We all know how important a hotel is for an unforgettable trip. With stylish hotels in over 120 countries, Mr & Mrs Smith has been uncovering the best places to stay for more than a decade. With the release of their recently published book, “The World’s Sexiest Bedrooms”, we took the time to chat to the lovely founding couple behind Mr and Mrs Smith, Tamara and James Lohan.
For those who aren’t familiar with Mr and Mrs Smith, can you share with us what exactly is the concept?
T: We are a travel club where you can find and book the world’s best boutique hotels, villas and now experiences. We are getting into cool country tours that we are calling ‘side stories’. So you can now book your hotel and book your experiences online.
How did the idea to start Mr and Mrs Smith come about? What prompted you to create this curated hotel boutique business?
T: For us, we were going to so many disappointing hotels that really spurred us on to create the very first book and business. We are all so busy and working hard, and your holiday time is important. When you arrive at a hotel and you get to the room it usually goes one of two ways. You either get really excited where you almost want to jump on the bed or you look around and think to yourself, “I’d rather just be back at home.” It’s that sense of disappointment that is just so awful. It can be a number of different things—the mood, lighting, smell of the room, itchy blankets on the bed or rubbish bathroom products. We are looking for rooms that put a smile on your face when you arrive. This one weekend we just had a particularly bad weekend and found ourselves sitting in a restaurant making a list of everything we wish was in a guidebook. We wrote down everything from what the Egyptian thread count was, the perfect martini – just all the details that make up a great stay. This is where it all came together.
J: We also wanted it short form. Back then guides were either underwhelming in their content or overwhelming where you needed a week just to read it. We just wanted to know the best room to book, the best table in the restaurant to book, what the views is like, whether you can fit two in the bath? All the things that make a stay really special. We weren’t professional writers, but we were a frustrated couple that felt what we were really looking for in a review wasn’t available. So we came back and started to talk to our friends and they all agreed it would be really great—no one was doing this. No one was giving insider tips and tricks. The world didn’t need another luxury guidebook—we wanted to focus on things in hotels that are about customer service and we wanted a name that reflected this as well.
What does it take to qualify to be a Mr and Mrs Smith hotel? Who are the tastemakers behind the curated listings?
J: Curation is at the heart of what we do. You can’t even trust most friends with recommendations. When someone recommends something, it depends on their own reference point—whether it’s going to be right or wrong for you. We felt it was really important to have experts. But we were not trained in this—we didn’t go to a hotel inspector school or anything like that. We kind of learned our craft on the job. What we decided to do was to use tastemakers. We send couples away to go and experience these places. As a single guest, you don’t really experience a hotel the same way as a couple does. But we don’t have a list or a tick box. We’re quite shallow in the sense that it needs to be stylish. This doesn’t mean it has to be modern—it can be classic or contemporary, but it has to have style. Some of our favorite hotels are classic hotels, like the Cliveden which is a real old classic in Berkshire just outside of London. Secondly, we really look for those sort of personal touches that you get. Most of our boutique hotels are owner-run, so it’s the generosity of the host, how well they look after you, how thoughtful they are – these things make it stand out. We also look at the mood and atmosphere of a place as well.
T: We teach the curators to be aware of their senses. When they walk into the lobby, what’s the first thing they see? Is it someone smiling at you? What are they wearing? Is it appropriate? Do they make you feel welcome? What can you smell? We look at the quality of the fixtures and the fittings. We check everything on the beds as well. All the details – but there isn’t a set tick box, because every single one of the hotels, they are all different, so you cant have a tick box that would apply to all. We first go and meet the owners, chat to them, get to know them, get details, and then we send an anonymous couple away to check it and protect the integrity of the place. We look at the service, how good the food, and such. Every hotel has to have something special to it.
What are the origins of the name – Mr and Mrs Smith?
T: There is a story behind it. It’s a British thing that was happening just after the war. If you went away with someone and were out of wedlock, you could be in love with someone but not married, or you might be having a fling, you would sign into the hotel as “Mr and Mrs Smith” so no one knew whom you were with.
J: It’s a tryst. It’s what us Brits call a dirty weekend. It’s a nod to a dirty weekend away.
From the coffee table book to an international boutique hotels platform. What has been the best part about building the business over the last 15 years?
