Meet Lulu Townsend - Suffolk's queen of luxury travel
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Lulu Townsend may very well have one of the best jobs in the world. As the owner of high-end travel marketing and media company Lulu’s Luxury Lifestyle, pre-pandemic she’d spend her time flitting from one boutique hotel to the next, helping the owners plan their social media strategies and content, writing reviews, publicising transformations.
Imagine her, if you will, as a modern day ‘Jane Bond’ - only without the licence to kill. Transporting herself around the globe on one adventure after another. If you want to know which hotels have the fluffiest pillows. The best hidden restaurants tucked into the side streets of Marrakech. The latest must-visit destination. Lulu’s your woman.
Of course, it’s not all martinis and sunbathing. There’s little to be said for standing around in airports, hurrying through travel itineraries, and having to be on ceremony 24 hours a day, all while making notes. But it’s a pleasure and a privilege for the intrepid traveller, who says what she loves most is working with small ‘mom and pop’ operations where she can make a genuine difference.
A ‘month in the life of Lulu’ may include travelling to write three or four reviews, heading overseas every other month or so, and liaising daily with the businesses she works alongside.
“I’m a great believer that you should do what you love,” Lulu says. “That’s what gets you out of bed in the morning. The hotel and hospitality industry are things I am passionate about. And I love that so many of the hotels I visit are privately run. It’s their baby, so it’s a lifestyle for them too – not a job. It’s lovely meeting these people and hearing their stories.
“And I adore helping them and being part of their journey. No two days are the same.”
Obviously the travel industry took a huge hit in all parts during 2020 and 2021, with disruption still on the horizon. This was, says Lulu, a time to do something a bit different (we’ll get to that later). And it didn’t stop her explorations. There were spells in Italy and Portugal, and just before Christmas she managed to sneak in an escape to Rajasthan which was quite the experience.
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“It was pretty amazing,” says Lulu. “I had been before but probably around 10 years ago, and never to Rajasthan. It was touch and go. I’d booked to go in September 2021, and it was cancelled but there was a little window and I found out visa to India were going to be made available on November 15.
“I thought I’d book a ticket with my air miles and if I had to cancel so be it. Because of Covid I had to go to London and sit around for a day. Surprisingly my visa was free which was a nice treat when I got to the front of the queue.
“I went on November 28 and five or six days in, all the travel advice changed again. They closed the applications for visas and if I’d gone a week later I would have been staying at the airport in India waiting for a clear PCR test!”
The atmosphere, because of Covid, was somewhat tense on parts of her trip Lulu remembers.
“I felt lucky to be there but it was strange because I honestly was the only Western traveller I saw. And quite a few of the locals wanted to know why I was there, how I got there, whether I’d had my jabs, which is I guess understandable. It was worst at the airport.
“But then I went to Jodhpur and I had people asking to take selfies with me as they hadn’t seen a white person in two years. It was incredible for lots of different reasons. A beautiful country with beautiful people and beautiful places to stay.”
Born in Colchester, 50-year-old Lulu grew up in Thorpe Morieux, a mile from Lavenham, attending boarding school in Sudbury, and then near Diss, from the age of seven.
Her dad worked in the City, while her mum had designs on a career in hotels, which obviously had a huge influence on Lulu’s own path in life.
Her parents ran a guest house just outside Cortona in Italy, later purchasing a run-down hotel an hour away which would go on to become the first boutique accommodation of its kind in Umbria, racking up a number of awards.
“It was an amazing project,” remembers Lulu, who worked at the hotel in the holidays and out of school time. “When they bought it was full of sheep and dung. It was windowless. My mother took it on all while running the guest house. She was an amazing host and I think you either are or you aren’t. You can’t be turned into a good host. People staying with her loved her.”
Lulu’s first job was working for a company called Media Makers securing sponsorship for the Monaco and San Marino Grand Prix races, before taking a job in corporate entertainment and events with Barclays on Basil Street in Knightsbridge.
She later returned to work at the family hotel, helping to raise its profile in lifestyle magazines and online, at a time when the potential of the internet was yet to be fully realised. “There were no pictures,” Lulu laughs. “It was all text on a blank screen.
“I got the ball rolling for them and then decided to start hotel marketing on my own. In 2002 I launched a website and rebranded to Lulu’s Luxury Lifestyle in 2019.
Along the way Lulu happened upon now-husband Hamish at a party in London. “It’s a small world. We grew up in similar circles in Suffolk, so I knew him when I was younger.”
