Something for the weekend, Sir?
Richard Hopton talks dirty weekends with James Lohan, founder of boutique hotel guides Mr & Mrs Smith.
The Mr & Mrs Smith hotel guides have now been offering weekenders their inimitable blend of astute advice and mild irreverence for five years. The first guide covered Britain and Ireland and, having sold 100,000 copies, has now been replaced by an updated successor with a brand-new collection of hotels. James Lohan, the ebullient founder of the guides, points out that the Mr & Mrs Smith concept was inspired by the dirty weekend. This is, Lohan maintains, a very British concept, although he says that the decidedly Anglo-Saxon joke embodied in the guides' title was readily understood by Continental hoteliers. In France, he says, guests wishing to retain their anonymity sign in as 'Monsieur et Madame Dupont'; in Italy as 'Signor e Signora Rossi'.
The idea of Mr & Mrs Smith came to Lohan during a miserable weekend away with his now wife, Tamara Heber-Percy, in a hotel on Lake Windermere. Mr & Mrs Smith 'is about going away for the weekend and having fun with your loved one,' as Lohan puts it. The guides' recommendations are offered with 'a bit of fun and irreverence' in mind. Mr & Mrs Smith deliberately discarded the conventional checklists beloved of hotel inspectors to concentrate on the style and ambience on offer; as Lohan puts it, people want to know 'can I fit two in the bath?' or 'is there room for three in the bed?' Thus, the individual entries suggest the appealing rooms, the best table in the restaurant as well as other local attractions: good pubs, art festivals, decent walks and so on.
The reviews are written with a light touch, far removed from the more traditional 'old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy' hotel guides. The entries also preserve the amusing fiction that it is indeed Mr & Mrs Smith themselves who review the hotels. Thus, we read what Mrs Smith thought of the bed linen in one hotel or Mr Smith of the cocktail bar in another. It is also an important part of Mr & Mrs Smith's appeal that the hotels recommended cover a wide range of establishments, to suit different pockets and occasions.
The subject of hotels paying for inclusion in guides is a controversial one; many feel that the payment of a fee comprises a guide's independence. Lohan freely admits that Mr & Mrs Smith charges fee for inclusion, otherwise it would be impossible to make the business pay. However, the guide's objectivity is preserved by the fact that Mr & Mrs Smith decides whether a hotel warrants inclusion – not vice versa – and it is then subject to a rigorous anonymous inspection. Standards are maintained by constant feedback from readers and from the 50,000 Mr & Mrs Smith members. Lohan operates a policy that if three separate complaints are received about a particular hotel, which are considered justified, then the hotel will be excluded from the listings. In five years only three hotels have been expelled, which, Lohan says, vindicates that thoroughness of the selection process.
Mr & Mrs Smith is more than just a guide book to British and Irish hotels, however successful (and total sales have recently topped 200,000 copies). There are two other guides, European Cities and European Coast and Country. The company also has a website, which contains details of 350 hotels worldwide and runs a membership scheme offering discounts, free bottles of champagne and the like to guests. There are three levels of membership, conferring progressively more generous benefits: BlackSmith, SilverSmith and GoldSmith. The hotels benefit from the reputation and reach of the guides, for which they pay Mr & Mrs Smith a booking fee, and the customer is guaranteed the best possible deal, so, as Mr Lohan claims, everone is happy.
The travel sections of bookshops bristle with hotel guides, beguiling the browser with the prospect of hitherto undiscovered gems. Mr & Mrs Smith does not consider itself to be in direct competition with the more traditional hotel guides, such has Johansens. However, Herbert Ypma's Hip Hotels guides compete for the same market, although Lohan is confident that Mr & Mrs Smith has the edge, outselling Hip Hotels in the bookshops.
The rise and rise of Mr & Mrs Smith has coincided with the blossoming of the concept of the boutique hotel. As the introduction to the latest volume of Mr & Mrs Smith says: 'When Mr & Mrs Smith first got together, the label "boutique" was still a young one', now the 'bandwagon is buckling under the weight of would-be boutique boltholes.'
A boutique hotel is easer to recognise than to define, so who better to discuss the notion than Lohan, who has observed them with a beady eye for more than five years, visiting more than 1,000 establishments in that time. For him, the first boutique hotel that 'made a splash' was Babington House in Somerset. It was the first country house hotel that, as he puts it, 'chucked out the chintz and the stuffy staff'. It has been fantastically successful and still enjoys an occupancy rate of 90 per cent or so. And his present favourite? Alex Polizzi's Hotel Endsleigh in the depths of Devon.