Mr and Mrs Smith should come clean

In this guest posting, Australian Traveller Magazine’s Quentin Long argues luxury hotel website Mr & Mrs Smith is more brochure than guide.

The boutique hotel booking service Mr & Mrs Smith, which recently launched in Australia, is a real problem for the hotel industry here.

To me, it’s a way for two posh toffees and their friends to enjoy some of the best hotels in the world for free.

No, actually, hold on a minute; these best hotels in the world are paying for the honour of hosting them. That’s just ingenious.

On their website, Mr & Mrs Smith claim: “We’ve handpicked the best boutique hotels and luxury hotels to ensure you find the perfect romantic getaway.”

The hotels have not been handpicked; they pay to be included. Where is the handpicking in that?

Other debatable claims include: “Mr & Mrs Smith is the UK’s No.1 boutique hotel guide…” and “Every boutique hotel has been visited by a Smith team member before being reviewed anonymously (and thoroughly) by a couple”.

The Mr & Mrs Smith content is paid-for editorial. A “guide” implies that all suitable properties will be included – that there’s some objectivity and independence. Not paid to be included.

The anonymous review is also questionable. I know of at least one case where a property was aware of the imminent visit of a “tastemaster” well before the lucky guest’s arrival.

And while they’re at it, Mr & Mrs Smith clip the ticket for a big fat 15 per cent commission of all bookings through their site.

They are incentivised to make recommendations to earn commission, yet tell the consumers they are a guide that anonymously reviews and handpicks these hotels.

When I gently mentioned these issue in my regular 2GB show one Tuesday, the Australian Publisher – Producer of Brochures in my book – of Mr & Mrs Smith, Simon Westcott, took me to task, defending his ability to be both a marketing business and a publishing business.

He claimed: “As both a present-day journalist and publisher, I reject the idea that my editorial decisions cannot sit alongside a commercial business, separated by a clear line of independence. I’m afraid every media organisation lives with both these dynamics and the good ones invest in research and great content while working out how to make enough money to afford it.”

The nub of the matter I put to him was as follows:

“There is absolutely no editorial independence in what you do. The fundamental editorship – what is shortlisted for editorial and what is not – is determined by payment by the subject. That is not true independent journalism – and to say it is is ludicrous and insulting to those publishers who do struggle with the ‘tension’ of editorial independence and commercial reality by not combining the two.”

Mr & Mrs Smith is a worrying development for the travel and hotel industry. A lack of transparency will damage the reputation of this business in the long run.

Transparency works for Small Luxury Hotels, Select Hotels and Relaix and Chateaux.

Editor’s note: For the full exchange between Simon Westcott from Mr & Mrs Smith and Quentin Long from Australian Traveller, read on.

 

Dear Quentin,
 
I’m writing with regards to comments you made about the launch of boutique hotel and travel guide Mr & Mrs Smith during your regular Travel Tuesday segment on 2GB, 5 May 2009.
 
There were a number of points you raised on the program regarding our anonymous review policy and hotel fees and membership which I’d like to clarify with you for future reference.
 
Tastemakers and anonymous reviews
All properties that are part of the Mr & Mrs Smith Collection are thoroughly inspected and reviewed before being invited to be a part of the collection.  Our founders, including myself, as well as our highly experienced hotel relations staff, visit all properties personally and hand-pick the ones we believe are right for the brand and our customers.  We write up extensive and informative hotel overviews from these visits.
 
On top of this, we send anonymous reviewers – with their significant others, for a minimum of a 2-night stay – to provide a further, more narrative review of the property in question. Our reviewing team is an extremely diverse group of journalists, writers, travel industry experts, designers, chefs, artists, musicians and the like who are all recognised as leaders in their field. They are chosen as Mr & Mrs Smith reviewers because they are frequent and experienced travellers with discerning tastes who we believe are able to recognise the small differences that make a “Smith” hotel.
 
The majority of our “tastemakers” as we like to call them, are not celebrities, although we do have some high-profile members of our reviewing team. Our reviewing team is sent out to visit hotels all over the world so it may be that a well-known television personality in Australia reviews a hotel for Mr & Mrs Smith in China where they have absolutely no public profile at all.
 
