Economy

Mr & Mrs Smith’s grand adventure: How a humble weekend getaway led to a burgeoning travel empire

Melinda Oliver /

For just one day, 10 years ago, in one London bookstore, the original Mr & Mrs Smith: Hotel Collection UK/Ireland outsold JK Rowling’s infinitely successful fantasy, Harry Potter.

“Waterstones in Piccadilly, that was our claim to fame, move over JK!” says James Lohan, co-founder and chief executive officer of the global boutique and luxury travel booking business, Mr & Mrs Smith.

In 2003, when James and his now wife and business partner, Tamara, were dating, they went on a weekend trip to what they thought would be a stylish, boutique hotel. It had been recommended in a general travel guide.

However, the hotel was not the “boutique” experience they expected.

“Ten years ago luxury was defined very differently to the way luxury is defined now,” says Lohan. “In those days it was very much gold tap luxury, very formal service, very chintzy décor.”

They wanted to spend their weekend breaks in places that were unique, stylish and inspiring, but also relaxing rather than uptight.

Over a meal of meatballs and mash in a Melbourne-laneway restaurant, the UK-based couple recall that they wondered why there was no quality guide to boutique and luxury travel available.

“The internet was still very new, people were still worried about booking their flights on the internet, it was at the very start of that movement to go online,” Tamara says. “The hoteliers were not marketeers, they know how to run a good hotel, but not how to find the global audience that they are after.”

No more “crappy weekends”

Despite having no experience as publishers – James worked in event management and running nightclubs and Tamara in marketing – they decided to create their own book.

“We thought we’ll write a guidebook about it, then I’ll stop taking Tamara away for crappy weekends, I’ll romance her, we’ll get married and have children, and all because of a good book,” James jokes.

The couple drafted their idea – a beautifully designed book featuring a hand-picked selection of 41 of the UK’s best boutique and luxury hotels, with unique imagery by their own photographers, and professional reviews written by anonymous guests.

With encouragement from family and friends, they pitched it to publishers.

But no one took it up.

“They turned us down for various reasons, they hated the stock of paper that we wanted to use, a rough stock rather than glossy stock, which is what they think luxury is,” James says. “We put a membership card in the book, and they said no, you can’t do that – they hated it.”

Rather than despair, the fledgling publishers decided to print it themselves, raising £180,000 through family and friends, and re-mortgaging their house to fund it. “We were just so bloody minded,” James says.

The next challenge was finding a distribution network, but they found that without the backing of a known publisher, booksellers wouldn’t meet with them.

“We found the last independent distributor – they took us on and they said ‘you’ll sell 5000 copies, in a year’, and we said, really? We’ll be buying a caravan, losing our friends and our family probably won’t speak to us!” Tamara says.

The distributor, it turns out, was wrong.

“We sold 20,000 books in the first three months,” James recalls. “We were so certain we had something special that people needed, and we kept that always front and centre when we had the dark times and the challenging times.”

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