- Interview By
- Bibby Sowray
Ever wondered how the travel experts book their holidays? Us, too, so we thought, who better to ask than Marion Barrère, Curation Director at Mr & Mrs Smith, home to the world’s best boutique and luxury hotels.
In what sounds like a dream job, Marion and her team travel around the world seeking out hotels that deserve to be a part of the Mr & Mrs Smith collection, and their standards are exacting. Being luxurious isn’t enough; every included establishment needs to have more – a certain je ne sais quoi – be it a spectacular setting, exceptional design or unrivalled customer service. As such, she’s an expert when it comes to knowing where to spend your money now as well as the up-and-coming travel hotspots to keep an eye on for future breaks. And, as a seasoned traveller, she’s well versed in making the whole process – from booking to boarding – as stress-free as possible.
We spoke to her to find out her top travel tips, go-to hotels and advice for booking a holiday, big or small, like a pro. Consider yourself expertly informed.
“When booking a holiday, spend time on the logistics and understand what you want to achieve as part of the holiday – this sets the tone.”
What does your job as Curation Director at Mr & Mrs Smith involve?
I’m responsible for selecting the hotels and then onboarding them to make sure we are never, ever compromising on our industry curation standards and that we source the best hotels in the world. I do travel a lot to see some of these hotels, but I also spend a lot of time crunching data at my desk, then there’s a lot of building and nurturing relationships. I’m very fortunate because I keep on meeting incredible people, from lawyers changing careers to open hotels to people that have a real expertise when it comes to hospitality.
What does it take for a hotel to become part of the Mr & Mrs Smith stable?
It’s a question I get often and it’s really hard because we don't want to give too much away! It’s down to having a je ne sais quoi and an understanding about why the property is so unique. There are so many hotels that, on paper, look really strong, but when you go there, the detail is not right or the pictures are not representative. So it’s a mix of different things, but no one buys their way in – it’s by invitation only. We make the final call – we never look at star-rating, for instance, so I can have a palace in Paris and then a budget boutique property out of town. So it’s down to making sure that we select the hotels with an analysis hat on, as well as with an emotional connection to the property.
Each year you collate the ‘Where To Stay’ list – how do you begin to curate it?
I’m very lucky, I’m surrounded by experts. In my team, I’ve got the curators that are selecting the hotels, as well as the editorial team. There are lots of discussions internally as to why a property should be featured in the list or not and everyone has an opinion, so it’s for us to justify why some hotels should be there more than others based on trends, as well as on the property being completely different from anything else we’ve had on the list before.
Which hotels on this year’s list are you particularly excited about?
I really love Boca de Agua in Bacalar, Mexico. It’s an up-and-coming destination that’s learning from the mistakes that other destinations in Mexico have made. It’s really eco-conscious – when they built the hotel, they only used natural and recycled materials as part of the decor. It’s somewhere that really caught my attention. What I love the most about it, though, is that you’re in Mexico, where there is this dominance of male architects behind projects like these, but this one is by a woman, Frida Escobedo. She’s young and exceptionally talented, and I’m really impressed with what she’s created out there.
What are your top tips when it comes to choosing a hotel?
For me, it starts with who you are travelling with because, based on that, obviously, you’re going to have different criteria. Then, what time of year are you travelling? What would you like to do in the area and what’s the crowd like? So I always go on Instagram to check out the hotel to really understand if I’m going to find the right mix of customers there.
“I could have cried on check-out at Villa La Coste, it was a hotel experience that I’ll never forget.”
Booking a holiday can be really overwhelming – what’s your advice for doing it right and ensuring that the process is as stress-free as possible?
You need to make sure you spend time on the logistics and understand what you want to achieve as part of the holiday – this sets the tone. Book a few things ahead of time, like restaurants that you really want to eat at or exhibitions you want to visit, to make sure you’ve got space and you’re not disappointed when you get there. But it’s also important to keep time in your schedule in case you bump into some locals who recommend something, rather than rush everywhere and have a full schedule.
If we were looking for a UK-based break this year, where would you recommend?
