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CIO interview: Tamara Lohan, founder and CTO of Mr & Mrs Smith

Head of technology and co-founder of luxury travel firm Mr & Mrs Smith explains how the firm is revamping its technology to provide customers with a seamless experience

In 2003, Tamara Lohan and her now husband set out to create a guidebook of hotels to inform people of the places that were keeping up with contemporary design tastes and those that were falling behind.

Lohan, who is the co-founder and chief technology officer (CTO) of the business, says the name is a play on how unmarried couples would check into hotels under the moniker of “Mr and Mrs Smith” to avoid judgement.

“It’s a throwback to post-war times when couples were not meant to be in a hotel outside of wedlock together,” she says. “It’s the name they would put in the guest book if they didn’t want people to know they weren’t married yet.”

While in Mr & Mrs Smith’s early days the idea was turned down by several publishers, Lohan says this turned around in 2005 because the internet was a “big thing”, and the firm raised the capital it needed to move the business into the online space.

“It was such a dramatic change,” says Lohan. “It was like starting a new business.”

For example, all of the original contracts with hotels were for a book, not for a website that would allow bookings, so the firm had to reconnect with its partner hotels. 

“We had to build the website, and [while] I was comfortable building that, I wasn’t confident building a whole booking platform,” says Lohan. “We were taking payments quite early to sell the guide book online, but taking payments for booking is another thing altogether.”

The firm’s website now promotes “stuff you actually want to know”, such as how well a hotel bar makes martinis or how many people fit in the bath.

But to get there, Mr & Mrs Smith first hired new people to help with the shift in the business, and after a few years of outsourcing, changed direction again.

After two years of being “frustrated” with the technology the firm had, Lohan says she felt she could “do a better job running it” herself.

But the site had to cater for two ends of the digital spectrum – some hotels already had booking systems in place that needed to be integrated with what Mr & Mrs Smith was using, and some hotels still wrote down reservations in books and were in remote locations that found it hard to get online.

“We knew we were dealing with a niche set of hotels and hoteliers,” says Lohan. “We had to build something that would cater to both aspects.”

She and a developer set about building the new system themselves, and the company has been using its own systems, with its team developing both the front and backend, since 2008.

Lohan has sympathy for startups that are doing the same – developing a technology platform for a new business is far from easy – but she admits it’s more simple now than it used to be.

“There are so many travel booking engines that will do this stuff for you now – I didn’t really have that choice,” says Lohan.

More recently the firm has been “disintegrating” some of the core bits of its system to make it more lightweight, starting with the systems for hotel ratings and availability, with more changes to other large parts of the business’s structure on the way.

“There’s still a long way to go, we are not a startup,” Lohan says. “The tech is coming into its 10th year, so there is some legacy code.”

Some of the code used by Mr & Mrs Smith is “common” with the charity Hospitality Technology Next Generation, which can be helpful when training new starters. Lohan says a focus on code coverage and test coverage over the past few years has “helped along the way” and ensured the system is as stable as it can be.

When suggesting where others looking to enter the industry should start, Lohan says firms need to think about what is core to the business, which will give an indicator of what needs to be built in house and what can be outsourced.

“Travel tech is quite complex, just because of the intimacy of putting someone in a bed in a hotel room somewhere in the country,” she says.

For example, hotels offer varying prices on different days of the week, or discounts for people travelling with children, among a myriad of other differences.

“The complexity around travel technology makes it very hard, but that’s the kind of challenge that I love,” says Lohan.

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More recently, Mr & Mrs Smith bought SideStory, a company offering city experiences based on local recommendations, to expand the amount of services it can offer customers, including experiences and walking tours in cities such as London and Paris.

The business is now looking for £1m or more from its members and investors as part of a crowdfunding campaign to fund three projects, among them further expansion into the US and expanding hotel and villa product listings at a faster pace.

“We definitely need more resources to be able to add more [features],” says Lohan.

The investment funding, the purchase of SideStory and streamlining its technology are all geared towards offering customers a more personalised, seamless experience.

The firm is using Salesforce to create a single customer view to help with this in an era where consumers are expecting brands to know them as an individual and offer them a tailored service.

“Customers are changing all the time, so our role for them has changed,” Lohan says. “When we started the business, our role was to find these hotels because no one knew about them.”

Now the firm is more of a “curator” that sorts the good from the bad, ensuring customers aren’t offered up hundreds of irrelevant results.

“They want to have a known curator who they can trust with their time away,” says Lohan.

Customers on the whole are becoming “less patient”, so the firm is working on cutting down on customer choice and reducing the number of clicks it takes to book through the site.

Website speed and how easy it is to make a payment all factor into customer loyalty in a modern world where consumers have access to hundreds of services.

“When you think about the numbers, the amount of people you lose if your site is slow, that’s the kind of thing that gives me heart palpitations,” Lohan says. “We’re putting lots of effort and tech into making sure our experience is as seamless as possible.”

While customers are becoming more technology-driven, businesses are having no choice but to follow suit.

“Tech underpins everything that we do, inspiring [customers] to get away with the people they love – that’s what we’re passionate about,” says Lohan.

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