Membership
A hotel must therefore be invited to become a member of the Mr & Mrs Smith collection. Once invited, hotels are required to pay a small administrative fee to sign up which covers things such as website upkeep, photography, travel and reviewer costs etc. This fee is much smaller than those of our competitors precisely because we use it only to cover costs. Our membership criteria is very strict and a hotel cannot become part of the collection by offering to pay the membership fee. Once part of the collection, hotels continue to be reviewed and assessed to ensure they maintain the high standards expected. Our members and customers are very vocal and every complaint is followed up with the hotel directly. Hotels that fail to meet these standards are dropped from the collection (again, in contrast to our competitors).
 
I hope this offers a better explanation of our position on hotel reviews and membership but please feel free to contact me at any time if you have any questions or would like to discuss Mr & Mrs Smith more carefully.

I’m also pleased to say that after personally inspecting the property myself last week, we have confirmed our invitation for Jonah’s to be part of the collection – on the terms outlined above – and they will be going live on the site in the next couple of months. We also gave them feedback about the room styling, given our customers’ tastes.

On air, you used the word ‘disappointing’.  I hope this makes you feel a little less disappointed about a company and a service that takes great pride in its selectivity and editorial independence and thoroughness.
 
Best wishes,
Simon
 
Simon Westcott
Managing Director, Asia Pacific
www.mrandmrssmith.com
 

Thx Simon
 
I appreciate your clarifications but they were not clarifications – I know these are your claims and I also know the reality is different. So let’s explore it for a second.  
 
The claim “We’ve hand-picked the best boutique hotels and luxury hotels to ensure you find the perfect romantic getaway” is misleading. They are not hand picked, they have paid to be included. If they do not pay, you do not include them.
 
The claim “Mr & Mrs Smith is the UK’s No.1 boutique hotel guide…” is also not quite right. As a former journalist I am sure you appreciate the difference between paid for editorial – AKA advertorial – and not paid for editorial – AKA a guide. It is a marketing angle at best and untruthful at worst.
 
So here is my clarification…

You only include hotels that have paid you for the privilege. This means you cannot claim to hand pick anything and you can’t claim to be a guide. The concept of guide has a sense of comprehensiveness – the antitheses of pay and be published principle that runs the collection.
 
And then you take a slice of commission to book a room through your engine
 
If you are going to take commission you are even more compromised in the ability to review anonymously. If your biggest earning hotel becomes old and tired – will you remove it from the collection? Tough question and if it were my business I most certainly wouldn’t.
 
There is nothing wrong with that – just the claim to anonymous reviewing and ‘selection’ without disclosing the payment to be included – it is misleading.
 
Mrs & Mrs Smith is a marketing service NOT a publishing business so to position it between the two is ………. misleading.
 
I like the business and would gladly use it for my travel – however the spin is my problem. As a former journalist I am sure you understand my position.
 
Cheers
Q

 

Hey Quentin.

Thanks for this.  I suppose we will have to agree to disagree.

It’s not about spin at all, it’s about what I believe. As both a present-day journalist and publisher, I reject the idea that my editorial decisions cannot sit alongside a commercial business, separated by a clear line of independence.  I’m afraid every media organisation lives with both these dynamics and the good ones invest in research and great content while working out how to make enough money to afford it. The internet has only made these convergences and tensions stronger.  However, I’m very comfortable ethically with the new opportunities the internet provides in travel particularly – I’d be much happier to see great content and research funded through a site like Mr & Mrs Smith than Travel + Leisure, for example, closing down in Australia and New Zealand for diminishing print advertising revenues.

Mr & Mrs Smith is in reality both an editorial and a marketing business, just as Australian Traveller or 2GB is. We do hand-pick the hotels we want in the collection – I actually disagree with your definition of guide in our space, where selectivity is key (v Wotif, or Stayz, or Trip Advisor) – but you are right – not all make it to the clear light of day (although the great majority do). We say what we want about these hotels and they have no approval over our content. And you are wrong about the editorial decision never trumping the commercial – we have and will continue to drop commercially successful hotels because they have gone off or not addressed travellers concerns. If the business were purely a marketing business I would be talking – like Tablet, or Design Hotels, or SLH – to any number of bigger hotels and chains in order to simplify the task of revenue raising. But we don’t – and we continue to engage small, impoverished boutique hotels or B&Bs precisely because we love them.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the launch in Australia – of all components at once – obscured the actual genesis of the original guidebook series, which became successful precisely because of its discoveries and opinions (as, I would hope, will ours). If James and Tam worked out a way – in a complex new media world – to make that business sustainable, all power to them.

