Mr & Mrs Smith is the leading boutique hotel booking website in the UK. Established in 2003 when co-founder James Lohan realised there were no good boutique hotel guides on the market, it’s now a household name among savvy travellers. Read on for more history of the company, where it’s headed next, and James’ recommendations for the best pubs in London.
Can you tell us a little bit about why you started the company, and how you have seen it progress over the years?
The idea for Mr & Mrs Smith came when I took my girlfriend Tamara (we’re now married) away for a weekend in the Lake District, but the hotel wasn’t anything like what we’d been led to expect from the guidebook we’d used. It was really disappointing, all chintz and pelmets and Corby trouser presses. We realised there wasn’t a boutique hotel guide book out there that we could trust, so we decided to create our own. Since we published our first guidebook in 2003, we grew to become an online booking service in 2005, and we now have more than 900 hotels all over the world in our collection. In the last few years, we’ve opened offices in New York, Melbourne and Hong Kong, too.
You have a new site in beta, Smith & Family. Can you talk about what makes it different from the original Mr & Mrs Smith concept?
Mr & Mrs Smith is 10 years old this year, and the result of all those romantic weekends away has been lots of ... little Smiths. We felt the time was right to develop the brand and grow with our customers. Tamara and I now have two children and although what we look for in a hotel in terms of design, feel and personality hasn’t changed, our needs as a family are obviously very different to when there were just the two of us. The concept behind the Smith & Family collection is the same as Mr & Mrs Smith – all hotels are personally road-tested to ensure they merit the Smith stamp of approval – it’s just that for Smith & Family, our reviewers are all parents who travel with children in tow. Each hotel has of course been selected because it’s great for the kids, but it must also offer something special for adults too, such as a great restaurant or spa, so we all get a few treats during our time away.
Apparently, you’re about to become the new Farrow & Ball. Can you shed some light on that?
Ha. Not exactly, but there’s some truth to that. I love any business idea that’s solution-based, and a company came to us with an idea for an innovative new concept in paint. On the back of that, we’re launching our own paint range, inspired by the places we’ve seen over our 10 years in travel. It’s due to launch pretty soon but that’s probably as much as I can say at the moment!
Where else do you think the Smith empire will expand in the future?
Interiors is a logical move for us, so we’re looking at other initiatives, including a bed linen range. One day I think Tamara and I will set up our own hotel, but it’s one step at a time for now.
What makes London an appealing place for entrepreneurs?
There’s an energy about London that I’ve always loved, and for entrepreneurs that’s exciting and motivating. It’s a great place to ‘do business’ and you should be able to connect to anyone you need to to make your company a success from a business-to-business perspective. It’s also smaller than you think; once you’re networked, your idea (if it’s good) really can get noticed. If you can get Londoners to adopt/buy your product, I reckon you can take it anywhere – crack the capital and you're well on your way.
How does travel fit into your schedule – are you constantly on the road finding new hotel properties and opening international offices or are you firmly rooted in your London offices?
Tamara and I still travel regularly: it’s a really important part of what we do, as it’s essential that we’re familiar with the hotels in our collection. We add new ones every month, so there’s always somewhere to see. Having said that, it would be impossible for the two of us to personally visit them all, so we have expert teams dedicated to finding the latest boutique properties all over the world. Our office is in Chiswick (we live around the corner) and we’re still very much involved in the business full-time. Plus, now that we have Tom and Alexandra (our kids), there’s plenty to keep us occupied here!
What makes the perfect weekend break?
There’s a phrase we like to bandy about at Smith HQ: ‘Spontaneity is all in the planning’, and that starts by booking your perfect boutique hotel in good time. I can’t tell you how many last-minute calls we get. Our hotels are often destinations in their own right – you can't just pick up the phone and expect to get into Babington House next weekend. Early bookers also get the best choice of rooms – and a room with a view is number one on my list. After that, for me, great food and a brilliant spa are the next essentials. I make sure I book treatments well in advance (or you end up with the lunchtime slots when you’re either full or starving), and I recommend saying it’s a special occasion when booking a restaurant so you secure a decent table.
If you are looking to escape London for a few hours, heading to the countryside for a nice lunch or a long walk, where do you tend to go?
We live in West London so tend to head out of the city in that direction; although with the children, we’d usually plan to stay longer than a few hours to make the car packing worth it! It’s hard to beat the Cotswolds but we also love the West Country. The Talbot Inn in Somerset is a lovely pub with rooms – it does an excellent roast, as does The Beckford Arms in Wiltshire. If it were just a Sunday lunch not too far out of town, we might head to The Hinds Head in Bray or The Leatherne Bottel down by the river in Goring-on-Thames.
Finally, where are your favourite London haunts? As a family man, are you rooted in West London or do you still venture across to the ‘edgy east’?
We tend to stay mainly in West London, but I do like to venture east when I can, and regularly go that way for meetings, so I make the most of it and stay out for dinner. We recently tried Mark Hix’s Tramshed in Shoreditch, which was a really fun experience and something we’d never get in Chiswick! If I’m looking for something new in London, I turn to Great Little Place for inspiration– it helps keep me in-the-know!
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