Two's Company with founders of Mr and Mrs Smith

Lifestyle brand Mr and Mrs Smith is founders' fantasy come true

The couple started the stylish lifestyle brand after disastrous dates at weekend getaways

The story of the real-life British couple behind the Mr and Mrs Smith boutique hotel collection abounds with disastrous dates and happily- ever-after elements, like a romantic comedy.

Mr James Lohan and Ms Tamara Heber-Percy, who created the playfully stylish lifestyle brand, started dating in 1997 and would escape their hectic London life for weekend getaways to the countryside.

Mr Lohan, 45, who loves occasions and is the more romantic partner of two, would ring up hotels for glossy brochures in the pre-Google days. Once, he was enticed by pictures of what appeared to be an indulgent spa- hotel. "The first thing the staff did when we arrived was to weigh us in front of each other,'' he says.

When Mrs Lohan, now in her early 40s, glammed up for the evening for drinks, they found everyone else in dressing gowns. "They didn't have alcohol. They had a calorie-controlled menu," she recalls.

They were speaking to The Straits Times at the Fullerton Bay Hotel - one of seven in Singapore listed on their booking site of 1,000 intimate hotels - during a recent visit with their children Tom, eight, and Alexandra, six.

The last straw for them was a weekend in the Lake District in 2002.

Singapore has shaken off its conservative shackles. It's vibrant. There's the Marina Bay Sands building - I like crazy architecture. You have the best airport and can make a dual carriageway look beautiful with bougainvillea. Singapore is also one of the most child-friendly cities in the world and the cabs are cheap.

MR JAMES LOHAN (with his wife Tamara)

After a seven-hour drive from London, they stepped into a hotel that smelt like hospital corridors.

Nothing matched in their bedroom, where an old-fashioned trouser press for travelling salesmen was fixed to one wall, the bedsheets were synthetic and the carpet had garish swirls.

Every fine restaurant was booked and they ended up in a pizza house lit by plastic tea-lights.

In that uninspiring joint, the Mr and Mrs Smith brand of seductive stays had its improbable genesis, when they both fantasised aloud about what they truly wanted to know about a hotel.

Using Mrs Lohan's Palm Pilot electronic device, they tapped out a list. Guests like them would want to know information such as the best room, dress code, best local restaurant and how far to book in advance.

"Don't tell me about quaint churches that are disappointing after two hours,'' he says.

Over time, the list would be amplified for sophisticates. "Can the bathtub fit two? Does the bed have beautiful cotton sheets? Can you get a perfect martini? Do the staff second-guess you? What's the story of the hotel?" Mr Lohan says.

"What's worth getting out of bed for?" Mrs Lohan adds, as they answer questions in sync.

Soon, they published their own guidebook and named their new business Mr and Mrs Smith, a wink at the pseudonym preferred by unwed couples when they check into hotels anonymously.

This is a throwback to the post-World War II days when people had money to spend.

Mr Lohan points out that the brand is not linked to the 2005 thriller-romance Mr & Mrs Smith, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The brand was launched in 2002.

For their maiden guidebook, the couple personally reviewed hotels in Britain and Ireland and sent a professional photographer to capture loving close-ups of fabrics and design elements. Forty-one boutique hotels made the cut.

When no publisher would entertain them, they self-published the guidebook in October 2003, after re-mortgaging their London house and raising money from family and friends. They found a distributor and, by Christmas, they had sold 20,000 copies.

Buoyed by the rise of boutique hotels, they were purely a guidebook publisher for two years.

Then, in 2005, they rode the trend of online travel and launched the Mr and Mrs Smith hotel-booking website. What started as a hobby was now a little gem of a business. Both of them come from entrepreneurial families.

Mrs Lohan's mother runs a dating agency, while her father has a business in the payments industry.

Mr Lohan's father runs his own public relations company, while his mother is a housewife.

Mr Lohan, who had managed nightclubs, ran the marketing and branding roles for Mr and Mrs Smith and is its executive chairman. His wife, a former business consultant, built the brand's digital infrastructure and is its chief technical officer.

