TALK: Mr & Mrs Smith CEO James Lohan

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A few “miserable weekends away” 10 years ago were the start of something special for James Lohan and Tamara Heber-Percy, the couple behind the Mr & Mrs Smith boutique hotel guides brand.

“I was trying to impress her and failing miserably by taking her to terrible hotels courtesy of some guidebooks that I tend not to name and shame because a couple of them are still around today,” recalls CEO and co-founder Lohan, 42, of his now wife Heber-Percy.

“We checked into one in the Lake District and it just wasn’t what the book had said it was. I’d been thinking of a little black book for hotels for a long time and I said ‘look, we’ll go and find the best restaurant we can to make up for this terrible hotel’, but obviously it was too late to book and we ended up in Pizza Hut and writing our notes on this fictitious guidebook we’d want as consumers.

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“We started talking about all the things we wanted; I wanted the best rooms to book, know the best table in the restaurant, the best pub for Sunday lunch, things other than golf courses and rock formations on top of hills that guidebooks tend to talk about,” he continues.

“We wanted to know about things we could do together as a couple that would be fun, and we knew we wanted it to be from a couple’s perspective — in a romantic Mr & Mrs Smith type of way, rather than a cheesy candles, chocolate and flowers sort of way.”

At the same time, there was a growing public enthusiasm for home design as retailers such as IKEA gained popularity in the UK, leaving many traditionally fitted-out hotels behind, according to Lohan.

“You’d come to these hotels and they were old and fussy and they didn’t even have duvets back in those days, just sheets with prosthetic-arm coloured rugs on them; trouser presses and hair dryers stuck to the wall; crappy showers and ginger biscuits in wrappers rather than home-cooked or from some local supplier and it was just all a bit naff and still quite expensive. So there really needed to be a design, service and food hotel revolution – and that was the boutique hotel movement as far as we define it.”


GO FIGURE…

Mrandmrssmith.com members:
700,000
Unique visits per month:
700,000
Number of hotels:

900
Firm established:
2003
Website launched:
2005


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The good, the bad and the ugly
A decade on and more than 1000 hotel stays later, Lohan says it has become easier to tell the good boutique from the bad, and only the best make it into the Mr & Mrs Smith collection.

“In the early days I was a lot more hesitant in my decision making but now I reckon I can tell from the sign outside whether it’s going to be a boutique hotel. You can tell from the way you’re greeted when you walk into the lobby and by the style of the room.

“The service is hugely important and I think that’s something that’s really evolved over the years, thank goodness. Service used to be quite snooty and formal — I hate that, I like people to talk to me as a human, I want to have attentive service but I don’t want someone to overbearingly, constantly ask me if my food’s alright because that annoys me,” he says.

However, Lohan says design is the “number one” element of the boutique-hotel experience.

“Design is the biggest evolution in hotels, and service is the next biggest thing — the style of service. And then the formality of the hotel has changed considerably as well. We’re seeing even more in terms of the authenticity of the hotel experience and customers wanting to be closer to the hotel, they don’t want to just feel like a guest, they want to feel part of it.”

“We definitely went through a stage of being a bit flash and bling and a bit shiny, a bit wacky and a bit crazy and I think we’ve come a bit back to earth now and we’re looking for this authentic luxury.

The Pig in the Wall’s take on authentic luxury is a favourite of Lohan’s. The Hampshire boutique hotel is differentiating itself on the provenance of its food.

“They’ve got a kitchen with a ‘live garden’, so they keep all the pigs there and you can eat them. They only serve food sourced from close to the hotel so the whole experience is so authentic. It’s a move onwards, rather than just being a style property, it’s about what a property says. What are its values, its morals, what’s it all about?” he says.

“A lot of hoteliers have pulled up to base-camp boutique level one, so they’ve sort of got to get to the next level and what is the next level and where does it go from there and that’s when it becomes interesting.

“Lots of hoteliers think they have a boutique hotel if they put a bowl of apples in reception and some feature wallpaper up, but that’s not enough for us anymore,” Lohan asserts.

