It was 2001, and James Lohan, 35, and his girlfriend, Tamara Heber Percy, 33, were going through an experience familiar to many of us: staying in a hotel that seemed to be modelled on Fawlty Towers. "It was every nightmare possible. We were staying in a nameless hotel in the Lake District that we'd picked from a nameless hotel guide, which looked nothing like it did in the photograph. The bed dipped, there was an awful smell and just enough UHT milk for two cups of tea in the bedroom. To be quite honest, it looked more like an OAP home."
After a row about who had booked the hotel in the first place, the pair resolved to put an end to their suffering. "We said, why not make our own guide. We were tired of people's expectations not being met in British hotels. You know, the typical British dirty weekend away, where you're met by a grey-faced hotel manager with no shirt or tie."
So they set about compiling their own hotel guide to boutique hotels, which would put you in the know' as a good friend would, with reviews by anonymous couples on everything from the size of the bath to fun things
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to do nearby. A membership scheme included special offers from hotels. No big-name publishers would touch it, though. "They had so many pre-conceived ideas of what you could and could not do what colours you were allowed to use and how many words you could put down per page. They were driven by one thing alone: saving money."
So they broke the rules, raising £180,000 from family and friends to get a run of 5,000 books printed and in the shops. "The idea struck a chord with them. And we knew it was really innovative." The couple travelled around Ireland and Britain by car for six weeks, researching over 150 hotels, choosing 41 for the guide.Their biggest battle was to get a distributor, who took a lot of convincing. He thought it would take two to three years to sell the original print run. But Mr & Mrs Smith: Hotel Collection UK and Ireland was barely on the shelves in October 2003 when it began flying off them. By Christmas Eve 2003, it had sold 20,000 copies. (It's now sold a total of 130,000.) The book quickly became the bible for couples looking for romantic weekend breaks away and those looking to take their children somewhere fun. Valued at £360,000 three years ago, the business is now estimated to be worth ten times that. In addition, it has expanded to include city guides for Cape Town and Marrakech and their 2004 guide, Mr & Mrs Smith: European Cities.
And while Logan acknowledges that word of mouth was one of the best means of marketing the product, he also puts its success down to his enthusiasm for the business. "I'd have to enjoy my work, otherwise I'd get bored very quickly. When I tell people what I do, they say, Jesus, you've got a good job."
But he's been a critic for so long that he's now decided it's about time he set up his own hotel. "In the Lake District, maybe?" I ask. "Yeah, I just might buy up that old place!"
Mr & Mrs Smith guides to UK/Ireland and European cities can be bought for £19.95 and £24.95 respectively from www.mrandmrssmith.com/shop
Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.
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