants who needed to be lodged there for chunks of time; stopovers could last for three or four days in one city, while a long-haul trip with several destinations might span weeks.

Flight attendants — the epitome of jet set glamour at the time — would be treated as well as regular guests, with full catering and service, and encouraged to mingle with regular travellers. In a time when travel was expensive and intrinsically glitzy, the hotels became an unofficial extension of the experience at 10.000 meters. The presence of off-duty cabin crew only underscored the connection, and they would often be feted by their fellow guests.

By 1947, the board concluded that the Pan American name did not reflect a worldwide hotel company and selected “InterContinental” over “International”. IHC provided management services to owners of existing hotels. The first two hotels operated by InterContinental were the eighty-five room Grande in Belem, Brazil (1949) and the 400 room Hotel Carrera in Santiago, Chile (1950). Next was a management agreement for the 220 room Hotel El Prado in Baranquilla, Columbia (1950).

In 1951, InterContinental purchased the 270-room Reforma Hotel in Mexico City, Mexico. InterContinental grew along Pan Am’s routes becoming the first international hotel company to operate in Asia/Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. By 1953 InterContinental had doubled in size with hotels in Bermuda, Montevideo, Bogota, Maracaibo and Caracas. Perhaps the most spectacular hotel was the 400 room Tamanaco in Caracas which opened in 1954. The V-shaped Tamanaco featured tiered garden terraces at the ends of each floor, an indoor/outdoor restaurant and bar, a free-form swimming pool surrounded by a ring of cabanas overlooking views of the city below and the nearby mountains. Two of Indonesia’s first world-class hotels were developed and managed by the InterContinental: Hotel Indonesia in Jakarta (1962) and Bali Beach InterContinental Hotel in Sanur (1966).

Left to right: Pan Am CEO Juan Trippe, Pan Am cabin crew, InterContinental Phoenicia Beirut

Past President of the American Hotel & Lodging Association Kirby Payne told Hospitality Net that his father Phyl Paine was the 2nd GM of the Grande Hotel in Belem, Brazil which was built at the turn of the century. Each of the four floors had a single telephone which was under the supervision of a phone attendant who would run to summon guests from their rooms when a call arrived. Kirby said that floor attendants were also responsible for keeping the GM’s son from hitting guests with his tricycle.

The hotel’s laundry was in the building’s colonial-style central courtyard where twenty laundresses washed by hand. They also used hand irons heated with hot charcoal embers in them. The hotel had its own ice plant where big containers were lowered into brine. Rooms were cooled by window air conditioners as was the bar. A very popular sidewalk café gave the place a vaguely European feeling despite the heat and humidity which go with an oceanfront city one degree south of the equator. The hotel’s losses were turned to profit in the first year and this was doubled in the second year of InterContinental operation. The hotel was run by InterContinental for 17 years during which time it served as the first posting for young GM’s who went on to important careers with the company.

For many, Pan Am’s InterContinental hotels set the standard for a certain type of international travel. “Intercontinental hotels were all top-drawer, and educated us as to what a fine hotel was all about,” says Rebecca Sprecher, another former Pan Am flight attendant and co-author of Flying. “While we usually couldn’t afford to eat anywhere but the coffee shop, the service was always wonderful and the staff beautifully trained.” She recalls the wild parties, too — at least if the “bottle-to-throttle” rules allowed, which mandated a 12-hour gap between drinking and working. “If you were hosting, you had ice brought in, propped your door open, and everyone arrived carrying their own bathroom glass. It was a sure sign you were a newbie if you did not bring yours.”

Pan Am’s World infomercial produced by Peckham Productions USA in the 1970s. The narrator tells viewers that Pan Am flies to more than 120 different places on 6 continents. InterContinental hotels are at many of the destinations depicted in this video

By the time CEO Juan Trippe retired in 1968, Pan Am was flying to 85 nations on six continents. When Juan Trippe died in 1981, his vision of a world where more people flew for less money had become a reality. After a steady and sustained rise as the most important American airline, Pan American’s fortunes began to dim in the 1970’s. Economic problems related to over-expansion, oil price problem, and recession forced the company into debt.

Deregulation and its consequences only added to Pan Am’s woes. Although the company attempted to break into the domestic market by acquiring National Airlines (in October 1980), its problems only grew. Through the 1980s, it slowly sold off all its assets, including their headquarter building in Manhattan, and was operating at a huge loss. Pan Am eventually sold InterContinental to Grand Metropolitan Ltd., a British conglomerate, for USD 500 million in cash — another bidder was UAL Inc., the parent company of United Airlines and Westin Hotels, which has 83 hotels in 48 countries.