That’s very hard because there are so many properties that I’d like to have on this list! One property that I’m really dying to visit again is Cowley Manor in Gloucestershire. They’ve got a really talented British chef in-house called Jackson Boxer, who offers modern British cuisine with a twist of French – it’s really appealing, especially if you are a foodie like me and you want to go for a weekend away. I also love the bold interior design by Dorothée Meilichzon; what she’s done in the classic setting is extraordinary. It’s one to visit in summer or winter – spend at least three nights there and disconnect from it all.
In your opinion, which is the best city in the world for a city break?
It has to be Rome. I love the people, the food and each time I go, there is something new to explore. My advice is to travel there off-season, so go in January. It’s definitely a destination that has the potential to blow your mind in January, even when it’s cold. Another one is Athens; it’s up-and-coming, and I think the city’s going to be completely different in one or two years’ time – a lot of new hotels, restaurants and changing neighbourhoods.
For a once-in-a-lifetime trip, what would be your recommendation?
Japan is really high on my bucket list, but if you want something a little bit different, try Namibia. The hotel offering is changing and there are beautiful properties out there. You have to rent a car – make it a 4x4. It’s a great destination to go to with friends, for couples or even a family holiday. Mr & Mrs Smith have two beautiful properties there – Our Habitas Namibia and Zannier Hotels Sonop.
How about if we’re looking for a family-friendly holiday with a touch of luxury – where should we book?
My heart is in Tuscany, Italy. There’s always something to discover and it’s somewhere you can go back to a few times. If you’re travelling with kids, a beautiful property is Borgo Pignano. The estate itself is incredible – you can talk to bees as they make honey, go horse riding, and there’s lots of activities for the kids. They usually have artists in residence, too. And I don’t think you can ever go wrong with pasta and ice cream!
“I always pack jeans from Sézane and a leather jacket from Gerard Darel. I can wear these anywhere and dress them up or down.”
You’ve stayed in countless amazing hotels. Which is the best you’ve ever stayed in?
I really hate this question because I’ve got many favourites! But I could have cried on check-out at Villa La Coste in Provence. It was truly transformative and one of those hotel experiences that I’ll never forget. The setting is incredible; when you arrive, there’s a giant spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois that really sets the tone – there are many amazing pieces of art there. The owner loves art, and there’s a forest with art outside, too, that keeps on changing and evolving. And there’s a really good chef-in-residence called Hélène Darroze; she’s also at The Connaught in London and has three Michelin stars. She’s really bold in what she does with local produce. They also produce really good wine – so that’s probably part of why I love it! If you’re looking for a very good rosé, theirs is very, very good – I usually order a few cases. They always do things differently and as there is always something going on, you can go any time of year. I could talk about it for ages!
As a professional travel expert, what are your travel and in-flight essentials?
I travel so much that, for me, feeling comfortable is essential. Take things that make you happy. I always have my iPad and headphones, so I can listen to MasterClass or watch something on Netflix when I have time. I have my hand cream by Caudalie that I love the smell of, and also the Grape Water Hydrating Face Mist. I also always take a sample size of my signature Diptyque perfume and have my favourite red lipstick to hand. In terms of luggage, I recently bought two pieces from Samsonite’s newest collection, which is made of recycled materials and really light. I travel with only hand luggage where possible as I hate the thought of my luggage getting lost or having to wait for it at the airport.
You must be well-versed at packing quickly and lightly. What wardrobe pieces do you always pack and wear on repeat?
I’ll always have jeans from Sézane, usually the Perfect Slim, and then a leather jacket from Gerard Darel – I’ve had that for 10 years and it’s still good. I can wear these anywhere, essentially, and dress them up or down according to my meetings. If I’m going somewhere like Mauritius or Mexico, I’ll take cotton or linen pieces – I love Matteau dresses; I think they’re beautiful. Sunglasses are something that I always carry, even if it’s the winter. I always have my Celine Triomphe and I’ve got a few Jimmy Fairly pairs.
What’s your go-to travel outfit?
I’m always cold, so cashmere is a must for me. I’ll quite often have a beautiful jumper from &Daughter and an oversized scarf to wrap around me if I need to.