In the latest of a series of interviews focused on individuals with a powerful sense of purpose, William Ham Bevan talks to Mr & Mrs Smith CEO James Lohan about shaking up the hotel world.
As one half of the couple behind the Mr & Mrs Smith hotel guide, 39-year old James Lohan is a travel guru for the 21st century. The original book, published in 2003, was a revelation in both form and content: a beautifully photographed coffee-table volume, featuring a portfolio of Britain’s coolest places to spend an intimate weekend. Since then, Mr & Mrs Smith has grown into a global brand, with a hotel reservations service, a range of merchandise and a 90,000-strong membership programme.
For all that, the guidebook’s beginnings were remarkably pragmatic. Lohan and his girlfriend Tamara Heber-Percy- now his wife- had endured a dreary break in substandard accommodation, and decided to spare others the experience. The boutique hotel boom was just beginning, but had failed to find its way into existing travel literature.
“I figured that there was a huge demand for this new breed of hotels, but no guidebook for them,” he says. “That’s when I came up with the idea that we should do our own.”
Lohan’s original instinct still informs the decisions as to which establishments find their way into the books. “In hotels, elegance is down to what the customer sees as elegance,” he says. “But to me, it’s where someone has delivered what they said they would deliver in an effortless, uncompromising and passionate manner. It’s everything to do with the experience- from the welcome, to whether I can control heating and lighting, to whether there’s a good bed, with Egyptian cotton sheets.”
Before starting Mr & Mrs Smith, Lohan had already proved himself adept at identifying trends. His first company, Atomic, promoted some of London’s most talked-about club nights, and he was soon overseeing parties, launches and promotions for top worldwide brands. He then co-founded the White House bar and members’ club in Clapham, south London, just as the neighbourhood was in transition from anonymous suburb to a hot spot for sociable young professionals. He says:”Selfishly, all the businesses I’ve been involved with have been about me, and what I was into at the time. I worked with what I found fascinating: nightclubs, restaurants, then hotels.”
The early inspiration for Lohan’s serial entrepreneurship came from close to home. “My father was a great influence, because he always ran his own companies. I remember when I was nine or 10, helping him by watering the plants or taking mail to the post office. I recall thinking there was a buzz around the office, and that this was something I’d like to do.”
He also ascribes his success to a dogged determination to prove naysayers wrong- as happened when he was first punting the concept of Mr & Mrs Smith to publishers. “We tried to find one and couldn’t, so we published it ourselves. Then we couldn’t find a distributor. Eventually we found the only company left that could distribute the book, and had the huge challenge of persuading them to take it on.
“They tried to let us down gently, saying we wouldn’t sell more than 5,000 copies over three or four years if we were lucky. I told them I disagreed, and managed to bring them around. And we sold 20,000 in the first three months. They were absolutely gobsmacked.”
Most important to him, though, is the approval of the customers who buy the guides, book hotels through Mr & Mrs Smith, or sign up for membership. “There is nothing better than public confirmation that you’re doing something right,” he says. “I remember selling my first ticket to a club night and thinking, someone has actually bought into this, and it’s going to happen. It’s a great feeling.”
And however large the brand may become, the publication of that first book will always be a source of particular pride. He says: “I clearly remember unwrapping the book, and taking it up to the office’s roof terrace. I just sat there and poured over it.
“If I looked at it now, I’d think there were a lot of things wrong with it; but we got a hell of a lot right. The best thing was that it caused so much disruption on the bookshelves, and shook up the hotel world. That will always give me a great deal of satisfaction”.