And I look forward to employing many of Australia’s best travel journalists in the process.

Let’s have coffee and continue the discussion!

Simon

 

Simon,
 
I am not sure that the wider journalist community would agree with your definition of being a journalist, I will try and put it to them. There is absolutely no editorial independence in what you do. The fundamental editorship – what is shortlisted for editorial and what is not – is determined by payment by the subject. That is not true independent journalism – and to say it is ludicrous and insulting to those publishers who do struggle with the “tension” of editorial independence and commercial reality by not combining the two.
 
We all know and would agree 95% of the hotels that SHOULD be in the Mr & Mrs Smith. You will publish say 60% of them because the others will not pay and many of those included will not pay but you need some modicum of credibility so will include them. Totally compromised in my book if you claim to be THE Guide to Boutique Hotels in Australia.
 
The imminent closure of Travel and Leisure is so different I cannot imagine why you have connected the two. To solely blame the shrinking advertising print budgets for Travel and Leisure’s demise is naïve. The magazine fails because of the same old story – Fairfax’s arrogance wrapped in conceit and packaged in the world’s worst publishing management (that’s why I left). It leads them to make incredibly casual decisions with their shareholders money. If ACP turns down T&L what in the world do Fairfax think they can do that ACP can’t to make the numbers work? It’s flawed from the start and just got worse from there. The publishing cemetery is stacked high with magazines that Fairfax bought and destroyed. This will be just another in the long line. You are holding up T&L to justify your capitulation. Whilst convenient it is misguided.
 
A complex new media world – oh please. Not this same old trite that justifies poor journalistic practices. Seriously, call it a brochure not a guide and it would be more honest. To suggest that you are engaged in this tension is insulting to those that actually do uphold the difference between editorial and advertising. The editorial agenda is not influenced by the advertising agenda.
 
Cheers
Q
 

Hey Quentin.

I suppose I think I’m also a journalist because I also write for the Age, the SMH and Travel + Leisure. I’ll be sure to tell them I’m a complete fraud and don’t know what I’m talking about post haste…:).  I’m not a journalist for Mr & Mrs Smith – though have anonymously reviewed – I’m the Publisher here.

Simon

4 thoughts on “Mr and Mrs Smith should come clean

  • May 26, 2009 at 4:41 pm
    Permalink

    Speaking purely as a punter, if I buy a guide, I want to know I’m getting it warts and all.

    I’m certainly not going to be confident I’m hearing about the drawbacks if I know they’re paying to be in there.

    Reply
  • May 27, 2009 at 11:27 am
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    Having looked at what hotels they have (and more importantly haven’t) included in Syd and Melb it’s pretty clear that this site is a “pay for inclusion” – and that’s cool, as long as they tell you.

    Reply
  • May 27, 2009 at 11:55 am
    Permalink

    Unbelievable what some people can convince themselves of. Check that last response: He’s not a journalist for Mr & Mrs Smith but has “anonymously reviewed”! As publisher! Sheesh. Recommend changing the name to Mr & Miss Represent.

    Reply
  • January 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm
    Permalink

    Hi,
    I have booked a hotel through MR&MRS SMITH for September 2010.
    I found the consultant most helpful and the hotel on the web looks fantastic.
    I’m not sure I could have found the same hotel for a cheaper rate but the proof will be when I return and will update you as to whether the service is worthwhile or not.
    I agree with Q that there appears to be a fine line between ethical journalism and commercial reality. Yes,the site should make clear that they are receiving a fee from the hotels to be included and that if they don’t pay, they will not be. However,how does a lay person find out about a boutique hotel if not on such a website? I would think most such sites would charge for inclusion – the ones that do not may not give enough or adequate information. If there is misrepresentation so be it,provided the consumer remains satisfied.
    George

    Reply

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