Rooms to manoeuvre

James Lohan, founder of boutique hotel website Mr & Mrs Smith, reveals how he's grown his classy online business

James Lohan tells us that entrepreneurs are the new rock stars. While we'd associate rock stars more with throwing things out of hotel windows than reviewing their rooms, he certainly has a glamorous, jet-setting lifestyle, spending half his time travelling the world to do research and the other half in his plush Chiswick offices, working on his company's innovative and stylish brand. It all started on a rainy weekend in a Windermere B & B when he and wife / business partner, Tamara, had their eureka moment, deciding to publish their first hotel guide. And Mr & Mrs Smith has gone from being a bestselling publisher, to a dynamic online travel company in under a decade.

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Investment from friends and family allowed James and Tamara to publish the first of their four books, a compilation of anonymous accommodation reviews. The book's success gave them a host of opportunities, primarily the chance to launch their website, which offers users an online booking service with a twist: all the hotels featured are "boutique", and each has been visited by a "Smith team member", then anonymously reviewed by a couple who are affiliated with and trusted by the company.

Having come from an events management background, James had to learn a lot on the job: "When we started off, we weren't publishers. We continued in this vein by not being technical web designers, and we certainly weren't travel agents! But we had to be all of these things - it's about being a rounded entrepreneur. If you have a vision and understand how your customer wants to transact with you, the path will be set out ahead of you".

The quality of the hotels featured on their website has been instrumental in Mr & Mrs Smith's growth, but the business would be nowhere without the company's user-friendly, well-designed webpage. James gives us his recipe for the perfect business site: "On the homepage we need to communicate the brand, as succinctly as possible. The website has to tell our customers that the hotels are handpicked and anonymously reviewed, and how this process occurs. If things aren't incredibly seamless and secure on the booking page, people leave the site and you lose money. We run usability studies to make sure we get that right. But we're a global company now and need to adapt the site accordingly. Americans, for example, are slightly different to our Asian and British customers."

A key part of James' web strategy is encouraging more people who visit the website to make a booking. He explains his methods: "It's not difficult to find out why they aren't booking. The trouble is, there may be hundreds of reasons, and we have to address them all. We redirect a portion of our traffic to a temporary, alternative version of our website which addresses what we view as the problems. If that boosts traffic, we incorporate the temporary changes into the permanent website."

Beyond Brangelina

James is also planning to develop his business by expanding into new product lines. The average Mr & Mrs Smith customer is aged 40, and James has thought about what his customer base might need further down the line. "The next step for us is trying to get more of people's wallet, rather than get more people," he explains. "We've already launched Smith & Kids, which caters for young families and we'll be launching various other sub-brands next year. My wife Tamara and I have a four-year-old and a one-year-old, and we're not going away on romantic weekends as often as we used to. Now, we have more family holidays, but we still spend the time to find somewhere nice that caters to our desires. We think our changing needs are replicated across our customer base."

As Mr & Mrs Smith grows and expands into new territory, James hopes the company's brand will follow suit. An early stumbling block in the pursuit of brand recognition was the release of the movie Mr & Mrs Smith, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. James says: "It was a major spanner in the works, because I'm clearly not Brad Pitt!" But with the rise of his young and glossy company, James has proven himself to be a star in his own right.