So aside from outstanding service and a desirable design, there is not a Mr & Mrs Smith checklist for what makes a hotel boutique, but there are certain “touch points” to look out for.

“So many things can make or break a hotel experience, from terrible lighting to uncomfortable beds; there are tonnes of things that can go wrong. They could be doing everything well, but there’s nothing worse for me than going to a beautiful hotel and they play some terrible techno music while I’m chewing my cornflakes, it ruins my morning”.

“There are, however, lots of quick fixes you can make on places that don’t quite get that seamless thoughtful experience, and it’s hard to do as well, it’s a bloody difficult discipline running a hotel —you’re so reliant on so many staff members, a lot of them are quite junior,” he adds.

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Can’t buy me love
Lohan is quick to point out that Mr & Mrs Smith is not a list of the most luxurious hotels, but rather a collection of those with charm and character.

“The properties can’t buy their ways into the collection, but they do pay us to be in it — we’re not a charity so we visit all the hotels and we pretty much work out whether they’re right for us on that visit,” explains Lohan.

Each of the around 900 properties listed have been invited into the collection having been visited anonymously and reviewed by one of the group’s “tastemaker” couples. These critics are “life shapers”, he says, “journalists, artists, DJs, restaurateurs, chefs”, a whole host of people as well as a sprinkling of stars including Stella McCartney, Dita Von Teese and Raymond Blanc.

“It’s not about stars and diamonds; the property can be £100 a night and we’re not ageist, so we have 25 year olds going away on their first dirty weekend together through to 75 year olds having whatever wedding anniversary they’re celebrating.

We’re the first people to put a little B&B in Wales next to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford. We’re recognising the place on the strength of what they deliver for the price.

“We still curate our hotels exactly the same way as when Tamara and I went out 10 years ago and did all of it ourselves, we haven’t compromised that in any shape or form which makes our collection more special.”

While the goals of Mr & Mrs Smith have remained true to their origins scribbled down over a pizza, as the boutique hotel industry has evolved, the company has moved on from a collection of guidebooks, to the mrandmrssmith.com portal and booking engine launched in 2005, and has continued to expand to include self-catering and family-friendly stays.

Hotels in the collection get the Smith “stamp of approval”, says Lohan: “If you’re a boutique hotel and you’re not in Mr & Mrs Smith, the consumer will wonder why. That’s one big reason to be in and the other is that we’re here in partnership with our hotels, a lot of these hotels are tiny, they don’t have any marketing budget or the marketing knowhow or global reach we have so we can expose these wonderful small properties often to a global audience.

“We’ve also launched some big partnerships, we’re working with British Airways now which has been a fantastic partnership launched several months ago. Three hundred of our properties are available as part of BA packages now. We’ve got another [partnership] that’s even bigger launching in September too,” Lohan reveals. “So we’re getting to an age now where we’re trying to globalise and do some interesting extensions to keep the brand mojo going”.

With that, it is time for Lohan and family to rush off for a trip to celebrate 10 years of Mr & Mrs Smith many miles away from the company’s birthplace in a dodgy hotel in the north of England: “We’re going off to Singapore and onto our offices in Melbourne, then off to Sydney and then another holiday in Berlin and back via Hong Kong so we’re taking the whole entourage, kids and everything”.


What’s hot: Lodge in Oz
There’s an amazing hotel called Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island in Australia. It’s the most incredible location with a strong sense of place, a beautiful design and the perfect juxtaposition of being in the middle of nowhere and being in this stunningly-designed property. I’m just smiling and thinking I would like to live here. We’re very spoilt; we’ve been to many incredible places but that one sticks in the memory.

What’s not: Scary hammam man
I once had a very terrorising hammam massage in one of our Marrakesh properties, which I still wake up shouting about in the middle of the night. It was all a bit too naked for my liking. It felt like I was being beaten up — quite terrifying. I think I was a hammam virgin until I’d been to this one. This huge guy turned up in a loincloth and didn’t speak English and beat me up for about an hour; I couldn’t talk for about three hours afterwards.

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