Forget your cookie-cutter chain hotels. Mr & Mrs Smith know where it’s at. The website is renowned for its credibility in suggesting the best boutique hotels and has been up and running for 10 years. Its founders – frequent travellers James & Tamara Lohan – recently visited Australia to celebrate a full fabulous decade in the business of world travel and accommodation.
Interview by Antonino Tati.
Congratulations on reaching the 10 Year Anniversary of Mr & Mrs Smith – quite an achievement in the competitive boutique hotel industry. What would you say are the key ingredients that have seen the business grow from strength to strength?
We’ve always protected the integrity of our brand. In 10 years, we have not wavered in the way we curate and maintain our hotel collection. A Smith team member visits each and every hotel, and we then send a couple to review them anonymously – this builds trust with our customers, who come back to us again and again. We’re not just online, either: we’re so proud of our Travel Team, our in-house experts who are just a phone call away to help plan and book your next holiday. And finally, we feel very fortunate to continue to thrive on word-of-mouth recommendations. I think what unites all this is the fact that we started out by thinking about what we wanted from a hotel stay as guests – we came to everything with a consumer’s perspective – and we’ve done our best to maintain that way of looking at things over the last decade.
Boutique hotels are your specialty. Why do you think there’s been exponential growth in the popularity of boutique hotels over recent years? Are travellers and accommodation seekers getting tired of seeing the same old patterns in design and service of the chain hotels?
In a word, yes. Over the last 10 years, hotels have started to recognise that people don’t fit into neat compartments: they want inspiring, individual and interesting experiences, not classic cookie-cutter offerings. Hotels that don’t keep up with this trend suffer – you can often find them on deal sites across the world as a result. Even the big chains have finally woken up to this: they’re starting to create boutique brands to meet this demand. But independent hotels will always be one step ahead, because they’re designed and run by creatives, not corporations.
Why did you go with the – well, let me just say it – the rather common name Mr & Mrs Smith – when the hotels recommended by your business are clearly anything but common? I suppose tongue was being firmly planted in cheek there?
It’s an irreverent nod towards the idea of the ‘naughty weekend’ away. In the UK, we have a risqué tradition of checking into hotels as ‘Mr & Mrs Smith’ on amorous escapes, in order to stay anonymous. Since our founding aim is to find and recommend the most romantic trips for couples, the name fits perfectly and sums up our brand personality and sense of humour.
You recently released an app that allows users to send ‘hints’ to their dearly beloved, reminding them that a lovely vacation might be due. Has there been good user response to the app? How nifty a social tool would you say it is?
It launched around Valentine’s Day – a timely reminder that for many reasons, people are not spending enough quality time together on romantic escapes. The app allowed users to share cheeky one-liners and inspiring images via Facebook to prod their partner into action. Let’s be honest – we all need a hint occasionally. Be spontaneous!
Is it a very long process selecting appropriate hotels to be a part of the Mr & Mrs Smith portfolio?
Yes – we personally visit every single property and really try to get under the skin of the place. We want to give our customers insider tips on the best room to book, the top table in the restaurant, what they might want to wear – not just list the facilities. We then send a stylish couple away to review the hotel anonymously – from writers and chefs to artists, architects and journalists, they are tastemakers, the people who shape our social lives. Some of our past reviewers have included fashion designer Stella McCartney, Sydney Theatre Company co-directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, and burlesque star Immodesty Blaize. If their experience is positive, the hotel can join our collection. Our members keep us posted on the hotels by writing reviews on our guestbook. It’s our version of Tripadvisor, except they’ve actually booked the hotel through us.
Would you say you’ve experienced stays at many of these hotels yourselves?
We have personally stayed in around half the collection, and we’re slowly but surely working our way through the other half. It’s hard to keep track of our favourites, our list keeps changing!
What are three key criteria that might see a boutique hotel make it into the Mr & Mrs Smith portfolio?
It’s a particular mix of style, service and that special wow-factor that’s sometimes difficult to put into words. It could be a fantastic restaurant, an amazing spa, a special building or location – it’s hard to define. We look for originality in design, the generosity of the host, and the quirky little touches that you keep talking about long after you’ve come home. Some of our most impressive hotels worldwide conjure a sense of place and tell a story – the architecture and design of Southern Ocean Lodge in Australia, Jade Mountain in St Lucia and Vigilius Mountain Resort in Italy really work with their natural environments, which is a big part of why they are showstoppers. It’s not about luxury, by any means – you’re as likely to find a tiny rural B&B in our collection as you are a big-city grand dame. It’s more about the creativity and character: they are what make a place ‘Smith’.
And what is a ghastly ‘no-no’ that stands out a mile away that would see you certainly not considering a hotel for your books?
A sign in the driveway saying ‘Coaches welcome’ or ‘Conference delegates, this way’.
Whilst you’re in Australia, will you be looking at potential contenders to go into the Mr & Mrs Smith files?
Our Australia trip has been about celebrating our 10-year anniversary, staying in some of the places we haven’t visited yet, such as QT in Sydney. We’ll also be checking out a couple of new contenders in Bali too.
I trust you’ve seen a few of our boutique hotels, perhaps even stayed in one or two of them. What is a point of difference that you find charming about Australian boutique hospitality?
Australian boutique hotels are up there with some of the best in the world. Melbourne is a city with such a distinct personality; both interstate and international visitors want to experience that first hand. It’s interesting to see the differences in Australian boutique hospitality – we’ve noticed that the food offering plays a bigger role, and places such as Royal Mail Hotel or Lake House in Victoria pride themselves on that. They’ve become destination hotels because of it. The Australian hotels have even been nice to us despite the cricket score – true professionals!
To view the expansive portfolio of Mr & Mrs Smith Hotels visit www.mrandmrssmith.com or click on either image above.