J: When customers genuinely come to you and tell you how great their stay or honeymoon was and I know we have helped facilitate that, that is the nicest feeling. For all the lovely things written about us, it’s when the customers write to us unprompted – that’s when I just go, wow that’s awesome.
T: I’m the almost the reverse, I mean, of course that’s great, but for me the joy is in creating something that actually works. When I look at the bookings going through the system that my team sees, and I see over 1 million visitors a month – I look at that and I’m like, wow, we actually built that.
What was the most challenging part of the business and how did you overcome it?
J: There are so many challenging aspects to running a business, and the more entrepreneurs/business owners you meet, you realize the challenges are all very similar just facing them in different environments that you work in. It’s everything from the initial idea and stress testing it through to building it up and getting people to even hear about you. Getting your idea up and running, getting it funded and then try to grow it, it’s a difficult thing to do
T: Globalization, we made some mistakes along the way, we went global way to quickly. The team is the best thing about the business but also the most challenging to get right. To get the team right, to have them working at their best capacity.
What’s it like to run a business with your partner?
T: You are sharing the highs but you are also sharing the lows. It is good because you come from a position with a huge amount of trust and respect. It works well for us as we do things in different areas. So James is focused more on the marketing, plans side, I stay behind the scenes with the tech. It works well because we respect what each other do. There aren’t a lot of people who get to see their spouse in the work environment, which is kind of cool.
J: Its really important, for any partnership, whether your married or not, you have to have complimentary skill sets for it to work. If you are too similar, you are going to argue all the time. Its kind of that opposites attract is really true in business relationships. For us, it’s great to come home and know if you have had an amazing day and have a glass a wine and talk about that.
What do you think the modern day traveler is seeking in regards to a hotel experience?
J: The whole personalization aspect and experience, hotels are really getting better at delivering that. In the old days, everything was done out the back of house, you didn’t see anything; you couldn’t even see into the kitchen, now you can eat in kitchens because they have a chefs table. Or you wouldn’t just talk to the sommelier but you can now go down to the wine cellar and choose it with the sommelier. I think this interaction between the hotel and the customer is becoming more open and it makes us feel more at home in the right way, I mean, its got to be better than my home otherwise what’s the point of going away! But making you feel relaxed quickly is a real skill of a hotel these days. Hotels that can welcome you very quickly without signing a ton of forms get you into your room and the room feels very intuitive, the room makes sense. Good hotels are reaching out to their guest better.
What are the upcoming travel trends for 2019?
J: November in Iceland is still huge. We have two amazing properties there. One is Deplar Farm, owned by a couple. It’s almost like a private house hotel. You go there and you get looked after, as if you were in your very wealthy aunt’s house. They have their own thermal heated lagoon. Colorado is great as well, a great mix of experiences and activities. In China there is a great building hotel in world heritage sites, Tsing Bu, so keep an eye out for those openings.
T: In Europe it’s about the secondary islands- the ones you may not have heard of, especially in Greece and Italy. Pantelleria, just off the coast of Sicily. Folegandros, Naxos, all these little tiny islands. Lots of new hotel openings. In England, there is a new place called Heckfield Place – it’s been 8 years in the making as they wanted to make sure they got it right.
What was the idea behind creating the world’s sexiest bedrooms? How did you decide who would make the cut?
J: Well you know our mysterious rouse; it’s all about the dirty weekend. It’s a return to what we do. It’s a bit a rock and roll. We are the first people to recognize that people aren’t in hotels playing scrabble together, it’s about couples going away together and having fun.
These bedrooms are all bedrooms you can go to. Everything in this book is good; you could just open it up on any page and go there! The photography was all done by Polly Brown, she went to every property to take a photo. It was a year in the making and Polly was shooting form November to March. She went to all 35 hotels.
What’s coming up next for Mr & Mrs Smith?
T: The one thing we are working on right now is the side stories. The experiences. Its kind of launched already, we have some experiences in London and Paris already but we are exploding that around the world in the next 12 months.
J: We are really looking for real insiders who know something about something, whether its food, art, culture, and design- whatever it is, and taking our clients on tours. When you come and stay in Hong Kong, who’s going to be the best person to take you around. We like this idea of putting experiences into our trips now. We have a concierge service that looks after our top customers who look after everything. We just want to continue to inspire our members to discover extraordinary places with the people they love, It’s why we get out of bed in the morning.