Elaine Lloyd-Jones checks in with the travel industry’s most in-the-know family, just in time for some 2016 destination inspiration
Tamara Herber-Percy and James Lohan are the married power couple behind the luxury travel collection aptly titled Mr & Mrs Smith. They’re also parents to Tom, aged eight, and Alexandra, six. In 2013, they delighted the mass of boutique hotel-loving parents the world over, with the launch of Smith & Family, and this year, extended their portfolio to include an impressive selection of villas in Ibiza and Mallorca.
Their story began in Ibiza, where they were introduced by mutual friends. James was running clubs, and Tam (as she’s known by her friends and family) was living there. “She was taken by my dance moves,” James laughs. “We met in a bar, ditched all our friends and went off together for a week, and just had a crazy, fun time. Eighteen years, a travel business and two kids later, here we are.”
The idea for the business ensued a few years down the line, after a succession of disastrous mini breaks. The couple were working in London and wanted to escape the city at weekends. “We kept getting sent ‒ courtesy of several nameless guide books ‒ to chintzy, rubbish places,” Tamara notes, before they both reminisce about a trip that resulted in a couples weigh-in, calorie-controlled diet and dinner in their dressing gowns. “It was more therapy than pampering – not ideal when you’re dating!” James winces.
“A place in the Lake District was the straw that broke the camel’s back, though,” says Tamara. The stylish country manor they’d booked into turned out to be fusty smelling, with scratchy, orange sheets, Artex ceilings, UHT milk and a restaurant for which jackets and ties were prerequisite. It didn’t come close to satisfying the travel appetites of London’s burgeoning mass of stylish, media-savvy couples looking to decamp to luxury, rural retreats. Unsurprisingly fed up, Tamara and James decided to launch their own guide. “We used friends, and friends of friends – all of whom were plugged into a certain kind of lifestyle – and sent them away for weekends to review hotels anonymously,” says James.
“At the time of the launch, the world was going through an interiors style revolution,” Tamara recalls. “Ikea was urging people to chuck out their chintz. Conran, Heal’s, Habitat – they all started around that time. We were redesigning the interiors of our own homes, and hotels just hadn’t kept up. There was a swell of boutique properties that had, but nobody could find them. There were pubs in remote locations which wouldn’t have any rosettes or stars because they couldn’t offer 24-hour service, or they wouldn’t be able to afford the fees associated with other guides.” The couple’s first self-published guide book went on to sell 100,000 copies. Now, everyone from musicians to editors contribute to reviews, and they’ve even had celebrities such as Stella McCartney and Cate Blanchett write for the Mr & Mrs Smith website.
As the business pivoted from being a guide book into an online and offline travel agent, Tamara and James were also growing. “When we wanted to start a family, we realised that some of the hotels we’d been frequenting wouldn’t appreciate little people running around. That’s when we came up with Smith & Family,” says Tamara. It was a natural progression for the business, but as Tamara explains, the concept launched on the premise that “just because you have children, it doesn’t necessarily mean you drop your standards.”
While maintaining the Mr & Mrs Smith ethos, the judging criteria for Smith & Family is different. “The main things we look for are: is it great for the kids? Is it great for us as a family? How are we going to amuse ourselves together? And if we do manage to steal one or two nights away on our own, is there a great restaurant? You don’t necessarily want to dine in the same place where your kids were squishing fish fingers into their plates a couple of hours earlier,” says James.
Despite finding it almost impossible to keep work and family separate, they both do their best to be “mum and dad” when they’re at home. “We avoid talking about work until the kids have gone to bed, although it doesn’t always pan out that way,” says Tamara. “I hear all this super-mum stuff, and I just don’t think it exists. You always feel guilty and you never get it quite right. Occasionally, you might think, ‘I’ve had a nice balance of work and the kids this week’, but it’s very rare.”
A typical day in their West London home sees the troops up at 6.30am and the family having breakfast collectively by 7am. “I head to the office, and Tam jogs to the office after dropping the kids at school.” says James. “Working days can vary but Tam runs home around 6pm to do the kids’ bath time, and I usually leave the office around 7pm and dash home for storytime. Sometimes, I’ll pick up shopping on the way. Once the kids are in bed, I do the cooking, while Tam catches up on emails, and then we usually try and sit down to eat together around 9pm.”
“At weekends we try to spend time as a family,” adds Tamara. “Tom does rugby on Sundays – he’s in a band, too. They practice every Saturday and played in a pub in Putney the other weekend where Kasabian and U2 have played – it was a proper little rock gig. The kids are incredibly active. They love scooters, rollerblades, bikes, even golf! They like ice-skating at Queens, and going to Clip ’n Climb in Fulham. We try and do as much family stuff as possible at home, and then during the kids’ school holidays we’re usually always travelling.”
Despite a gruelling schedule, working side by side in the travel industry has ensured the family share some unforgettable experiences together – it’s a job which obviously has its perks. “We took the kids to Brazil this summer and that was incredible,” says Tamara. “We were in Trancoso, and you can set the kids free on the beach there.”
James continues, “It was the ultimate beach. You have small waves coming in one side, where Tom could do a bit of surfing, and on the other side, the river joins, so you had this still water where you could paddleboard. The hotel [UXUA Casa Boutique Hotel & Spa] is really special, too. The rooms are like
The enthusiasm continues, “Soneva Fushi in the Maldives was also incredible – luxury, but very understated,” James explains. “It’s fantastic for snorkelling, it has an outdoor cinema where the kids can have ice cream and pizza, while the parents enjoy a slightly more upscale meal in the tree-top restaurant. And it has a little observatory with a telescope, where children can look at Jupiter after dinner, too.”
With a repertoire of envy-inducing holiday experiences mirroring the Smith & Family ideal, one of their all-time favourite trips was a little closer to home. “We stayed at the Tree Hotel in Sweden one April, and the best day of our family life was probably ice fishing on the lake there. We walked out with a guide, drilled huge holes, and every time Tom caught a fish, he’d have to run back over the ice to haul it out – he was quite small at the time,” says James. They laugh. “It was like a Tom & Jerry cartoon! They also had husky-led sleighs. It was magical.”
With parents whose job it is to edit the world’s luxury hotel market, Tom and Alexandra are already seasoned travellers – Tom is already able to tick 30 different countries off his world map. “They do get a bit spoilt because the hotels know we’re coming, but we always try and bring them back down to earth.” Tamara explains. “It’s difficult because you don’t want them to think that it’s normal but at the same time, it is their reality. We always travel economy on flights and we do take them camping, which they also love.”
With talks of a family trip to Mexico or Thailand in the pipeline for summer – work permitting – I couldn’t pin James or Tamara down to just one holiday destination recommendation for 2016. “It really depends on what kind of family you are and what you want from your trip,” says James. “When it comes to holidays, it’s not a case of one size fits all. With Smith & Family, we genuinely try to take a proper brief on what sort of holiday you’re after and tailor something to suit your personal needs.”