Sexy, boutique and high-end hotels are central to the business of James Lohan.
But the British entrepreneur, who co-founded the renowned hotel collection and travel club Mr & Mrs Smith with his wife Tamara, has a vision that goes far beyond luxury.
For a start, he tells me he loves the idea of having stuffed pandas at empty seats at a restaurant in Thailand, because pandemic or not, diners don’t want to feel like they’re in a library, and it brings a bit of humor to the dining experience.
“I thought that was quite a funny idea,” he says.
“Actually, I followed up with my own idea: Oh, we should get on to Madame Tussauds, maybe we could get some famous people and you could have famous people sitting next to you… that would be fun wouldn’t it?”
He adds: “That was just me going a bit crazy.”
As it happens, the mission of Mr & Mrs Smith is simple: to handpick and curate a collection of hotels around the world that offer something special or extraordinary.
The website currently lists around 1,400 properties ranging from ultra-lux, tropical island resorts and those embedded in caves and treetops, to elegant country manors, idyllic safari lodges and city hotels with an unusual twist.
But Lohan assures me that the company, which collected £75 million in bookings last year, doesn’t only cater to the luxury traveler, with some of its hotels falling under a budget collection.
Most important is that they provide great customer service and facilities, he explains, and so, while many are high-end, others are simply unique, owner-run and eco-friendly.
Incidentally, Lohan says one of his favorites is an £80-a-night hotel in Budapest known as Brody House.
“Our business has always been aspirational but accessible, that’s really important to me,” he says as he explains he’s not running “a ridiculous luxury company”.
“That’s why we’re called Mr & Mrs Smith,” he adds. “We do things with a bit of fun… (and) hopefully some style.”
New rules for hotels
But amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to imagine what any hotel, let alone the one-of-a-kind, will look like.
Though hotels in England were permitted to reopen on July 4, new government guidelines have called for changes to the way they operate during the pandemic.
Among other things, hoteliers have been urged to minimize lift use, to leave room service meals outside doors, to encourage mask-wearing in corridors and to put screens, signs and markings in place so that guests respect social distancing rules.
Spas and swimming pools must remain closed along with indoor play areas, casinos and night clubs.
What to expect
Lohan admits that the industry has been forced to evolve as every single touch point — from sun loungers to room keys — is considered.
Long gone are the days of having your car parked and bags carried, he says, while traditional reception areas may become obsolete as check-ins are done electronically. Restaurants and bars will cater for fewer people and cleaning procedures will naturally be stepped up.
But beyond that, he says, it will mostly come down to customer preference.
“I think a lot of our hotels will be saying: ‘How do you want to be served?… Would you like us to make up your room every day or would you rather we didn’t?’”
He adds that many hoteliers are becoming quite creative.
“They’ll set up more lavish dinners in your room, or they’ll set them up in parts of the hotel that maybe haven’t been used before for dining… or obviously if the weather’s permitting (there are) some amazing places outside that you could pick.”
And while restaurants and bars may have less of a buzz, Lohan – a self-described optimist – believes travelers may actually enjoy more personal experiences.
“Let’s say you do make it to some amazing place in the Maldives, you probably won’t go diving in groups any more, it will be very much a personal thing for you and your family and the dive instructor. So things like that are going to create real special moments.”
Will prices go up?
But with so many changes, surely prices will surge?
Lohan thinks not. He acknowledges that some more expensive properties may increase the cost slightly because their audience can afford it and because they’ll need extra staff. But so far, he hasn’t seen a huge shift.
He also observes that most hotels now offer flexible rates, which is probably the biggest change in the industry since the pandemic began, with no obvious drawbacks.
And besides, he hopes that everyone is being “a bit kinder and nicer to each other” as we ride out the crisis.
Green with ambition
As for his own business, Lohan says he wants to try harder to promote sustainability.
“I think we’ve all become far more aware of each other and the planet,” he says.
“We (as a society) definitely need to do things differently… and hotels absolutely need to be a part of that.”
As well as ramping up work the company does with charities like Blue Marine Foundation, he wants to encourage hotels to share ideas.
One option could be to run workshops for hotels so they can cross-pollinate, he says, adding that Soneva Fushi in the Maldives is doing “extraordinary” work to help the environment, which other hoteliers probably aren’t aware of.
“We can’t demand of hotels what they can do but we can certainly inspire them and help facilitate conversations.”
Tips for travelers
For travelers, Lohan advises picking a hotel you can trust or that’s been recommended.
If you want to avoid public transport, he says staycations are always a good option, adding that we have “amazing hotels and some staggeringly beautiful places” in the UK.
City hotels may also be worth a look if you want a deal or to hit up museums and special restaurants without the usual crowds.
He also suggests traveling in shoulder seasons and taking fewer, but longer trips.
Whether or not the new hotel arrangements will stay in place in a post-Covid world, Lohan isn’t sure.
He only knows that savvy businesses will be using the time to try to improve and streamline, and for some, that could mean permanent, but positive change.
“Who likes check-ins anyway?” he says. “They’re a pain.”