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How to find a luxe hotel that’s more sexy, less stuffy

The Alila Villas in Bali: One of the properties available through Mr and Mrs Smith.

Mr and Mrs Smith

The market for luxury and boutique hotel booking services has long been well served. So when the London-based upstart Mr & Mrs Smith entered the fray a decade ago, the founders had to be clear on what set it apart from industry leaders such as Relais & Châteaux and Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

"They're all about luxury," Mr & Mrs Smith co-founder Tamara Lohan posited during a springtime visit to Canada. "We're about style and character."

Properties "can be classic or contemporary," James Lohan, her husband and business partner, elaborated. "As long as they have good taste."

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"Never stuffy," Tamara Lohan added, easing into point form. "Great food."

The governing idea, then, is that, while the establishment member hotel guides have traditionally placed a premium on silver-plated flatware, high-thread-count sheets and an unwavering abundance of deferential waitstaff in black jackets, Mr & Mrs Smith is far less rigid, valuing great style over the conventional trappings of luxury. It aims not for the sort of customers who like to slip on a necktie for dinner, but rather, those who yearn to take theirs off. The emphasis is more on "buzz" than opulence; some hotel rooms go for less than $200 a night.

"I used to have nightmares about inspectors with clipboards, badges and white gloves, running their fingers over surfaces to make sure they were perfectly clean," Tamara Lohan said, in sarcastic summation of the old-school approach.

The inspectors for Mr & Mrs Smith go about things differently. Primary operatives in the field are the Lohans (who claim to have visited each one of the 950 properties). Next come a flock of anonymous inspectors who are largely doing it for a lark, and qualify for the job only by dint of their love of travel, abundant experience and certifiable good taste. In other words, they are their target audience – although sometimes more in aspiration than reality. The burlesque star Dita von Teese has been known to fill out the occasional Smith report, as has Stella McCartney and the exquisite Cate Blanchett.

The reports they collectively produce are intended to generate information that is practical rather than lofty. The tips on the dining room will not steer you towards a signature dish, but instead, the best table for a romantic tête-à-tête. The report on the bar is unlikely to assess the length of its list of wines by the glass, but certain to comment on whether or not it is a stylish place to hang out, with a proper level of lighting and quality music.

The only trouble with all this chatter about enviably cool hotels was that it was done during an event celebrating the launch of Mr & Mrs Smith into Canada. And so the spotlight was on the five Canadian properties freshly added to their portfolio.

One of them – the Drake, in Toronto – fulfills the boutique mandate perfectly. You could also make a reasonable case for the Hotel St Paul in Old Montreal, but perhaps less so for Tofino's Wickaninnish Inn (which is also a Relais & Châteaux). But it seems absurd to describe as "boutique" our two Shangri-La hotels, with their 100-plus room towers.

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"The Shangri-La is quite removed from what we ordinarily do," James Lohan said. "When you're dealing with great boutique hotels, there is always a tussle between supply and demand. In Canada, you just don't have that many at the moment. There's the Drake. And then … well, you don't have what they have in London, Rome or Paris."

Do not think of Mr & Mrs Smith as a bible, but a starting point. Take full advantage of the website's booking-fee reductions and exploit what they do best – a managed and curated travel experience tailored to your desires.

The lowdown

So why is the company called Mr & Mrs Smith if the couple who founded it are Tamara and James Lohan? In Britain, a "Mr & Mrs Smith getaway" is slang for a dirty weekend; it implies the couple is checking in under a fake name, for reasons they'd obviously like to keep private. And yes, it existed well before the movie.

Mr & Mrs Smith is a membership-based booking service. It is free to join, but paying extra for the SilverSmith ($60) and GoldSmith ($600) levels brings perks such as room upgrades, additional discounts and airport-lounge access (prices in U.S. dollars).

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained the British membership prices. This version has been updated with the North American fees.

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