Juliet Kinsman: Why I never trust TripAdvisor

Mr & Mrs Smith founder Juliet Kinsman with her daughter Kitty.
Mr & Mrs Smith founder Juliet Kinsman with her daughter Kitty.
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Juliet Kinsman, helped found a hotel guidebook as a hobby. Now she tells Amy Fry how Mr & Mrs Smith became a global travel brand.

In the 90s, when Juliet Kinsman edited music magazines and contributed to The Face and Time Out, ladettes not ladies ruled. Back then Zoe Ball hadn’t yet graduated to Strictly. Instead she was presenting Radio 1 from Ibiza, and swigging from a bottle of Jack Daniels on her way to marry DJ Fatboy Slim.

“Oh God,” Juliet laughs. “Being part of the 90s club culture was a really exciting time because it still felt underground. There definitely was, let’s say, hedonism… Obviously it’s not good for your health. I’ve seen some really amazing characters who have gone on to do great things in different industries, and I’ve seen other people fall by the wayside. I was just in Ibiza last week with my friend who ran the biggest nightclub of all, Manumission – we all laugh at how crazy the 90s were and how different our lives are now. We’re now green juicers and early nights.”

Born in Canada, Kinsman’s first years were spent in Algeria before growing up in New York. Her father was a diplomat. Her mother died when she was young. Her complicated childhood, in part, contributed to her wanderlust. Now happily married, and mother to eight-year-old Kitty, Juliet has found her sense of home in Kensal Green, West London, where she’s lived for 20 years.

“I have such a strong connection to where I am now, I really love that,” she says.

It was in 2002 that Mr & Mrs Smith went from being a twinkle in her friends James and Tamara’s eyes to becoming the book that outsold Harry Potter in Waterstones, Piccadilly in 2003.

“James and Tamara had had the worst weekend away. There were no great hotel guidebooks at the time for people with our taste.

“You had the black and white The Good Hotel Guide, then the really sexy hip hotel coffee table photography books, but there was nothing in the middle that was user friendly for the likes of us – people who appreciated style and great food and drink as much as a great hotel.”

It was more than just of its time.

“What is a Smith hotel? It’s quite hard to sum up, it’s somewhere stylish, independent, and not corporate. There’s an intimacy you have with Mr & Mrs Smith because you feel it’s a friend with great taste, making a recommendation to you personally.”

Juliet believes such guidance is needed more than ever.

“The internet is a wonderful thing and it makes us all able to go out there and research everything on our own and make those discoveries, but who do you trust? Honestly? I rarely use TripAdvisor because I just don’t know who those people are.

“In terms of hotels my taste probably isn’t shared by the mainstream. Not everyone appreciates interior design and they just look at the price, so their judgement on value for money isn’t the same as someone who does appreciate interior design and architecture. But people also use Trip Advisor to voice extremes. They’ll say it’s really good or really bad. They don’t say if it’s fine, so it’s not representative.”

Juliet’s background in journalism helped the brand become an online sensation during the dot.com frenzy. Today, she writes for high end glossies and broadsheets. Despite the perception of a perfect life in perfect destinations where the grass always seems greener, the reality is far more grounded.

“I call it my expensive hobby. Mr & Mrs Smith is perceived as a great luxury brand but we work extremely hard. Journalism, as we all know, is not as well paid as it used to be. I do other things. I do hotel consultancy as that’s my expertise, I do a lot of corporate work.”

Juliet is in Harrogate next month to speak at the Berwins Salon North event. Hosted by Harrogate International Festivals, the TED-style talks cover art, science and psychology and Kinsman will be speaking alongside author and journalist Olivia Laing who will be explaining why we can be at our loneliest in the busiest cities. Joining them will be Alec Ross, former senior advisor for innovation to Hilary Clinton, who will be looking at the industries of the future.

“In today’s world we have so much information blasted at us but what Salon does is get you to think. People have become lazy because they can so easily access information that they forget how to process that and create their own opinion and knowledge and ideas.

“Part of our brains will become flabby because of smartphones, so it’s getting people to have a curiosity in human stories, rather than just what we see on the internet.”

“Also, I love Harrogate, that’s why I wanted to do it. I love it. I absolutely rate it as a boutique destination. If I was recommending a weekend away I’d recommend it because it’s got culture, history, a charming high street, beautiful surrounding countryside.”

Our desire for travel opens a whole philosophical line of thought.

“It’s breaking away from your day to day,” Juliet says. “It’s sometimes an escape. It doesn’t have to be about luxury, gosh, some of the most wonderful experiences can be the most basic experiences, whether you’re in a city you don’t know like Budapest or on a beach in Asia, it’s just opening our eyes.”

The philosopher Alain de Botton said there are few things as exciting as the idea of travel, but the reality seldom matches our daydreams, does she agree? “Travel isn’t always comfortable, you have to remember it’s as rewarding hopefully in retrospect and you learn from the smallest things. You might be on a packed train that breaks down, rather than getting all het up, just look around, remind yourself this is a new experience and you’ll be learning from it in a way that you might not appreciate in the moment. There’s a great Chesterton quote I love: ‘The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.’”

“People think travelling is to find happiness we can’t find, but that’s not travelling for me, it just inspires me to think more. You can stay home and transport yourself through literature, but the point is it is healthy I think to open your mind.”

As a mum, journalist, consultant, traveller – what’s the secret to sustaining it all?

“There isn’t one. I just went to the doctors who said if you don’t slow down you’ll end up in hospital” (when we speak Juliet is is at home suffering from bronchitis).

“I do have a lot of energy and enthusiasm for seeing the world. My husband will tell you that he wished I was a bit more committed to domestic chores,” she laughs. “I don’t think there is a secret, you either have that attitude or you don’t.”

Aren’t there days she wishes she was on the sofa, watching Netflix? “On my God, all the time. It’s just balancing it. It’s balancing what’s really rewarding – do you invest in home, or spending time away?”

Juliet is hoping Harrogate audiences will leave infected by her curiosity.

“I hope that I will just inspire people to what travel can bring them, and not just book a safe package holiday but be a little more adventurous, and it doesn’t need to cost more. It’s just widening your own world. The luxury is the experience.”

As Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

It’s just nice to do it in a really comfy bed.

■ Juliet will be appearing at Berwins Salon North’s “Explore” on February 25, 7.30pm at the Crown Hotel, Harrogate. The series continues with Discover and Experiment. 01423 562303, harrogateinternationalfestivals.com