American Orient Express turns to agents for clientele

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SEATTLE--American Orient Express, which came under new ownership this year, said it is looking to travel agents to broaden the customer base of its luxury rail product.

Previous owners marketed the trips almost exclusively to non-profit groups, according to the company, based here.

"Before, consumers couldn't access information about our product from agents. Retailers never heard of the American Orient Express because there previously was not too much of an effort to tell them about it," a spokeswom-an for the company said.

But since businessman Henry Hillman bought the company last year, it is developing new itinerar-ies, charter trips and reaching out to agents, she said.

For example, earlier this year, AOE became a preferred supplier of Allied Percival International, Ltd. AOE said it offers 10% commission, or a higher rate for certain consortia, such as Allied.

Until now, almost 70% of the company's business came from groups like clubs, museums and groups of alumni of Ivy League universities and gained its reputation in that market mostly through word of mouth, the spokeswoman said.

But this year, AOE said it is inviting agents on fam trips so they can understand a rail experience of this caliber. AOE compares itself to cruising, with itineraries that include the price of meals, drinks served at dinner, on-board lectures by experts on the destinations, entertainment in the club car replete with baby grand piano and some off-train tours, .

"It really is a carefree vacation," a spokeswoman said. "Once you step on board, everything is really taken care of and it's a more relaxing way to see the country than in a car.The average guest is over age 50. The security and camaraderie of traveling with a group appeals to women traveling alone and older women," she added.

Staff on board the train, which typically carries 80 passengers, address guests by name and let them know that they will cater to all their whims and preferences, she said.

For instance, one guest wrote on the passenger dietary request form--as a joke--that he was on a "strict ribs and chocolate diet," the spokeswoman said.

The first night on board, the chef remembered the comment.

Along with the dinner the guest ordered from the menu, the chef served him a side dish of ribs and chocolate, she said.

Firm's cars are over 40 years old

SEATTLE--The American Orient Express carriages were built between 1948 and 1958 and refurbished in 1989.

The sleeping carriages were built by the Pullman-Standard Co. of Chicago between 1950 and 1956 and are named Paris, Istanbul, Vienna, Washington and Monte Carlo.

The club cars include the New York Observation Car, delivered in 1948 to the New York Central Railroad under the name Sandy Creek. It was placed in service on the 20th Century Limited, which ran between New York and Chicago.

This rail car, dedicated by President Dwight Eisenhower and comedienne Beatrice Lillie, has plush seating and a bay window observation lounge.

The Seattle Piano Club Car was delivered to the Union Pacific Railroad in 1954. The Rocky Mountain Piano Club Car was delivered in 1954 and was originally designed as a 14-section sleeper. The car was rebuilt as a 44-seat coach in 1965.

The Zurich Dining Carriage was delivered to Union Pacific in 1949. The car was originally designed for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. It was built as a 24-seat diner with a 29-seat lounge.

In 1988, these cars underwent mechanical reconstruction and were outfitted with new air conditioning and heating systems, electrical and plumbing systems and added safety features.

After the mechanical and electrical work, the carriages were shipped to Panama City, Fla., for interior reconstruction prior to being introduced as the American-European Express.

The total renovation cost was approximately $1 million per car. The ceilings and the murals in the club cars were painted by Joel Dyer. The walls are made of Honduras mahogany with inlays by Thomas Etheridge and Ernest Brannon.

The faux marble walls are by Jonathan Bond and Gary Fickel.

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