The Orient Express has pulled into Deya in style and established itself as the owners of the emblematic Hotel La Residencia which for so long was the jewel in the crown of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group. But anyone who thought that Orient Express, the London based luxury hotel and travel group, were planning a wagon-load of changes, were mistaken. In the words of the President of the Group, Simon Sherwood, who gave an interview to the Bulletin yesterday, they intend to continue with the hard work undertaken by Branson and his team. Sherwood is also convinced that the Virgin tycoon will continue to be a regular guest eventhough his famous logo is no longer on the hotel note-paper. Maintaining the Residencia's “uniqueness” is not just top of Sherwood's list, it's company policy. “Our philosophy is that every hotel should have its own personality. We do not come into an environment and try and impose our will on the hotel. We work with what is there and we do not try and change things because we have a corporate view of the world and our properties. Therefore there will be no major changes at La Residencia.”

Why La Residencia?
“The reason why we were interested in La Residencia is because it had such great character and reflected Deya and Majorca. We will be looking to make some minor changes but that is basically all. The fundamentals are already here.” “Majorca has a reputation as a mass holiday destination, your company owns some of the finest hotels in the world. Were you always planning to come to the island? “A little bit of both. We were certainly interested in Spain and the Balearics. Majorca has some major benefits, our market and the mass tourism market is compatible. Having good access with the important number of flights coming in was an important plus point. But the biggest prize was La Residencia. We came to look at properties with opportunities not just destinations and resorts. But if we didn't feel that the destination was right and if Deya was not special we would not have come. Also, the local authorities are talking protection and the need to preserve the island which is our language. The local authorities appear to realise that there is a need for the more exclusive type of tourism. Mass tourism has an important role to play but you've got massive competition such as Turkey and Greece. Eastern Europe is developing, the Middle East is developing and just to rely on that market would result in one massive fight between competing areas. Some of the over-developed areas of Southern Spain are now paying the price for relying on massive tourism. I think that luxury tourism is a part of Majorca's future and I am glad to see that the local authorities understand this state of affairs. Italy is a good example, you have areas of massive developments and areas, such as the jewels in the crown, which they have protected and maintained. I sense that Majorca is trying to do the same.”

Taking all this into account what are your thoughts of the local government's tourist tax?
“I have to talk from our perspective. I can't talk about how it will hit the two and three star hotels. We don't have any problems with the tax at all, but I comprehend the concerns of some hoteliers. I understand that the island authorities believe that they should have some additional contribution from tourists. The question obviously is how that money is spent. If it is spent well on looking after the island and developing the basic tourism experience then I applaud the effort. I am not totally familiar with what the local authorities are trying to do but the concept is, in my opinion, a good one and I am sure that our guests will be happy to pay. Our hotels across the world are often involved in local charities and environmental projects. We are very much involved in the attempts to save Venice. Taxes of this sort are not unusual and if you have got a lot of tourists coming in you have to think about the environment and the need to protect it. It's not a huge amount of money and I feel that a responsible hotel industry should co-operate and help the local authorities to some extent. If it means protecting the environment then in the long run Majorca will benefit.”

What does Orient Express look for in a resort?
“Protection of the environment is important. Also, the industry has changed a lot over the last 10 to 15 years. Before it was a question of finding a beach and a bar, if you were British it had to serve fish and chips and hamburgers if you were American. Now all this has changed, and even people in the lower end of the market are looking to get more involved and savour local cuisine and explore the area. The environment has to stay very interesting and the market is becoming more cultural. Part of the attraction is the destination itself and we must never lose sight of that. If Majorca wants greater employment and greater revenue it should be moving towards upper scale tourism. A luxury five star hotel employs four times more people per room than one in a lower star bracket. Going up market, to some extent does make good sense.”

Was it difficult getting Richard Branson to sell La Residencia?
“Richard has had strong emotional ties with the hotel and yes I do think it was a difficult decision for him. We will continue to open our arms to him and as you know he was here just a few weeks ago. What he achieved here was fantastic and we want to build on that.”

Sherwood has been meeting the local people of Deya and gave a reception in their honour on Thursday night. Yesterday he was due to meet with local tourism chiefs along with other dignitaries. As regards the future, La Residencia appears to be in safe hands. The island may have lost Sir Richard Branson but in Orient Express Majorca has a good substitute. Sherwood's philosphy will also please the Balearic Government whose attempts so far to persuade hoteliers of the merits of the tourist tax have proved largely unsuccessful.


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