It’s been three years since London-born and Melbourne-based media entrepreneur Simon Westcott decided to globalise an international brand, bringing it to Australian audiences.
Enter Mr & Mrs Smith – a lucrative business idea started by married London couple James Lohan and Tamara Heber-Percy. The pair inspired Westcott to pool his funds with theirs and start up a joint business venture.
Westcott, a former global publisher and director of the Lonely Planet group – he also did a stint at The Age as marketing and circulation director – is all about bringing boutique hotel living to the minds and hearts of intrepid travellers to Australasia.
“When I was the publisher at Lonely Planet I got to the stage where I wanted my little bit of real estate in a way, to own something as a business,” says Westcott, who is sitting around a large boardroom table wearing a handmade navy blazer tailored in Hong Kong, loafers by British shoemaker Loake and a shirt by Melbourne’s Andrew Chiodo.
If his wardrobe is anything to go by – apart from the fact that he’s one stylish guy – Westcott maps his look from destinations all over the world, much like the business he runs.
Mr & Mrs Smith is like an intellectual book club (or travel club, as they call it) filled with interesting accommodation editorials penned by savvy writers. It comes with a booking service.
Travel has always inspired Westcott. He spent years on the road writing for print and online publications including The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Travel + Leisure magazine.
His wide-eyed hunger for embracing other cultures and experiencing something left-field is evident in the places he has visited, from Lebanon to Morocco, Vietnam, Burma and Argentina. His family holidays included trips to Majorca, he hitch-hiked around France with a friend when he was in year 10 and spent his gap year travelling – as you do when you’re DNA-wired with a travel bug.
Westcott, who moved to Australia from London in 1988, is the kind of guy who parks himself on the edge of the seat every time; his life is about taking risks, trying something new and never leaving a moment for boredom to set in.
He likes to keep busy, whether it’s destination-bound or not. He’s hands-on when it comes to running the Melbourne office of Mr & Mrs Smith, and his staff happily interacts with him in the open-plan space when we meet.
He plays sport after hours and owns a property with his partner in Castlemaine with horses and dogs; he was a past board member at Chunky Move and is chair of Malthouse Theatre.
Westcott is also the co-founder of the Dr Ben Keith Myanmar Project in the Inle Lake area of Burma (his dentist partner was so inspired by a trip to Burma that he wanted to help out locals in the township of Nyuangshwe by offering a dental-health program to its residents).
He’s someone who puts his entrepreneur skills to good use, and not just for his own benefit; Westcott believes that it is important to give something back to the community as well.
“When I went to London to meet James and Tam it was pretty straightforward in terms of getting the deal signed, sealed and done,” he says as if merely signing a 24-month contract for a mobile phone.
He describes himself as someone who “got to the entrepreneurial thing late”, but this well-travelled 48-year-old has his finger on the pulse.
Mr & Mrs Smith covers the gamut of what’s cool, not in an unattainable hipster nod to cool, but it’s where you will rub shoulders with hotels that strike a chord with shabby-chic, eco-friendly and boutique decor. Whatever your taste in hotels, the boutique experience of Mr & Mrs Smith is designed to boost your appetite for travel.
“The Mr & Mrs Smith brand is all about publishing a beautiful book and takes incredible care with each photograph that’s printed in the guides. We also have strong editorial integrity too,” says Westcott. “When people book with us and find out what we’re about, people tend to stick with us for their onward journeys.”
The decade-old British brand is all about being a trusted guidebook that comes with an online booking service and an ability to join the club and stay in the know.
“We are more than doubling our figures this year,” says Westcott with a smile.
“I think Aussies are intrepid travellers as a rule, but with the dollar being as good as it is, they are the new rich to some degree and putting this to good use by travelling a lot more. They’re choosing overseas locations over holidays in Port Douglas and want to be sure if they’re getting that far that what they’re picking is the best they can get access to.”
Westcott admits his business is booming, thanks to travellers who previously would have booked accommodation independently or via domestic travel agents.
“When either new or existing customers are booking these places with us, they are doing so less because they are reliant on our recommendation – they will have had lots of people telling them to go and see MONA in Hobart, for example, and mention a couple of interesting boutique hotels there. They book with us because of the ease with Smith and the incentives such as the Smith extras on check-in and our money-back loyalty account.”
Mr & Mrs Smith prefers to write about boutique hotels with 50 rooms or fewer. The experience must be intimate, and style plays a role, too. It’s not exactly like stepping into the online pages of thecoolhunter.net – the company is more like Wallpaper* magazine meets Vogue, as if Louis Vuitton was hanging with Andy Warhol in a hotel foyer somewhere. It’s where style and art converge, shake hands and sleep happily ever after on a delicious hotel pillow.
“No matter how stylish or architecturally amazing your hotel is, if it doesn’t have a place to curl up we don’t really include it,” says Westcott.
“We cover everything from relaxed bohemian tastes to tasteful antique heritage look. There’s eco-chic and shabby-chic, but we’re conscious not to overuse the term luxury because it narrows the market,” he says.
“The service side is important to us, and we verify that on research trips. We tell hotels we’re coming for a site inspection but send back an anonymous reviewer – they are our tastemakers. They have to share our taste and have to take a partner, spend a minimum of two nights and we give them spending money they have to use at the hotel.”
Westcott was born in London in 1964. He was adopted as a baby by Pat and Derek Westcott and has a sister, Sarah. He later discovered he has four half-siblings on both birth parents’ sides.
He learnt the piano as a child and studied at Oxford University with a focus on English literature. Thanks to his godfather Roger Quiller Barrett, a former publisher at Ebury Press, he inherited money when he turned 18, with the stipulation that he had to use the trust fund for travel. “I got the travel bug early and it never really left,” says Westcott.
It’s his understanding of what travellers expect when it comes to hotel culture that has made this business a success.
“Our business’ obsession with quality, style and character is translated into the way we engage with customers,” he says. “We always ask hotels for little extras that speak to our customers. We’re passion advocates, and the experience people have with us means they tend to come back wanting more. It’s like travel – once you start, you keep going.”
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