Waiters lay tables ready for lunch in the Bob Bob Ricard restaurant in Soho, central London. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

How to Avoid Crummy Hotels Forever

(Bloomberg) -- James and Tamara Lohan had just stayed in a hotel in northern England’s Lake District that they would rather forget. The place smelled like bad food and there was an old-fashioned trouser press in the room—far from the romantic weekend setting they were hoping for.

If only somebody had warned them. The bad experience prompted them to start Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a hotel recommendation service where all properties are reviewed anonymously by a panel member.

“We were fed up of chintzy, old-fashioned hotels and wanted people to experience a new breed of style-savvy, personality-led boutique hotels,” James Lohan says.

Now, 15 years later, they’re about to raise money to push further into overseas markets. They’ll add more hotels to their collection of recommendations and offer more cultural experiences, such as a two-hour tour of Chelsea in London for £175 ($227).

How to Avoid Crummy Hotels Forever

When Mr. & Mrs. Smith started out, it quickly found a niche. It helped travelers find independent hotels that, without allegiance to a large company like Marriott or Hilton, had very little marketing muscle of their own. And it came at a perfect time, when travelers started shifting away from cookie-cutter, big-box hotels toward accommodations with more personality.

They weren’t alone. Kiwi Collection, based in Vancouver, started the same year and also aggregates boutique hotels on an easy-to-navigate search engine. Other competitors include consortia like Small Luxury Hotels or Leading Hotels of the World, which help high-end, independent properties band together and gain visibility with similarly independent-minded luxury travelers.

The world’s biggest hotel brands have fought back, acquiring collections of unique and individual properties that don’t confine to uniform brand standards. Take Marriott’s Luxury Collection, for example, or Hilton’s Tapestry. They promise original properties that are anything but generic, with a sense of place and singular personality—plus, they let you earn or use points on a valuable loyalty program, a powerful lure.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith offers a similar reason to stick with them: paid memberships that provide discounts, airport lounge access and more. The company’s revenue—from fees or commissions on bookings, as well as book publishing and memberships—has risen to £10.6 million in the year that ended in June 2018, up 35 percent from last year.

How to Avoid Crummy Hotels Forever

They’ve also jumped into another rapidly expanding area for travel agents and hoteliers: experiences. They recently purchased a company called Sidestory that curates activities in London and Paris. The goal is to expand in New York and Barcelona.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith will take investments through Crowdcube, a British crowdfunding platform, opening first to its members on Sept. 11 and the general public on Sept. 18, according to its website. To entice investors, they’re offering credits toward hotel stays and copies of a guidebook. It hopes to raise at least £1 million and as much as £8 million.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.