In 1990, Pan Am sold off its major hub in London and the routes that it served to United Airlines. Although the airline operated for a very short while on emergency funding from Delta Air Lines, it collapsed into bankruptcy in December 1991.

Air France and Le Méridien
Founded in 1972, Le Méridien took its iconic name from the geographic coordinate lines that span the globe and affirms the brand’s international focus. The 1960s and 1970s era served as the hotel’s distinct yet cohesive design identity. The iconic midcentury modern design of that period of time influenced the traveller’s experience then, and it deeply influences the look and feel of the hotel’s visual appearance: graphic design, architecture, and interior design.

The first Le Méridien property was a 1.000-room hotel in Paris — Le Méridien Etoile. Within two years of operation the group had 10 hotels in Europe and Africa. Within the first six years the number of hotels had risen to 21 hotels in Europe, Africa, the French West Indies, Canada, South America, the Middle East and Mauritius. The group continued to grow and, by 1991, the total number of Le Méridien properties had risen to 58.

Air France and Le Méridien amenities and promotion materials throughout the years

Thierry Benloulou was an Air France flight attendant for more than 30 years and spent regular layovers at the airline’s hotels. “The first time I stayed there, it was so nice I felt like I didn’t belong in the hotel. I slept on the floor, because I felt like I shouldn’t use the bed,” he says. There were so many airline staffers lodged on property, according to Benloulou, that Le Méridien would operate a standalone crew check-in, upstairs or separate from the lobby for paying guests.

Like a hotel within a hotel, crews would usually be on the same floor — every staffer had their own room, no sharing — where there would be a dedicated lounge area for them to socialise or order food out of hours from the 24/7 kitchen. Security was a priority, too. “In some destinations, it was a way to keep the crew safe, as people couldn’t enter so easily.” By the end of his tenure, though, only pilots were lodged at Le Méridien in a given city; cabin crew had been downgraded to less glamorous digs nearby.

Le Méridien had 58 luxury hotels when Air France was obliged to sell it 57% stake in the chain in 1994 for USD 207 million, following mounting operating losses. The acquirer was Forte Hotels of the UK which, at the time, owned the iconic The Savoy hotel in London, amongst other properties — for 18 months, Forte had battled with Accor for Meridien. Accor, a French company that runs the Sofitel, Novotel, Ibis, and Mercure hotels, put pressure on the French Government to sell it the chain at a lower price.

In November 2005, the Le Méridien brand and management fee business was acquired by Starwood Hotels & Resorts led by hotelier-CEO Barry Sternlicht. The leased and owned real estate assets were acquired in a separate deal by a joint venture formed by Lehman Brothers and Starwood Capital (a company not affiliated with Starwood Hotels & Resorts, also led by Barry Sternlicht until now).

Canadian Pacific Railway and Fairmont
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Canada, train travel was both popular and glamorous, and an important part of that experience included staying at big luxury hotels along the rail lines, built in a château-style that resembled a mix of Scottish and French castles. The grandeur of these hotels lives on amid stunning landscapes such as the Banff Springs hotel.

Canada’s first grand railway hotel, the Windsor Hotel in Montreal, which opened in 1878 next to Montreal’s main station, was not actually owned by a railway company. In 1885, when the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was built (partly with the help of 17.000 Chinese workers), it introduced the world to this land of sweeping landscapes, both as tourists and new immigrants.

Perhaps because they had the financial motivation, it became the CPR’s job to populate Canada all along the new rail lines. An immigration department was set up with offices in Europe and Great Britain. Pamphlets and posters were printed in multiple languages and distributed far and wide.

Canada was also advertised overseas as a holiday destination, with a focus on hunting, fishing and beautiful mountain vistas. It was a new idea at the time to think of mountains as beautiful places to be enjoyed as tourist attractions, rather than just as obstacles to settlement.

Most of this is credited to the CPR’s President, who was first hired as a General Manager then promoted, William Cornelius Van Horne. The first grand hotel CPR opened was the Hotel Vancouver in 1888. When the company’s latest railway hotel, Banff Springs, which was styled after a Scottish Baronial Castle, opened in two weeks later in June, 1888, Van Horne asked the federal government to turn the surrounding area into a national park. Eager tourists quickly flocked to the area.

Van Horne also requested that more parks be created all along the rail line in the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia — modelled on the Northern Pacific Railway’s successful relationship with Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. He was already imagining grand hotels across the country, which would attract a constant string of visitors from overseas. The Government of Canada listened, creating Banff National Park in 1885 (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) followed by Glacier and Yoho National Parks.

Next, CPR built the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City in 1893, which was designed to rival the hotels in Europe. Built to stand out, it was constructed on elevated land overlooking the St. Lawrence River, where it could easily be seen by anyone passing by in trains or ships. Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt discussed strategy for World War II at this hotel during The Quebec Conference of 1943.

