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Epicure Summer 2016

Checking In With… James Lohan MBE, Founder Mr & Mrs Smith

1) 13 years ago you spotted a niche in the market for the boutique hotel and thus Mr & Mrs Smith came to be. What do you think the next major trend will be in 13 years’ time?

Currently, there’s a definite trend for hotels making more of a feature of their natural environment, with log cabins, tree houses, livestock, kitchen gardens and similar springing up all over the world – and this goes hand in hand with an emphasis on wellness, community involvement and eco-consciousness. I think this will only evolve further in the next decade, as the concept of luxury continues to move away from the gloss and polish of the 1990s and 2000s and become simpler and more naturalistic. I also suspect that the cruise is ripe for a renaissance, and that in 12 years, we’re likely to see it becoming a staple travel option for the younger market. Cruising taps into the slow-travel trend, promises opportunities to stop off in amazing places and gives you a fabulous view from your room that changes every day – all the basics are there, but the execution isn’t quite right for the boutique hotel lover yet. Give it time, however, and I think cruising will get a long-overdue designer makeover, shake off its retirement vibe and capture the imaginations of a new breed of discerning travellers.

2) What should hoteliers be doing now in order to get ready for what’s going to change in the next 10 years?

Never rest on their laurels, keep evolving their product and be prepared to move with the market. The rise of social media took a lot of hoteliers on the back foot (and the internet in general seems to still confound a few, judging by some of the sites out there). All hoteliers really need to do is be ready to understand, accept and respond to changes in taste, consumer behaviour, technology and the global economy – quite a lot to ask! What’s not going to change is the fact that great hotels are created from an owner’s passion – a genuine urge to do something different that comes from the heart. You can’t manufacture authenticity and you shouldn’t have to badge it either. If a hotel is created for the right reasons, the audience will pick up on it, stay there, and spread the word – probably through a new social network that hasn’t been invented yet.

3) In your view how important do you think digital and social media is in terms of running a successful business?

Hugely, but it’s like exercise – it’s more effective if it’s part of a healthy lifestyle overall. Social is just one ingredient in the marketing mix; become over-reliant or focus on it at the expense of other channels and you risk destabilising your business the moment the rules change – and they change often. I still believe in the efficacy of ‘old-fashioned’ marketing platforms, such as PR, events, direct mail and personal service. Alongside a great product, these are the channels that help you build a great brand and get people talking. And social media is the place where they have that conversation. But when all’s tweeted and done, there is still no substitute for a friend’s recommendation, made in the flesh and face-to-face.

4) Marriott’s recent acquisition of Starwood has been called a ‘game changer’ for the industry giving them more than 1 million room keys – what does this means for the independent hotelier?

Not a lot. I don’t think independent hotels need to worry too much about the giants as they can never emulate what an owner-run hotel can deliver, and the strand of the market in search of something unique, personal and small-scale is growing, not shrinking. Hoteliers who try to recreate what everyone else is doing or who roll out a hotel-by-numbers template everywhere they launch miss the opportunity of being original, which is what the independent traveller craves.

5) What do you think of the large hotel groups entering into the boutique hotel market?

Without naming any names, I think that some of them are actually starting to do a good job, while some are still way, way off the mark. A massive international brand ticking off the boxes to create a ’boutique hotel experience’ is the dad-dancing of the travel industry. That said, I don’t believe that there’s any reason why we should assume that big brands can’t or shouldn’t ‘do’ imaginative, personal and original. It’s certainly a lot harder for them when the ideas have to be filtered through layers and layers of corporate baggage, and the result is often neutered and toothless, but personally, I welcome any attempt to remedy the blandness and evolve the style and experience associated with the corporate hotel world.

6) With Airbnb announcing they are responsible for 9% of room inventory in all major cities how significant are the gains being made companies and trends such as Airbnb and Homeaway – and how will hotels compete?

Airbnb and its competitors are the most exciting development in the industry for decades – another disruption that took a lot of hoteliers off-guard. In some ways it’s a technologically enabled extension of the original boutique hotel movement, in that home stays offer a unique, authentic and very personal experience – the chance to take part in someone’s individual style vision. They’re often better value than hotels, which is great if you have a group of friends or a big family, and that’s the biggest threat as far as hotels are concerned. To compete on that level, hoteliers need a way of improving their value proposition for group travellers. If you’re a family of four, five or six then, unless you’re very well off, you’re simply not going to book a hotel – you’ll head straight to Airbnb and take a house or a villa instead. The biggest advantage hotels have is the service and reliability they offer – Airbnb and its ilk can’t offer the same reassurance of being looked after. I stayed in an Airbnb in LA as a party of six recently and we had a great time, but I did miss having someone to bring me room service, make my bed and cook me breakfast – that’s the sort of escapism I appreciate paying for, and that’s the biggest weapon hotels have: looking after you like an Airbnb never could.

7) In your educated opinion, what is that people really want when they travel in terms of accommodation?

From a Mr & Mrs Smith perspective, it’s somewhere that’s better than your home. Somewhere that wows you – whether that means world-class spa resort and chart-topping restaurant, or something small and thoughtful and full of character, such as owners who make you feel completely at ease and as though nothing is too much trouble. Somewhere you don’t have to think, that runs so intuitively you can just go with the flow and enjoy yourself. For me, whether I’m away for business or pleasure, I want to enjoy my hotel experience and not spend my time critiquing the bits that fall short – when it’s an effortless, frictionless experience, you know the hotel has got it right.

8) You must get asked this all the time, but where is your favourite hotel and why?

That’s like asking which is my favourite child – I couldn’t possibly answer!

Summer 2016

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