June 1, 2023


Booking Travel

‘Our customers want to discover something a little bit special’

Based in their family home in Chiswick, the couple have two children, Tom, 15, and Ally, 13. The couple describe their life together as “hectic”, like anyone else’s. They have previously holidayed in a Dorset caravan park, eating fish and chips on the beach, because they worried the relentless luxury of Smith holidays was getting a bit “weird” for the kids.

We’re speaking against the backdrop of a tumultuous travel landscape. Mr & Mrs Smith was battered by Covid like most travel businesses. On a single day in March 2020 it was forced to cancel more than £700,000 worth of bookings. Ultimately, they had to lose more than a third of their team, a decision Tamara described as “devastating”. They were also forced to ditch their fledgling “side story” business, whereby guests could tack on tailor-made tours and experiences to their hotel stay.

Like others which survived, the company has benefited from the post-lockdown travel boom. However, prices across the sector are now climbing steeply due to inflation and staff shortages, so much so that it’s now impossible to find a room at a top-level hotel in some honeypot destinations for less than €1,000 a night.

“Prices are getting very high,” agrees Tamara. “The hoteliers need to do what they can, because they do have a crunch point with the cost of everything and the staffing issues.”

What tips can they offer? “We’ve seen more and more all-inclusive packages, where dinner, bed and breakfast are included, because then you know you’re not going to get a nasty shock at the end of your stay with your bill,” says Tamara.

“Pick your places,” James adds. “Don’t go to Tuscany, go to Puglia. Go further afield. Be the traveller who explores a bit further and you’ll find people who can’t wait to see you there and maybe don’t have the same pressure. You’ve got to be more adventurous.”

The staffing shortage is particularly acute in Britain, where many foreign workers have not returned since Covid, pushing the price of even a weekend at a decent country pub into the many hundreds of pounds.

“I think the hospitality business has probably been underpaying its staff over the years, because they’ve been trying to keep the prices down,” says James. “I know from some hotels that they’re paying similar wages to people working in jobs that maybe don’t have unsociable hours. After Covid, people have changed their mind about working in hospitality.

Hotels are also grappling with the demands of Net Zero. Might this increase prices for customers further? “There’s a lot of thinking that needs to go on about how you are actually going to get there and how long it’s going to take, rather than, ‘Oh I’ll just get there in five years’ but not have a plan,” says Tamara. “Whether that’s built into the money right now, I’m not sure.”

Mr & Mrs Smith itself is taking steps to provide more information about the sustainability of its member hotels to ethically-minded customers. Plastic bottles, poor use of waste water, linen reuse are all now considered when deciding to take on new establishments.

The Lohans will retain no ownership of the company after the sale (they currently have 15 per cent). However, the big excitement of the Hyatt move, beyond of course the cash, is the potential to properly break into the US. “You can quickly lose your shirt in America, so having them as our big brother or sister really helps us,” says James. “So many British brands have gone to America and tried. You need huge resources to be successful there.”

The couple are reticent about what they’ll do with the millions that will soon be heading into their bank account once the sale closes towards the end of this month. They’re understandably keen to be seen as focused on making the takeover work.

But, surely, they’ll find time for a holiday?  “If I organise it,” James laughs. “I’m the great romantic. If you don’t put markers in ridiculous diaries then suddenly another year has gone. We get as excited as our members do.” 

This summer it’s Menorca. The family has never been. But it won’t all be R and R. They will, of course, be visiting a few boutique hotels.