No hotel can buy into our list

Mr and Mrs James Lohan at The Fullerton Bay Hotel, one of seven Singapore hotels on the Mr and Mrs Smith list. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

In the first month, the couple had 10 bookings. A decade later, the bookings number 300 daily. The collection keeps sprouting categories - from budget boutique to child-friendly to luxury villas.

Inns that do not have swimming pools or any "five-starness" are also in the mix, Mr Lohan adds.

Rooms in the artsy Brody House in Budapest, for instance, start at $88 a night. Set in a revitalised mansion, it has artists in residence and a stylish bar.

Overall, room rates average £280 (S$540) a night, rising to more than £1,000 for posh all-inclusive villa stays at the Song Saa private island in Cambodia, for example.

Mrs Lohan says: "We don't work with chains unless they are exceptional and tend to be small ones. So, we have Alila, but not Four Seasons.''

The couple, who are founder- owners of their private company, say revenues have grown 30 to 35 per cent year on year for the past three years.

For this year, the value of bookings is projected to total £70 million by December.

Their angel investors have suggested multiplying the hotel collection five times to generate five times more revenue. But they are not scaling up as "curation" is at the heart of what they do.

A Smith hotel is chosen because, among many things, it is romantic, cool, sexy, escapist, true to its destination, friendly and value for money, they tell their reviewers, who anonymously check into potential Smith hotels for 48 hours as a couple.

While they do not declare their status as Smith reviewers, some are known faces or influencers such as fashion designer Stella McCartney, who liked the JK Place Firenze in Florence, with its high, painted ceilings.

A Smith team member also visits each hotel to interview the management and scrutinise every facet.

"No hotel can buy its way into our list,'' Mrs Lohan emphasises, although hotels pay fees to be listed. Commission is also taken from hotels when bookings are made through the Smith site.

She adds that reviews are "laborious and expensive" as everything is double-checked.

Her husband remarks: "The business has been built on trust. If there are complaints, we can delist a hotel. Our ethos is that we work with the very best." They both still try to review as many hotels as possible.

Growing their business, they have added sub-brands and brand extensions liberally.

Notably, Smith24, launched last month, is a team of travel agents operating round the clock to match guests to the right hotel by telephone or e-mail.

"We are a hybrid of online and offline,'' says Mr Lohan.

The Smith brand includes a palette of paints for the home, scarves to wear on planes, a Tub For Two playlist on Spotify and more. "I'm a frustrated creative,'' quips Mr Lohan, adding more seriously that Smith is marketed as a lifestyle brand.

At work, they have tremendous respect for each other. "Neither of us are shy about what we think. We know we're ultimately on the same team,'' he says.

"There are no politics,'' Mrs Lohan says. Mr Lohan adds: "Politics don't make beautiful brands, but cause confusion."

The downside is that they are never really on holiday. They cannot walk into a hotel or bar without reflexively making judgments right away.

Mrs Lohan says: "When we were in Thailand for 10 days, we stayed in six hotels. A holiday would be not having to move from the same hotel for a week."

Her husband interjects: "Not that we're complaining. We're the luckiest people in the world."

Certainly, they are having fun while building a global company with a workforce of 120 people in four offices - London, Los Angeles, New York and Singapore.

The Singapore office was set up last year and focuses on marketing and hotel relations within Asia.

The Smith hotels in Singapore are Capella on Sentosa, Wanderlust in Little India, Vagabond in Jalan Besar, Naumi in Beach Road, New Majestic in Chinatown, Raffles Hotel and The Fullerton Bay Hotel.

The couple were both awarded MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) honours in 2014, for contributions to the British travel industry.

While there is a sense of achievement when they look back, they are also candid when asked about missteps.

He says: "I wish we hadn't gone global so quickly. I wish we raised more money through customers rather than through other investors early on."

In 2012, they launched a four-year bond that offered a fixed return of 7.5 per cent. They raised £2.5 million.

He also wishes they had brought in a board of directors - "grey heads lending some potent wisdom" - while they, as young entrepreneurs, changed the game, turning a wretched weekend into a global gig.

