Entrepreneurship, Mr & Mrs Smith and the Future of Travel | Q&A with James Lohan
As one half of the Mr. & Mrs. Smith team, serial entrepreneur James Lohan has evolved his hotel and holiday booking brand into one of the top travel websites in the world!
With a plethora of knowledge on the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, where the travel industry has been and what the future of travel looks like, James is well versed to pass on expertise in all these areas.
James came into the Speakers Corner HQ to meet the team and share his story, naturally we were fascinated about the empire he created and wanted to find out more!
Where did the idea to start Mr & Mrs Smith come from?
We came up with the idea after one too many disastrous weekends away while I was trying to impress Tamara (my wife and Smith co-founder) during our dating years. Fed up with boring, inaccurate or misleading hotel reviews, we decided to write our own guidebook based on the things we believe really matter. We had to remortgage the house to raise the funds but thankfully it went on to sell 100,000 copies, so all those excruciating weekends ended happily ever after!
You made the decision to evolve from a travel book to a travel agency. What was this process and your thoughts behind starting out on this branch?
After six months we started to receive regular feedback that hotels were getting a lot of business as a result of being featured in the book. Our members were then asking if they could access the content online – mostly because they didn’t want to get caught flicking through the pages at work. We could also see that the writing was on the wall for book sales at a time when the world was opening up online – it was never going to be a recurring revenue stream like a holiday booking could be. Our target was to build a scalable global business. So, all of these considerations got us thinking we should launch online bookings, which we did in September 2006.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome them?
Too many to mention, but continually being in ‘fund-raising’ mode, at the same time as trying to build a growing business to profitability, is like running a parallel business. After the early friends-and-family and angel-investor rounds, we were incredibly lucky to earn and retain the support of our members – a process that has been one of the toughest and most rewarding challenges we’ve faced over the years.
We were the first ‘travel bond’ to launch seven years ago when we raised £2.5 million from our members, which we paid back either 7.5% in interest each year or 9% in Smith loyalty money to spend on holidays – with about half of them taking us up on the latter. And in September 2018 we raised £6 million through crowdfunding with Crowdcube, which we’ve used to turbocharge the business;
Firstly, with a growing collection of new experiences we call SideStory;
Secondly, by curating our global hotel and villa product at a faster rate (without compromising on our standards, of course);
Finally, making a bigger wave in America, which is now about 25% of our business and run from our new office in LA.
What advice would you give other budding entrepreneurs?
Make sure you genuinely love what you do, as your relationship with your business is going to be tested to limits you can’t even imagine when you’re starting out. Dreaming up ideas is fun, but making a sustainable, scalable and profitable business from a passionate idea is no picnic.
What do you believe the future of travel will look like?
More sustainable, more creative and more transformational. Travellers expect hoteliers to be making significant commitments to the community and the environment. Hotels have been switching to locally sourced produce for some years now, and I think guests will follow suit by taking staycations or offsetting their carbon footprint in other ways when they travel. And they’ll be bringing home more than just beautiful photos from their trips.
The future of travel will see a greater focus on living a more purposeful life, with trips that involve, for example, immersive experiences, job-swap initiatives with locals or eco-friendly, back-to-nature stays.
If there was one message you would want an audience to take away from your speech, what would it be?
Whatever you do, make sure you enjoy the journey. Like many of us, I’m often in a rush to get to some sort of end. But, of course, there is no end until the very end so enjoy the goals along the way.
And finally James, what’s next for you?
Well, I always look to my peers with the businesses that I’ve started because I believe that’s how you understand and therefore connect with your target audience. So, I went from promoting nightclubs and DJing in my 20s to late-night bars and restaurants in my 30s and on to hotels now in my late 40s – so I’m guessing it will be something to do with gardening or antiques next! But I hope I’ve got a few more years left in travel before you’ll find me reaching for the pipe, slippers and elasticated trousers.
Thank you James for catching up with us, we look forward to following your next adventures!
For further information call us on +44 (0)20 7607 7070 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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