In Conversation With

Tamara Heber-Percy

As huge fans of the global travel club Mr & Mrs Smith, we were thrilled to grab time with its founder and CTO Tamara Heber-Percy MBE. Even if that meant picking her brain on all things travel while she drove to work, navigated black spots in the car park and climbed the stairwell on her way into Mr & Mrs Smith HQ. Our first non-fashion Expert, Tamara, like the Wardrobe Icons team, likes to make sure everything on her site is hand-picked and there for a reason. She brings her customers the best there is in the world of travel and does all the hard work for you.

By Deborah Brett

Remember pre-Google, when you wanted to go on holiday, whether it was a mini-break or a tour round Asia, and you had to look through brochures? Trawling magazines and travel books and then making a wild stab in the dark. Then the internet came along and Tamara and her husband James decided to turn the travel industry on its head with their genius idea of becoming boutique hotel specialists. The search was over. If it was loved by Mr & Mrs Smith, there was no doubt it would be top notch. With global offices and 1.5 million members, Tamara and James were both awarded MBEs for services to the travel industry in 2014. Thanks to them, travelling in style has never been easier.

Image of Uxua Casa hotel, Brazil Images via Mr & Mrs Smith

What was the impetus to set up Mr & Mrs Smith back in 2003?

We were dating at the time and going away for weekends and failing miserably. In those days you would find out about a hotel in magazines. We were both working and this was our precious free time. There was this style movement that was happening and of course every friend that we asked about where to go for a weekend away said Babington House, but you couldn’t get in, you had to book a year in advance. We thought there must be other places out there so, after one particular disastrous weekend away, we sat down and said you know what, we need to write a guide.

Neither of you had a background as a travel writer, so how did you start?

It started as a shout-out against all of those horrible stuffy hotels. We were redesigning our home at that time and were chucking out the chintz, but the hotels just hadn’t kept up. It was initially a style choice – of course you have to talk about the experience too, but it definitely had an aesthetic angle to it.

What was the criteria you set for Mr & Mrs Smith?

We sat down at dinner and wrote out everything we would want to know from a guide book. It was all about the experience, how it made you feel, could we get two in the bath, what were the Egyptian cotton thread counts, did the barman mix a perfect martini? It was all the important things. We had a small section called ‘worth getting out of bed for’, which would give you hot tips on the best things to do in the area, and not a full guide to every single rock formation.  

Did you go to all of these places yourself?

For the first book, James and I took a month off work and travelled all around the UK. In fact the first idea for the book was ’52’. We wanted 52 hotels, one for every weekend of the year, but when we did our tour around the UK, we only found 41. There was a moment of, ‘OMG, we don’t have a concept’ – if we haven’t got one for every weekend of the year, there’s no hook. Then suddenly we realised, that was the hook. If there were only 41 then we would only include 41. That’s at the heart of it. If in doubt, just leave the hotel out. We don’t put rubbish into the collection, we only want to work with the very best. That’s the reason why we don’t have a huge amount of hotels; we are still very niche.

Images of Uxua Casa hotel, Brazil, and Tamara Lohan Images via Tamara Heber-Percy, The Grace Tales and Mr & Mrs Smith
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We don’t compromise. We are there for the customer 24/7. We go the extra mile, above and beyond and back again

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How did you discover these hotels?

The internet wasn’t great for researching at that point, so we scoured every magazine and newspaper. We had about 1,000 brochures through the post from all over the country. We ended up visiting about 150 places and got that down to 41 that we really wanted to work with. It’s very different now though; with a few clicks you can find a website. For the first two books, James and I did all of the research and then slowly as the books became quite successful we grew the team. Now we have teams in three regions, North and South America, here in Europe with headquarters out of London, and an office in Singapore who cover all of Asia. 

When did the website launch?

Two years after the first book was published. That was the year that the internet exploded. It began with people starting to trust the internet with their credit cards, and in September 2005 we took our first online booking and then had ten bookings that month. We take about 300 per day now. 

Do you still produce the books?