"The good thing about being entrepreneurial and naive is that you break the rules and come up with something better,'' he declares. "We are always optimistic."

James on Tamara

She keeps me in check

Mr and Mrs James Lohan, with their son, Tom, and daughter, Alexandra.
Mr and Mrs James Lohan, with their son, Tom, and daughter, Alexandra. PHOTO: MR AND MRS SMITH

His wife, Ms Tamara Heber-Percy, is an Oxford graduate with an Angelina Jolie-esque beauty, says Mr James Lohan, 45, who co-founded the Mr and Mrs Smith collection of boutique hotels with his spouse.

"She's beautiful and looks a little like Angelina Jolie,'' he says, alluding to the star who acted in the 2005 Mr & Mrs Smith thriller.

"Tam is very intelligent and went to Oxford. She speaks five languages - English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian,'' he says. She has a degree in Spanish, Italian and South American literature. "But I hated boarding school and dropped out of A levels," he says.

She landed good jobs, while he yearned to be a designer and took a foundation fashion course.

At 18, his first job in the fashion industry - in a warehouse and chasing orders from India and other countries - was unglamorous and full of dreadful people.

"Tamara worked for big corporations that would never let me walk through the door,'' he says.

Her portfolio includes a marketing executive role with Honda and she also took over her mother's dating agency.

Mr Lohan points out that his wife, in her early 40s, is the technology brainiac at Mr and Mrs Smith, overseeing the development of the booking engine, iOS app and global websites. "The company cannot be where it is without her technology know-how. The nuts and bolts for the business would not be there.

"I have huge admiration for her. She's not only running the business but also brilliant with the kids." Their children are Tom, eight, and Alexandra, six.

Every morning and evening, his athletic wife makes the 25-minute run between home and office.

She leaves at 6pm to be with the children, who have a nanny, while he returns later.

He grins and says his spouse has not prepared home-cooked meals for 15 years. "I do all the cooking." Family favourites include the British classic - roast chicken - and spaghetti carbonara.

They can never fully relax, with their offices in Los Angeles, New York, London and Singapore active at different hours. "The work is relentless. She keeps me in check.'

Tamara on James

He's the more romantic one

Mr and Mrs James Lohan on holiday in the Maldives.
Mr and Mrs James Lohan on holiday in the Maldives. PHOTO: MR AND MRS SMITH

Her future husband, Mr James Lohan, made her laugh when they met in their 20s on the Spanish island of Ibiza, and he remains his fun-loving, charismatic self today.

A mutual friend had given Ms Tamara Heber-Percy his telephone number in 1997, after learning that they would be on holiday on Ibiza.

She called him and when they met at a bar with friends, she thought he was funny and handsome.

Mr Lohan, 45, quips that she was won over by his dance moves. He remembers that the "exotic" young Briton, who grew up on Ibiza and studied in Oxford, looked interesting.

"He brings fun to everything,'' says Mrs Lohan of her spouse and co-founder of the Mr and Mrs Smith booking site for boutique and luxury hotels.

"Mr and Mrs Smith sounds, looks and feels the way it does because of him," she says.

Like him, the brand is irreverent, but also deeply serious.

"We can't be frivolous with someone's holiday,'' says Mrs Lohan, who is in her early 40s.

She loves his eye for design and detail. In 2003, when the brand launched its first product, a popular guidebook to boutique hotels in the United Kingdom, he wanted the photos to be like a "good trailer" that excites weekend travellers and tells the story of each hotel.

"He comes up with ideas for branding and marketing,'' says Mrs Lohan, the brand's chief technical officer.

It is "sexy" to see her husband being successful at work. The couple married in 2006 on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mallorca.

He has an incredible sense of occasion and is the more romantic partner who plans getaways, she says.

He concurs. "We are not here for long, so making memories is important,'' he says. "That's why we travel and enjoy experiences such as eating chicken rice in Singapore."

She sees the ultimate partner in him. "When we have a bad day, we can talk about it over wine. When one of us is overwhelmed, the other one becomes strong."

•Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'Seductive hotels'. Subscribe