Mr & Mrs Smith started as a publisher of hotel guides. Now primarily an online travel agent specialising in bookings for luxury getaways and boutique boltholes, the company has an ambitious plan for growth that will resonate with other small businesses.
According to chief technology officer and co-founder Tamara Heber-Percy, who spoke to Marketing Week at the annual ABTA Travel Conference in September, last year’s bookings revenue of £25m will be trebled by 2018.
This will be driven in part by the ongoing trend of technology and marketing functions working closer together, for example through personalisation and real-time interaction. She also tells us about the business opportunities enabled by technology and which brands she believes are already providing a seamless customer experience.
Q: What is the growth strategy for Mr & Mrs Smith?
Tamara Heber-Percy: We are planning to grow our bookings by 60% in 2015 and treble them over the next three years. We are looking at where we go next – it could be Brazil, Germany or China. We have to find ‘our type’ of customers, those that like our types of hotels. Our customers can be 25 to 70 years old, but what links them all is a sense of style: we serve the ‘individual’ type looking for something that is out of the ordinary, who doesn’t want a cookie-cutter experience.
Q: Does such rapid growth present any difficulties?
Tamara Heber-Percy: We want to keep our focus on basic service levels. When you are growing at this rate, it can be tough to deliver good service and we don’t just want to be a call centre. In fact, we refer to the call centre as the ‘travel team’ and they are not siloed. We expect them to be experts on our products. If we have a customer who is spending quite a lot of money, we want someone at the end of the phone who understands that person and the lifestyle that person leads.
Q: Mr & Mrs Smith first tried personalised emails this year – why did it take so long?
Tamara Heber-Percy: We started thinking about personalisation about three years ago, but were not ready to analyse the data that was going to come back and didn’t have the ability to crunch through it. We do send out a lot of very different emails including monthly newsletters with offers and one-offs. We are looking at how much is personalised across those.
There are challenges – the fact that content is going to be chosen by an algorithm does not sit comfortably with the editorial teams. And you will get it wrong – the first two emails we tried did not work at all. For the monthly bulletin it is quite difficult for the editors to let go of control, for instance over which key picture is chosen.
Q: What is the approach with personalisation and can you measure the return on investment?
Tamara Heber-Percy: There are varying degrees of control around personalisation and you could offer a totally personalised email, but you don’t want it over-personalised and we are still learning. Not all our emails are 100% personalised. If we have one incredible offer relevant to a region, we will push it. The algorithms can be given different weightings and we cannot just let the customer dictate what we give them – personalisation must work in harmony with our marketing messages.
It’s difficult to show a specific conversion is directly attributable to personalisation but we see increased engagement with our ‘Recommended for You’ emails. When customers see a personalised email they do engage. The aim is to drive intent and not just serve it.
Q: Why should marketers be working more closely with their tech departments?
Tamara Heber-Percy: Technology is moving so fast and customers are adopting it so quickly that you have to be on top of it. We are hardly the new kids on the block but we have not started looking at wearable tech yet.
Our marketing director Amber Spencer-Holmes and I have an aligned view of what we want to do for our customers. Amber is very hot on customer service levels and we want to become the ‘glue’ between customers and hotels – we don’t want to be seen as an intermediary but a matchmaker.
There are also really interesting things happening in programmatic advertising and we will start that in earnest towards the end of the year
Q: Do you think any brands have got the customer experience spot-on?
Tamara Heber-Percy: I admire Net-A-Porter – I think it is definitely there. And in retail Burberry has got it right. It can personalise to the nth degree.
Q: How are you set up for mobile and tablet services?
Tamara Heber-Percy: We have an iPhone app, but our Android user base is in the minority and doesn’t warrant that investment yet. We will have an iPad app next. We are fully mobile-responsive across all our sites – that was last year’s project. We just saw a sea change in terms of conversions but the tablet is really where it’s at. I think mobile is used for a quick search but that conversion will be much less on mobile until we get one-click payment.
Q: How does Mr & Mrs Smith work with social media?
Tamara Heber-Percy: We have a huge Google+ following and have about 80,000 on Facebook and Twitter. We have several people empowered to use social media. Editorially we are quite photographic so use Instagram and Pinterest. It’s important to have conversations but social media needs to be integrated and you need to understand what the aim is. If you just broadcast stuff, you will never see the return on investment – you have to go out with a specific mission in mind.
Q: What changes in customer trends have you observed at Mr & Mrs Smith since starting in 2003?
Tamara Heber-Percy: The customers have certainly woken up to the possibilities in travel. I think they want to be challenged more and more, and break out of their humdrum lives. From their travels they want experiences and memories that can inform and enrich their lives.
The challenge in the travel industry is finding new ways to market what is essentially the same product. Unless you are talking about a very unusual destination, the lifestyle and travel press just want to know what’s ‘hot’ right now.