Be it the dirty weekend or a romantic interlude, there are certain getaways where attention to the finer details, and perhaps the use of a pseudonym, is essential. After several failed romantic getaways that included unsightly doilies, sagging mattresses and an unwitting sojourn at a health farm, James and Tamara Lohan knew the situation had to be remedied. In 2003, they launched their own guidebook, under the moniker Mr & Mrs Smith, revealing the finest boutique boltholes, designer dwellings and quaint pieds-à-terre within a sneaky drive from London. Ten years later, they’ve become an authority on global boutique travel, with a suite of nine caress-worthy guidebooks and a website that sees more than 3000 bookings a month.
For the record, in spite of finding themselves under intense caloric scrutiny at that infamous health retreat, the couple were determined to make the best of it. So, in bon vivant defiance, they snuck out for a beer and chips at the local pub.
At the time, in 2002, James’ forte was hosting parties in London nightclubs, while Tamara was an Oxford graduate with a penchant for languages, literature and brand marketing. Neither knew anything about publishing – let alone the world of travel guidebooks. It was also a time when the internet was still in relative infancy as a marketing tool, meaning that if they were going to find the real getaway gems, they’d have to trawl through every guide book, magazine, newspaper and brochure they could get their hands on. “It was Christmas, but we didn’t get any presents in the mail – it was all hotel brochures!” Tamara laughs in retrospect. “We waded through about 1500 brochures, labelling them ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe’, trying to decide whether they were good enough to be part of the collection.”
Once the pair had narrowed the selection down, the next (admittedly enviable) task was to jump in the car and drive around the countryside to experience the shortlisted dwellings for themselves. But the more places they saw, the higher their standards became. And while their initial intention for the book was to narrow it down to 52 properties – one for every weekend of the year – they found they could only faithfully recommend 41. “We were mortified,” Tamara recalls. “We thought we didn’t have a book if we didn’t have those 52 properties. But then we realised that it was the best thing that we could have done, because it was about hand-picking the best and not compromising just to make 52.”
That shrewd, unwavering approach to guide curation is undoubtedly the reason Mr & Mrs Smith has won over the notoriously noncommittal hearts of the modern jetset. Not only has its team of travel savants visited every single pied-à-terre and boutique dwelling that they recommend, but they’ve also scrutinised the minutiae of its design and ambience. Be it cosy reading nooks, endearing old libraries or intimate dining quarters, the charms that make a hotel Mr & Mrs Smith-worthy are those that wrap themselves around your heart, lift the spirit and make you forget about the outside world. “It comes down to the small touches,” James explains. “Things like lighting levels, music, the finishes on the furniture and the thread count on the sheets. It’s very rare that somebody gets all those things right, but the hotel has to have its own identity and feel unique. Style is subjective, but what we try to do is find properties with good taste.”
The other enduring philosophy that has endeared Mr & Mrs Smith to discerning travellers is its commitment to doing only anonymous reviews. Not only does the process allow Mr & Mrs Smith’s guest reviewers (a handpicked cohort of some the world’s most respected tastemakers) the clandestine thrill of anonymity, but it also enables them to avoid the PR spin and discover the nuances for themselves.
“Some guides overwhelm you with so much information that you need a holiday from planning your holiday,” James says. “And it’s not discerning information. What we try to be is like if your best stylish, tasteful friend has come back from a holiday and told you: ‘Do this, stay there, eat here and – by the way – book one of the rooms overlooking the back gardens and get table ten in the corner because it’s lovely and romantic.’ We try to cut back the information to only include stuff that people want to know. Plus, people know that, if we’ve picked our favourite rooms, we’ve actually been there.”
While, these days, the bulk of their business comes from bookings via their website (which launched in 2005), James and Tamara know that people’s inherent attachment to their brand still comes as a result of the guidebooks. “You can’t touch and smell your computer like you can a book,” James laughs. “So it’s nice to still have that tactility where you can really get across the quality of a brand and build a bond with the customers.”
With a following driven by an appreciation for design and aesthetics, that ability to engage the emotional sensibilities of customers through eloquent prose and spectacular photography is invaluable. “It’s nice to have the books
as a kind of showcase,” James continues. “It’s like high fashion – our books are our catwalk collection whereas the website is more of a diffusion range.”
As for the couple themselves, spend a few minutes in their company and you’ll immediately sense a tight bond, mutual respect and a relationship that balances business and pleasure precariously, but successfully. “We’re total role reversals,” James reveals. “I choose the wallpaper and Tamara looks after the technical stuff at home, like making the TV work! And with the business, she runs the technical side of things whereas I’m more on the front end and I’m very into the design and aesthetics side of things.”
The couple admits to challenging moments when they thought of giving up on their venture, but, fortunately, they were thwarted each time by a relentless optimism. “As entrepreneurs, we’re born with too much optimism,” James jokes. “We just never believe it’s going to fail. And if something’s your passion, you can’t help but work hard at it. We’re very fortunate that we’ve built something that we love as much as we did when we first started it.”
They are most proud of managing to run their own global business whilst still finding time to spend with their kids, aged five and two. “On Sunday we go to our local farmers market and the kids have hot chocolate while we sit and have our coffee,” Tamara says of where they find their brief moments of peace. “If we’re not travelling, then we do that religiously.”
Inspired by their growing family, the couple will also soon launch a sister site, Smith & Family, that will allow design savants with kids the opportunity to travel without sacrificing on style or taste.
Having appreciated her own upbringing, Tamara cites her mother as her greatest inspiration. “My mum didn’t have the education that I had, but she was very bright and she started her own business because she had no money,” she says. “She really taught me perspective and about doing things yourself.”
Similarly, James’ words of wisdom are from his father. “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it,” he quotes. “I think that’s a really good philosophy for everyone in life. It isn’t easy – it’s bloody hard work and if you think running your own business is going to give you more freedom, think again. Whatever you do in life, apart from realising that it might be difficult, you really have to love it.”