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4th August 2022

Mr and Mrs Smith Founder James Lohan: Journal of a Voyage Round My Room

As the travel industry continues to confront headwinds, James Lohan tells us about what the life of a travel executive is like during a pandemic. First published in February of 2021.

Monday 1st February

The overnight dreams that preface my working week are of a world where travel has made a triumphant return (flying, literally) and the pandemic is yesterday’s news. Then I wake, read the actual news on my Kindle, and wish I was still asleep. Turmoil in the US, the NHS at breaking point, flooding across the UK…bleak doesn’t really do it justice. I’ve been lucky enough to have escaped the virus and many of its direst repercussions. But for someone who spends most of his waking (and sleeping) hours either dreaming of or actually in far-off destinations, the enforced domesticity of lockdown is a perverse kind of cruelty.  

After digesting much of the daily news cycle, I check the company’s daily booking stats. Unfortunately, these usually confirm that I should have opened that article on Brexit – another car crash that would’ve made for happier reading. Then I’m up and out to walk Ziggy, our working Cocker Spaniel, to clear my mind. Or I consider filling it with yet another inspiring podcast to make me feel like I haven’t achieved enough lately. Gunnersbury park is fine but I’m starting to feel like a lion at Longleat: I want some bigger plains to roam.

After two cups of coffee, a refreshed To-Do list and an inbox clean-up, it’s straight into a “thrilling” ops-board meeting to discuss cancellations, amendments and furlough rotas (again). After that, it’s my direct team catch-up to decide what can get done during their limited flexi furlough hours. Furlough has been a great financial help but it’s hard to run the business when your team is so part-time. Funny how we’ve come to view the scheme: it used to be a dirty word, some colleagues interpreting it like they’d been benched. Others have loved it, seeing it as time to rest and contemplate their futures. By now, though, everyone understands how important it is to help us survive the next few months.

Tuesday 2nd February

Tuesday mornings it’s yoga, 8am, to keep my ageing joints moving in the right direction – even if right now the business isn’t. On this particular Tuesday we’re bracing ourselves for another surprise announcement from No.10 Sesame Street, before which we hold our breath and wonder what Big Bird Boris and Kermit Hancock are going to spring on us next. I have no problem with lockdown – an absolute necessity in response to the crisis. What’s so difficult for us is the lastminute.com nature of the decision-making that’s causing chaos for agents like ourselves who have to pull rabbits out of hats as we yet again cancel or amend our members’ holiday plans – with less than 24 hours’ notice. It’s a nightmare, too, for hoteliers who might be rueing that enormous food order and wondering, for instance, what they’re going to do with 200 turkeys. But while it’s soul-sapping for our team, I’m proud of the way we’re doing our very best as a business to keep our members and hoteliers happy.

Wednesday 3rd February

The thing I do like about working from home is the commute: very convenient indeed. That said, it’s an odd sensation when the day’s big ‘outing’ is a shopping trip to the local greengrocer and butcher in Chiswick – in a mask and at a safe two-metre distance. But cherished time away from my desk it has most certainly become. Wednesday also means a meeting with my main team to discuss sustainability and what we’re doing to integrate such practices throughout the business. We’ll shortly be announcing our efforts in supporting the Blue Marine Foundation and the World Land Trust, two vital conservation charities with goals to protect the earth’s precious assets on land and sea. And we’re adding a more dedicated sustainability section on each page of our 1,400-strong collection to help our members find and book the planet’s most forward-thinking hotels. I’m certain that an important by-product of the pandemic will be people’s greater awareness of the climate crisis and how our travel choices impact it.  

Thursday 4th February

Yoga day two, where I try to pretend I’m on a beach in Bali doing my downward-facing dog, but the rumbling of the E3 bus keeps breaking my shavasana in our front living room where I’m practicing. It’s nearly the weekend, which as a concept begins to mean less and less – just with fewer meetings and emails. What to do with the kids to keep them off their computers is the weekend challenge, and explaining that we can’t see Grandma and no you can’t have a play-date and yes we will be walking the dog again and yes it will be in the same location as yesterday…it’s tough for them. Home-schooling and even just making three meals a day for us all is not an easy gig. I never thought I’d miss my Pret a Manger lunchtime sandwich so much, which was just a few minutes’ walk from our office in Shepherd’s Bush.

I sit next to my wife (our CEO) in our home office and it’s a constant juggle to agree on who’s speaking or who’s muting during the various online meetings so we don’t create feedback for the other poor Zoomers on our call. We’re both going slightly mad as we’re also forced by proximity to hear each other’s individual calls, and the ‘how’s-Covid-working-out-for-you?’ chat that precursors every conversation nowadays. That said, a couple of very nice new partnership meets means the day has been a success, and all wins – however big or small – are gratefully received right now.

Friday 5th February

Thank God: the day of wine. I don’t drink during the week, so Friday has become a celebration of, well, my midweek abstinence. And as I’m drinking a little less, I’m spending a little more on each bottle – and I can’t wait for Friday to come around to pop open my next treat. Work slows on a Friday, too, as so many of the team is on furlough, so it’s a good time to tidy up loose ends so Monday feels a little less daunting. Our flight has just been cancelled for February half term to what would have been our first curation trip / holiday (always mix business with pleasure) in nearly a year. Gutted. It gets to midday and I’m already thinking about cracking open the wine but I still have a couple of meetings left so better hold off. 

Friday is also when WhatsApp group texts with mates seem to explode into life, gaining more momentum throughout the day as people clock off one-by-one and begin mixing their G&Ts. How strange that socialising has been reduced to this, although the novelty has very much worn off by now. Tentatively, we all discuss getting together for a group holiday in a villa when lockdown ends and I’m quizzed on predictions for travel opening up again and where best to go.  There’s no doubt in my mind that 2021 will eventually end up being a good year; I just wish we could get on with it sooner. Patience has never been the trait of an entrepreneur – so I’ll just have another glass and remind myself: we’ll get there. Cheers.

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