Other grand railway hotels built during this time include Place Viger in Montreal, The Empress in Victoria, B.C., the Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta, and the Royal York in Toronto, then considered the largest hotel in the British Commonwealth. Other hotels were built by CPR’s competitor, the Grand Trunk Railway, such as the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg and the Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton.

Round the clock: Banff Hotel (now Fairmont Banff Springs), CPR Station & Hotel Winnipeg (demolished in 1971), Palliser Hotel (now Fairmont Palliser), Place Viger

Each of these Canadian grand railway hotels was in itself a Canadian landmark and each is something of a crown jewel of Canadian architecture. The Fairmont Banff Springs hotel is one of the older railway hotels. Located in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, Banff, AB, Canada features spectacular Canadian alpine beauty; as the William Cornelius Van Horne, then Canadian president of the Canada-Pacific Railway put it “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists”.

Van Horne’s words were certainly prescient; more than 120 years later, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is still a major draw to Canada for tourists on Canada train vacation tours. It’s not only the scenery that brings guests on vacation to the hotel though; like the other Canadian grand railway hotels, the neo-chateau style hotel is an architectural Canadian gem set against the backdrop of Sulphur Mountain. Known as one of the world’s premiere luxury resorts ever since opening its doors to guests, the Banff Springs Hotel is as popular of a vacation destination for tourists on Canadian train vacations as ever; as well as a popular vacation destination for local Canadians.

Round the clock: Fairmont Banff Springs, Fairmont Empress, Fairmont Royal York, Fairmont Château Frontenac, Fairmont Château Lake Louise

In 1988, Canadian Pacific acquired the Canadian National Railway hotels (which included those previously owned by Grand Trunk Railway). For the first time, many of Canada’s railway hotels were operated by the same company.

In April 1999, Canadian Pacific Hotels, Kingdom Hotels International and Maritz Wolff & Co. bought Fairmont Hotels Management L.P., with Canadian Pacific Hotels own the majority of the shares (67%).

In 2001, Canadian Pacific Limited, the parent company of both Canadian Pacific Hotels and Resorts, and CPR, was reorganised. During this reorganisation, Canadian Pacific Hotels and Resorts was renamed to Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, using the name of the company it had purchased in 1999. The newly re-organised Fairmont company transferred several properties to its Delta Hotels subsidiary (now owned by Marriott International), although it retained most of the “signature” CPR-built grand hotels and resorts under the new Fairmont banner.

Orient Express / Belmond
To most people the Orient Express is more an idea than a tangible entity. We are most familiar with its life in fiction and cinema: Hercule Poirot solved his most famous case on it, Alfred Hitchock’s lady vanished from it and James Bond rode it from Istanbul to London. The latest iteration of the legendary train is chugging back to the big screen as director Kenneth Branagh tries his hand at remaking Agatha Christie’s classic murder-mystery tale in 2018. But what was the real Orient Express like, how did it first attain its aura of mystery and intrigue and what was the famous train’s ultimate fate?

In 1865, a prominent Belgian banker’s son named Georges Nagelmackers first envisioned “a train that would span a continent, running on a continuous ribbon of metal for more than 1,500 miles,” as E. H. Cookridge writes in Orient Express: The Life and Times of the World’s Most Famous Train.

During a trip to America, Nagelmackers witnessed the many innovations in railway travel there. While European travellers chugged along in sooty, jostling trains, Americans were beginning to travel in Pullman cars. These train cars, invented by George Pullman, were specially designed for long-distance travel. The hotel-like cars were clean and staffed by friendly workers who catered to passengers’ comfort. And they contained something European trains did not: beds.

Nagelmackers became fascinated by this comfortable mode of travel and even approached George Pullman himself with a proposal to become his partner and spread his cars through Europe. When George Pullman rejected him, Nagelmackers returned to Europe with a plan: copy Pullman and make his own, even more luxurious, train.

In 1883, after a number of false starts, financial troubles and difficulties negotiating with various national railway companies, Nagelmackers’s Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (wagons-lits being French for “sleeper cars”) established a route from Paris to Istanbul, then called Constantinople. The newspapers dubbed it the “Orient Express” — though Istanbul was as far toward the “Orient” as this train would ever travel — and Nagelmackers embraced the name.

On October 4, the Orient Express set out on its first formal journey, with many journalists aboard to publicly marvel at the train’s luxury and beauty. (Nagelmackers, a clever showman, even arranged to have shoddy, decaying old Pullman cars stand in contrast on the tracks adjacent to the Express as it left Paris’s Gare de Strasbourg.)

