“Mr and Mrs Smith” might be the check-in name of choice for lovers on a clandestine getaway, but English couple James and Tamara Lohan are no Dodi and Diana. As the parents of two young children, they are all about good, clean family fun – done very elegantly, of course. And the company has even expanded to include Smith & Family, which focuses on family-friendly hotels.
This is not to say that they haven’t had their share of raunchy weekends. Such outings were the reason the company was started. James was the party boy, literally, producing club nights and flashy events for an international clientele. He was also co-founder of a restaurant and members’ club.
Oxford graduate Tamara specialised in business development and later went on to run a bespoke matchmaking agency. As a dating couple, they found themselves constantly misled by guidebooks and glossy brochures about places that were far from romantic.
Determined that something must be done for everybody else who just wants naughty trysts sans scratchy sheets, gaudy carpets and other dodgy surprises, they self-published the first Mr & Mrs Smith hotel guide in 2003 with £180,000 gathered from friends, family, and through re-mortgaging their house – and sold 25,000 copies of it within the first three months.
Fast forward 10 years, and Mr & Mrs Smith has become an international entity with a multi-million turnover and offices in Melbourne, New York and, most recently, Hong Kong. The business has also grown from publishing guidebooks to providing online hotel-booking services. There is even a gamut of Mr & Mrs Smith merchandise, spanning music compilations to a range of paints – just in case you fancy a splash of “the rich yellows of a Keralan spice market” or the “soft stone tones of Edinburgh New Town” at home.
Despite the enormity of their empire, the Lohans are still involved hands-on. While there are about six persons around the world reviewing the hotels – and a curatorial committee has recently been set up – they remain the tastemakers behind the Mr & Mrs Smith collection of hotels.
And, when you have visited and reviewed more than a thousand hotels – as James has – you do get harder to please. “Once you’ve seen an Egg Bath, it’s an Egg Bath,” he moans about the designer bathtub.
Tamara jests: “Staying at home having curry while watching TV is holiday for us!” And, on the odd occasion, they check into bread-and-butter English pubs just for the heck of it.
That said, the changing outlook of the boutique-hotel scene continues to present James with surprises. While the Lohans have a great appreciation of design, and are absolute fans of hotelier and interior-designer Kit Kemp – one half of the duo behind rustic-yet-regal, quirky-yet-stately establishments such as Crosby Street Hotel in New York, and Charlotte Street Hotel in London – it not just aesthetics that impresses them.
“A trend – perhaps not so new, but which we particularly enjoy, are live kitchen gardens,” enthuses James.
Tamara says: “With consumers putting greater emphasis on the provenance of what one is eating, many hotels (in the UK) use produce sourced from within a small radius. This has also extended to kitchen gardens – where the establishments would grow herbs, vegetables and fruit used in the dishes, and now live kitchen gardens, where they also rear livestock.”
James roars: “So you can pet a pig and then have him for sausage! And it’s just quaint to read a menu that says that you will be having ‘pigs from our garden’.”
Indeed, a return-to-basics detail can be luxurious, even to the design-conscious generation. By recognising boutique establishments of different styles and functions, appealing to different demographics, the Lohans see themselves as redefining luxury: from that which was “a bit snoozy, formal, gold tab” to one that is characterised by a human touch.
It’s not everybody who possesses the right touch, though. “With the boutique-hotel movement, there were people who thought they could build something just by whitewashing a whole place, painting a robin egg-blue feature wall and putting a bowl of fruit in the lobby,” says Tamara. But good taste in running a hotel goes beyond pretty aesthetics, and James puts it this way: “Some people just have bad taste!
“Because boutique hotels are so much a reflection of the owners, it can be thoughtful, or surprising but just bloody horrible. One such place has the word ‘crazy’ in the name and it certainly was so!
“But that’s the whole point of Mr & Mrs Smith – we stay at the frogs so that you don’t have to. Life is too short to do average.”