Tamara Heber-Percy, co-founded boutique hotel collection Mr & Mrs Smith with husband James Lohan. As owner and CTO she scours the world for great hotels. We asked her about about starting a business, juggling work and family life and what travel trends to watch out for.
At Heathrow Express we like to celebrate doing things that bit smarter. Each month we seek out someone who really exemplifies this approach to work and life and we ask them some questions. This month: Tamara Heber-Percy
You've set up a great business - do you think people are born entrepreneurial or is it something they can learn?
I believe it’s something you can learn and anyone can be an entrepreneur. It's difficult to create a business that challenges the norm. Sometimes you need a creative spark – but you don't always have to break boundaries.
How did Mr & Mrs Smith start?
We published the first Mr & Mrs Smith guidebook in 2003 when boutique hotels were in their infancy. There were the originals – like Babington House and Blakes in the UK – but nothing like the variety there is now. James (my husband and co-founder) and I found it tricky to discover unique hotels for our own weekends away, so we wrote our own guide.
How did the business develop from book publishers to travel agents?
The books were doing well, and hoteliers would ring us to say, ‘Great news, another guest said they found the hotel in your guidebook!’ Our members were asking us to go online and we needed to build a more sustainable business. Once you’ve sold a book, you can’t sell another until it’s written and printed, so it made sense to increase our services and handle bookings too. We moved online in 2005 and have grown from there.
You’re quite picky about the hotels you partner with. What do you look for and what takes a hotel from good to great?
We want our hotels to feel special and connected to their destination; so no anonymous chains. Style is important. We choose hotels that are inspiring and design-led, but not gimmicky. They should feel sexy and glamorous – places you could happily hole up in for a few days. But our hotels also need to be friendly and unfussy: no bowing and scraping from the staff, but enough attention to detail to lift the experience above the ordinary. Also ¬– and this is vital – the hotel must be worth the price it charges.
You have expanded internationally. How has that been and what’s your favourite city to work in?
I love New York. James and I opened an office there in 2010 and go a couple of times a year to work – we love seeking out new bars and restaurants. It’s not easy cracking a new market (especially communicating with teams in different time zones) but growing our business internationally is a big focus for us. We also have commercial and marketing support in Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore.
You and James run the business together – what’s the secret to making that work?
James and I work on very different parts of the business. James leads the brand and communications, while I head up the technical side, booking systems and web development. We agree on the important things, and while we have different approaches we share a vision and passion for the brand we’ve built. It can be difficult to separate work and home life, particularly when you work in travel, but the children help make sure we don't talk shop too much at home!
What travel trends are hot at the moment?
Our customers increasingly want to try something new when they travel, so there’s a trend for hotels that offer experiences like cocktail making or cookery classes. Hotels are becoming more like homes too. Ett Hem in Sweden is a fantastic property that’s decorated like a quietly stylish house, but with enough privacy so it feels exclusive. Business travellers increasingly want to stay somewhere with personality too; travelling for work can be lonely, so finding somewhere that feels welcoming is important.
What’s next for Mr & Mrs Smith?
We’re continuing to build our standalone Smith & Family collection and are re-launching our website in the next few months with a new look, a more intuitive search function and a seamless customer journey.
What’s the secret to thinking smarter and being creative?
Challenge what you do: look at everything with a critical eye and surround yourself with the best people you can afford. Ultimately though, success is often down to sheer hard graft!
How much do you travel now?
We travel less now that we have two children, but we’re still away about once a month. I'm keen to drive the coast of California later this year and am desperate to visit a property we work with on Big Sur called Post Ranch Inn. I still get serious wanderlust, but we’re keen to keep the children grounded so we hired a caravan on the south coast of England for Easter!
How has your travel style changed over the past 10 years?
Now we have a family, what we need from a hotel has changed – but what we want hasn’t. We still look for somewhere stylish with great service and if we’re travelling as a family, it's got to be as great for the kids as for the grown-ups. That’s why we launched Smith & Family.
What have been the best innovations in travel you have seen recently?
Some travel apps, such as instant translation and trip planning tools, are incredible. But the biggest innovation has got to be the sharing economy and Airbnb. It's opened up the market and inspired a new generation to travel.
Are there any innovations you would like to see?
I’d like our offering to be fully device-agnostic: so what you see at mrandmrssmith.com is exactly the same on a mobile, tablet or desktop. We’re working on that!
What are your secrets to a good trip and what do you always take with you?
Always leave plenty of time. And I always pack a four gang plug so that we don’t argue over who gets to charge their iPad. I am hugely loyal to my Elemis eye cream – it comes everywhere with me. And when it’s freezing outside I keep stocked up on Kiehl's Ultimate Strength Hand Salve too; it’s amazing.
To see the hotel collection go to the Mr & Mrs Smith website.
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