Aboard the train, the delighted passengers felt as though they’d entered one of Europe’s finest hotels; they marvelled at the intricate wooden paneling, deluxe leather armchairs, silk sheets and wool blankets for the beds. It was unlike any other train Europe had ever seen. Instead of soot and bad service, it had gleaming wood surfaces, plush seats, and beds with silk sheets that rivalled those found in luxury hotels. Inside was a restaurant that served fancy dishes like oysters and caviar, and musicians serenaded the passengers as they sped over borders. The journey from Paris to Istanbul lasted a little over 80 hours.

The original Orient Express train

“The bright-white tablecloths and napkins, artistically and coquettishly folded by the sommeliers, the glittering glasses, the ruby red and topaz white wine, the crystal-clear water decanters and the silver capsules of the champagne bottles — they blind the eyes of the public both inside and outside,” wrote one of the guests, Henri Opper de Blowitz, about the inaugural dining car.

Bohemia-born De Blowitz was very well-traveled, spoke several languages and knew many prominent people. His publications, in which he revealed conspiracies or war plans, influenced the course of European history several times. De Blowitz not only reported on the interesting conversations he had with his travel companions, but also about the exquisite food aboard the Orient Express:

“It must be said, during the entire trip from Paris to Bucharest the menus vie with each other in variety and sophistication — even if they are prepared in the microscopic galley at one end of the dining car,” he wrote.

In its heyday, the train duly earned another nickname: “Spies’ Express.” Continent-hopping secret agents loved the train, writes Cookridge, since it simply “made their jobs so much easier and their travels much more comfortable.” One of the most remarkable of these agents was an Englishman named Robert Baden-Powell, who posed as a lepidopterist collecting samples in the Balkans and also founded Boy Scouts. His intricate sketches of the forms and colours of butterfly wings were actually coded representations of the fortifications he spotted along the Dalmatian Coast, which served as great aids to the British and Italian navies during World War I.

After the war, the railway map of Europe was redrawn. The classic Orient Express was limited to Bucharest, while the victors introduced a new train bypassing Germany: the Simplon Orient Express. After traversing the Swiss Alps via the Simplon Tunnel, it ran through Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

In 1929 the Simplon Orient Express was snowed in for five days at a small station in Turkey. This incident inspired Agatha Christie, although she chose Yugoslavia as the location for her 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express. In fact, the first known murder on the train did not occur until one year after the publication of her novel.

From the 1960s onwards the Orient Express gradually lost its shine. In 1977, nearly 100 years after the first journey, the last direct train left Paris for Istanbul. This spartan Direct-Orient mainly carried hippies and migrants. There was no dining car anymore; passengers had to bring their own supplies for several days. “The Orient Express really is murder,” complained travel writer Paul Theroux of the frugal surroundings. The contrast to the sophisticated 1930s Simplon Orient Express could not have been greater.

In Venice, England-based American businessman James Sherwood bought Hotel Cipriani for GBP 900.000 from the Guinness family. Coincidentally he was collecting vintage railway carriages with his wife, Shirley Cross, a bioscientist, whom he married in 1977. When rolling stock of the disbanded Orient Express came up for auction, Sherwood conceived the idea of recreating the service, relaunching the Simplon Orient Express to Venice in 1982.

It took took five years and cost USD 30 million, but provided the name and style for what became a major international company, Orient-Express Hotels.. For more than 30 years James Sherwood flew around the world in search of iconic rundown hotels which could be restored to their former grandeur under the Orient-Express logo. He bought the Villa San Michele, outside Florence, the Hotel Splendido in Portofino, the Copacabana Palace in Rio, the Timeo in Sicily, Reid’s in Madeira, Charleston Place in North Carolina and many more.

Round the clock: Belmond Hotel Cipriani, Belmond Hotel Splendido, Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, Belmond Villa San Michele

In 2007 James Sherwood retired as chairman of the still profitable Orient-Express, but remained a director. On 10 March 2014, Orient-Express Hotels Ltd was renamed Belmond and all of the individual hotels, cruises, and travel product websites have been renamed and redesigned to align with the new branding with the only exception for the Simplon Orient-Express train. More than a few people questioned or lamented the decision of this rebranding. Airbnb hospitality guru and boutique hotel pioneer Chip Conley, for example, tweeted “What a branding mistake!!!”

The “Orient Express” name is actually owned by France’s government rail group SNCF since 1970s. In 2017, Accor acquired a 50% stake in the Orient Express name to develop its own line of hotels under the moniker. Accor finally relaunched the Orient Express brand as a luxury hotel brand, positioning it at the same level with Raffles brand. Its first hotel? A 154-room hotel located in the 78-story King Power Mahanakhon skyscraper in Bangkok, renowned for its pixelated, Lego-like facade.