The last one we did was about three years ago. We produced seven or eight books, but there is a plan for another one next year in a completely different format. As soon as you print a guide book the information is out of date, so it’s not the right format for a travel guide. What we will do is a lovely coffee-table book to highlight some of the most incredible places.  

You’ve recently added villas?

We have been around for 14 years and the people who have stayed with us for that long have grown up and had kids, but we didn’t really have a great family product. So we built a small villa company two years ago. We started in Ibiza and Majorca and then expanded to Italy. We have a few cottages in the UK and slowly it’s become more of a focal point for us.

How many new additions appear on your site each year now?

We add around 250 hotels a year. We lose quite a few, as well – if they don’t keep up appearances, general managers change, hotels get bought and sold or if a hotel gets bought by a chain, we take them down until we know what’s happening. We are cautious, we want to make sure we’ve got the absolute best. 

You’ve had everyone from Stella McCartney to Tom Aikens and Dita Von Teese review hotels for you. How do you decide who gets to contribute?

We’ve had architects, a diamond dealer, people from the fashion world – interesting people with an opinion, who probably travel quite a bit and whose opinion we trust. Our last book was about Italy and we really wanted the head of Ferrari to review one of the hotels. Or there might be a hotel that we really want someone from the fashion world to review, because it’s being launched by a fashion brand, or something like that. We try and match the person to the place.

Image of Tamara Lohan The Grace Tales Photographer Lauren Michelle

Did you yourselves ever check in as Mr & Mrs Smith?

I don’t think we’ve ever done that! In the early days we wanted to go incognito, so if we liked the hotel we would ask to see the manager and owner and really get under the skin of the place. That’s still the process today, we will get as much information as possible and then the reviewers go anonymously, so they don’t have to ask any questions or tick any boxes.

What is your first memory of travel?

I was brought up in Ibiza until I was 12. My parents divorced when I was 10, so once a month I would get on a plane to go and see my dad in the UK. I had the lanyard around my neck, my hand held by the glamorous air hostesses and I got to meet the pilot in the cockpit. My parents getting divorced was the most amazing experience for me – I suddenly discovered the world of travel and tourism. 

What are the destinations that still stand out in your mind?

Spanish was my first language and I spent my time between school and university travelling through South America – a year in Chile and another living in Brazil. They have such a special place in my heart, so it’s the Latin countries I gravitate towards, and Chile is just extraordinary. You’ve got this long stretch of land, and at the bottom you’ve got ice and at the top is one of the driest deserts in the world, plus everything in-between. Santiago is very cosmopolitan, but within an hour you’re on the beach or skiing. They’ve got volcanoes, forests and beaches, and I love the way they speak Spanish. And I love Brazil – again it’s the people, the culture. 

What are your top three places to stay?

There’s a place in Brazil that is just stunning. There’s a little town called Trancoso on the coast in Bahia. The hotel there is called UXUA Casa, and it’s owned by the former creative director of Diesel. When he bought it he swore he’d never design another piece of clothing again, so he turned his creative attention to the furniture. Every little bit; every bed, every side table has been designed and built locally by him and his craftsmen. I also love Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, and I adore Monteverdi Hotel in Italy, it’s this beautiful small hotel that took over a village. The villagers left because there was just nothing to do in the area, so this man from the US who is passionate about opera found this village and restored it so lovingly. There is this incredibly beautiful chapel, the hotel itself is stunning, the whole village is now restored with a little bakery – and all because of the hotel.

 

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If in doubt, we just leave the hotel out. We don’t put rubbish into the collection, we only want to work with the very best. That’s why we don’t have a huge amount of hotels; we are still very niche

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Why do you think you gravitate towards boutique hotels rather than bigger chains?

Boutique hotels can transform an area, because they are not part of chains who just go in and strip everything out and put their own stamp on it. Boutique hoteliers have a sense of place and they want to do things that are in keeping within their surroundings and restore that beauty. It’s about connecting. 

What places can you recommend for those on a budget?

