Tamara Lohan, co-founder and CTO of Mr & Mrs Smith, on how she transformed her offline business into a digital pioneer.
Mr & Mrs Smith was born in an offline world. In 2002, people chose their hotels on the basis of what they read in newspapers and magazines, by what their friends told them, and by the recommendations of fusty old guidebooks.
We were sick of being steered to disappointing hotels by guidebooks that felt irrelevant to us and our lifestyle, so we decided to create a guide that gave you the inside track on the best, and only the best, boutique hotels in the UK. In the young-web days of 2002, that was obviously going to be an offline, ink-and-paper product.
A year later, however, and the world had changed. People were starting to overcome their fear of sharing their credit card details on the internet. Travel research was becoming easier and easier online. And the members who’d bought our books were telling us to get our collection onto the web so they could fantasise about their holidays while they were at work.
How we went digital
Our book was an unexpected bestseller, but we knew that if we wanted Mr & Mrs Smith to be more than a footnote in The Last Days of Travel Publishing and survive beyond the next print run, we had to pivot the business into the digital realm.
In a way, we were lucky. The fact we had a physical product meant we’d built a strong brand fairly quickly, but the flipside was that we were perceived as publishers. Our challenge was to preserve the goodwill and recognition we had earned as a brand, while transforming our business model from books to bookings. Essentially, we had to become an online travel agency almost overnight.
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Our first challenge was to create a website (something which was a lot harder to do 15 years ago!). We suddenly had to think not only about how to adapt our content, but also consider a cluster of related issues like optimisation, site speed and image resolution. We also had to consider how booking would work – the technology was rudimentary to say the least, so we hooked up with a third-party platform that seemed the best of the limited options. We ended up using it for two years, but I was frustrated with it from day one. I decided almost immediately that we needed to start building our own booking technology.
I invited our hoteliers in to tell me the kind of system they wanted to use. It was obvious that, if it were to succeed, any system we created would have to be simple enough for small independent hoteliers who weren’t necessarily sophisticated tech users, while also sufficiently complex to accommodate the more advanced city hoteliers who knew about yield management and distribution online. I spent a lot of time listening to different needs and working out how to reconcile many apparently contradictory requirements.
In 2008, we launched our own booking engine, owned and built by us, with our own unique booking platform. That was one of the best decisions I ever made.
It’s all about the code
I realised quickly that, as an online business, you don’t just solve a problem and move on; you engage in a potentially endless process of refining the solutions. Booking technology keeps evolving, so our own platform has to adapt to stay ahead – which means I do too. I’ve had to ensure that I’m always up to date with everything that is put out there in that space. It’s so important to continue to learn and to push yourself; otherwise you may end up being yesterday’s technology.
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Over the years as CTO, I’ve learned that the most important assets I have are my team and the values they stand by when they’re building our technology. Developing a stable team who enjoy what they are working on, who feel they are continuously learning and growing is critical. You have to actively create a culture – a shared ethos that everyone can invest in – if you want to create something with lasting quality. I’ve tried to ensure that everyone on the tech team at Smith buys into the belief that we’re building to scale and to last. We don’t ‘hack’ stuff up; we build for the future. I can be confident my team will craft great code because, down the line, they’re going to be the ones around to manage it – and no one wants to build themselves problems. This means that things might take us a bit longer because we are planning, estimating, writing unit tests, getting peer reviews and so on, but we know that ultimately we’ll save time because we’re not going to be wasting it clearing up bugs. Early-stage time investment pays off later because the cleaner the code and the better the underlying structure, the quicker you can build new stuff and the sooner new team members can get up to speed.
In short, I want to make sure that while we are always staying ahead and taking on new-tech innovation, we are never creating nightmares for ourselves or jumping on the latest bandwagons for the sake of it.
Because we started building 10 years ago, there is a significant quantity of legacy code in the mix and a lot of great new thinking around the use of micro services that we want to tap into. So we started disintegrating over a year ago (beginning with our rates and availability code, which allows us to clean up a lot and get speed improvements) and are currently on that journey.
Setting ourselves apart
I’m proud of the fact that we have created a site with an effective booking engine, but I don’t see us in the same category as the 10-tonne gorillas in the travel ring.
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We can’t compete with them in many areas – and we wouldn’t want to. We don’t want a million hotels in our collection and an online-only booking set-up; we’re trying to achieve something different.
The balance between tech-driven efficiency and the human touch is what differentiates us. In a world where the rise of automation is seemingly unstoppable, keeping the human at the heart of the business is something I’m keen to maintain – and not just from nostalgia or sentiment; for us, it’s a genuine business advantage.
Getting the right message to the right person at the right time is hardly a new marketing honeypot. What has changed, however, is our ability to deliver that at speed and at scale, through the manipulation of a hell of a lot more data than we have ever had before. The challenge for us now is how we deploy these technologies without losing that human connection.
What the future looks like
I am constantly looking at new ways that we need to innovate the business and stay ahead of the game. Most of the time, that’s led by our customers and how they want to interact with us. We responded quickly to the rise of social media, adapted through the move to mobile several years ago; now we’re seeing multiple forms of messaging – Chat, Messenger and WhatsApp – emerge as preferred communication channels. Robot technology (chatbots) here is clunky and often infuriating to use – especially if you have very precise requests; our members really appreciate being able to chat directly to a human.
I’m also looking with interest at AI and VR – the things Facebook is doing with the new Oculus Quest have intriguing possibilities as a travel-inspiration tool.
Personalisation technology is certain to advance tremendously, which will inevitably have an impact on the business as customers grow to expect a high level of personalisation from the brands they trust with their data.
Of course, not everything needs to be digital and we should never lose sight of the fact that reaching customers in a physical way makes an enormous difference to their perception of a brand.
Tech is the heartbeat of our business, so it’s essential for us to be resilient to change, to continuously invest in our technology, and to actively nurture a culture of innovation and learning.