BEING the consumer pays off for Mr and Mrs Smith

The Mr and Mrs Smith boutique holiday club is one of my favourite personal brands. So, I was interested to read that the brand has recently been acquired by Hyatt for £53million. This news inspired me to refresh a blog post I wrote 10 years ago about the brand. The blog looked at how founders James Lohan and Tamara Heber-Percy got inspiration for their business not by trying to understand the consumer, but rather by BEING the consumer. This approach has certainly paid off for James and Tamara, who still own 15% of the business (1).

From humble beginnings as a single hotel guidebook, Mr and Mrs Smith has grown into an online booking platform with more than 1,500 boutique stays including private island hotels and romantic city getaways. Mr & Mrs Smith made £128 million in revenue in 2022, up £81 million from the year before according to new reports (1). This is a significant progression from the £30million of bookings there were doing at the time of my last post.

Here are some things to learn from their success.

1. BE the consumer

Like many successful entrepreneurs, James and Tamara got the idea for their business from personal experience. Back in 2003, They got frustrated at not being able to find a nice boutique hotel to stay in, finding that the places they did use rarely lived up to expectations. “We were the first ones to realise couples aren’t going away to play Scrabble,” observed James (1). “We wanted to rewrite romance and make it cool.” In this way, they were going beyond consumer understanding to what we call “consumer empathy”: a deep, more visceral insight into consumer needs.

They used this personal “pain point” as the inspiration to create their own guide to the best romantic luxury getaways for couples. Mr & Mrs Smith comes from the name sometimes used by couples hiding their real identity when checking in for a “romantic” weekend away!

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2. Be brave enough to back yourself

Many people sit around dreaming of starting a business. But a minority are actually brave enough to do it. James and Tamara re-mortgaged their house to raise £30,000 and got a further £150,000 from friends and family.  When they couldn’t get a publisher, the couple went ahead and published the first guidebook themselves. The distributor said they would sell 5,000 copies in three years, but again they backed themselves and printed 10,000. They actually sold 100,000 in the first year alone.

3. Expand your channels

Two years into the business James and Tamara made another bold move by taking the business online. This is back in 2005, so the couple had real vision about the way the travel industry would evolve. The online version of the brand meant they could handle booking for hotel, and then charge commission to hotels people booked. The online booking platform has over time become the core business, with the books more of a marketing channel.

4. Extend the core

The guide started out focusing on the UK. But over time the brand has expanded to also include international destinations. More recently the brand has also extended beyond boutique hotels for couples to also cater for families. This is smart, as the brand is in effect growing up with its customers who, like me, now have kids but still want to enjoy a boutique hotel experience.

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In conclusion, if you dream of having your own business, be the consumer to identify an opportunity to solve a pain point then, the hard bit, be brave enough to back yourself and make it happen. If you are working inside a business, then try to get as close as possible to the consumer, ideally being the consumer yourself, or at least using “immersive insight” such as ethnography or accompanied shopping trips.

On a personal note, Tamara will continue as CEO and James will be chief creative officer. I hope, as with the Pig, another fave hospitality brand that was recently bought, that the magic will not be dulled by being part of a big group!

Immersive consumer insight is one of 8 modules we cover on the brandgym Mastering Brand Growth program. Bookings for the the next open program are now open here or you ca get in touch with me regarding customised, private programs.

(1) Sale and revenue numbers