I would highly recommend the countryside around Lisbon and obviously Lisbon itself. Memmo Alfama is a great little boutique hotel that won’t break the bank, and it has beautiful views of the city. The pool there is  a reddish orange, which reflects the roof tiles. Also Brody House in Budapest – rooms there are under £100 per night and it’s one of my favourite places in the whole collection. The owners are reclamation wizards, they scour the city skips to make furniture from discarded items. It used to be an artists’ club, they turned the studios into the bedrooms and the artists donated some of their art. The artists are still members, so you really feel like you are part of their community when you stay there. 

What are your tips for the best way to book a holiday?

I speak about this at conferences – the whole process of booking a holiday is quite broken. People feel like they need to do a lot of research, they go onto Booking.com and then Skyscanner – it’s just such a hassle. People visit on average 20 websites and do 38 searches before they book. What a curator can do is cut down that time. Even in this age of technology, however, I also think that people shouldn’t be afraid to pick up the phone. We have a 24/7 team at Mr & Mrs Smith who will do anything for a customer. So if you want to go to the Cotswolds next weekend and you have a specific question, you can either spend two hours researching on the internet or within 10 minutes somebody will get back to you with a couple of options.  

You have two children; do you have tips for travelling with kids?

Obviously with kids at different ages, their wants and needs are very different. Mine are aged 10 and seven, and are on their 23rd country. I worry that I’m creating monsters, but this is the job. I try to ground them as much as I can, but they do get to see some amazing places. At our age we want cool activities for the whole family. We both work, so we want to spend as much time as we can with them on a holiday – anything to keep them away from their iPads. Your needs change: ask questions, ask the right questions. 

Has it proved a challenge to try new places with kids? 

I travelled from an early age. In August my father would take me to Cornwall every year, to the same place. I found that so stultifying. I like going back to the same place occasionally, but I love discovering new places.  This half term, we were in Comporta outside Lisbon – 60km of totally unscarred beach and I had no idea about it. You stand on this beach and for 30km one way and 30km the other there is nothing except sand, water and a couple of beach shacks.

Where was the first place you went with your children?

One of my earliest memories is taking my son to New York. We landed and there was a heatwave, so I literally pushed him around the city visiting hotels and he sat there in a nappy in the buggy. I felt so sorry for him. 

Do you have a packing routine? 

I like to compartmentalise – I have bags and pouches for everything. That means I can get a pouch out and not disturb the rest of the bag. I hate to rifle through stuff while looking for something and then it all gets unpacked. I have thought about designing a set of luggage pouches. I would love to design ones that open from the top, square but squashy. 

Favourite travelling products?

A 24-hour balm that I put on for long haul flights by Face Matters, and I always have indulgent eye masks by Olivia von Halle, they’re made with silk and they’re really big so they cover the whole eye – they feel amazing. Then de Mamiel Altitude Oil – you rub it on your hands and it feels like you’re going to be immune from anything out there. 

Tips on reducing jet lag?

I don’t indulge in my need to sleep in the day. Suck it up, just adjust to the time zone as quickly as you can. Get in more exercise, like swimming.

Favourite luggage brand?

Knomo, they have trackers inside. Some of them have wireless charging, extra sleeves and accessories. Super tech. 

Favourite fashion discovery? 

I recently found the Guanabana bags – they are South American, in lovely bright colours. Plus perfumes, throws and rugs from Coqui Coqui and great dresses and kaftans by the Australian label Spell.

What’s the next destination on your radar?

I’m taking the kids to Colorado in the summer, the landscape there is incredible and there is so much to do – ranching and going to a rodeo. Japan is becoming very exciting, particularly with the Olympics coming up. Another is Nicaragua, it’s a stable South American country and has lots of eco shack retreats. 

What are the advantages to using your site?

We don’t compromise. I hope that engenders trust. We are there for the customer 24/7 on the phone, not only to inspire and book but if things go wrong, you can always get hold of us. We go the extra mile, above and beyond and back again. We put packages together and hotels love that we bring them the right customers. I like to believe that when we send a customer to one of our hotels they are treated better because we send them. 

Where did you go on honeymoon?

We did a safari in South Africa. It was still a work trip, looking for hotels, but for us there isn’t a holiday that doesn’t involve some work!

Image of Tamara Lohan The Grace Tales Photographer Lauren Michelle
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