And the couple had two daughters, aged 15 and 18.
With travel opportunities becoming more and more available as the weeks pass by, Lulu’s diary for 2022 is already filling up.
“I’m being approached by quite a few lifestyle brands which is really great. And a few start-ups –very exciting. A lot of them are nervous because they’re not sure if it’s the right time to launch but I think it’s a great time.
“People are looking to live, not just survive. That’s what we’ve been doing for two years. Life is for living. If you can dream and believe, it’s worth giving anything a shot.
“As far as marketing goes. People are after an experience and a story behind a property and the people who run it. My job is to make brands come to life. That story, location and the people are key. People are, I think, fed up of faceless brands. They want the personal touch.”
What makes a great hotel?
“For me the welcome is the first thing. I don’t think it matters how big a hotel is, the first impression is vital as far as I’m concerned! And I love a welcome drink. There’s nothing worse than arriving after a 10-hour flight and being ushered to give your credit card details and passport number. I hate that pressure. It’s nice to have a little sit down, even if it’s just with a glass of water, before you have to deal with any of that.
“Another thing that makes a great hotel for me is the pillows. My girls think I’m nuts because when we go on family holidays I always go and check them. They’re a bit like mattresses – very personal. I like a down pillow.
“I don’t mind if a hotel room doesn’t have a mini bar and I can leave room service. I’d rather go out and experience the bar and restaurant – I'm not there to stay in the room and I don’t want to eat in.
“And I’m not big on star ratings. I stayed years ago at a really wonderful place in Jamaica where the room was on stilts and there was a big communal kitchen. It was simple, but had incredible views over the sea. For me that was luxury but it didn’t have loads of stars.”
Lulu’s favourite trip
“I love Marrakech. I last went there in November 2019 and visited five or six properties. No place is the same. There’s a lovely vegetarian spot to stay called Dar Kawa. The chef’s been there for 20 years, the design is gorgeous, the pillows are wonderful, towels are fluffy with tassels and pom poms. It’s a magical oasis in the heart of the Medina, five minutes’ walk from the main square. On the other side is Riad de Tarabel that’s decorated inside like a French chateau. It’s beautiful and fairytail-like. They have literally hidden a spa inside. There’s a gilded mirror that slides across and you have this wonderland separate building completely hidden. I also recommend Riad Adore. It’s gorgeous. So romantic. You could stay for a month, even a year, in Marrakech and still be discovering wonderful things. It’s easily accessible from the UK, the weather is lovely year-round, and it’s affordable.
“As a family our absolutely favourite place where we go every year is Ile de Re on the west coast of France. The beauty of this place is that your travel everywhere by bicycle – no car needed. The markets are fantastic, as are the restaurants, and lazy afternoons on the beach. We stay in a little hotel within walking distance of the sea. Heaven!”
On Lulu’s travel ‘bucket list’
I’d really like to go to Croatia, Egypt for the history and culture, Fiji, and Barcelona – that's top of my list for Europe.
Lulu’s best-loved undiscovered destination
“There’s a place I visited in Portugal last October I’d never been to before. As an English person when you talk about the Algarve, you automatically imagine the big resorts.
“But if you go 25 minutes outside of Faro away from the Algarve there’s a little place called Olhao. Oh my goodness it’s fabulous. It’s a quiet fishing town that’s really unassuming, with white-washed buildings, fishermen sailing every morning towards Morocco for their daily catch, the chatter of locals in cafes, cobbled streets.
“They have these wonderful islands nearby and you can get on a ferry and do day trips. That's my little find. It’s a total contrast to what we think of as the Algarve because it’s so authentic. You feel like you’re living like a local. The most unassuming restaurant will be selling the most delicious food. And, of course, there are the custard tarts. It’s heaven.”
Lulu’s favourite British destinations for a staycation
“A new opening last year was The Double Red Duke in the Cotswolds. They have fantastic pillows! The attention to detail is fantastic in terms of decoration and colour combinations, and the layout is wonderful.
“Bathrooms are huge, with big showers and their own Hundred Acre products. Plus the food and bar are amazing. I also like that it’s dog-friendly and child-friendly and that the staff are so lovely.
“Another really fantastic place with hardworking, passionate owners and a brilliant team is the Duncombe Arms in Derbyshire, five miles from Alton Towers. It’s got 10 rooms and the welcome here is so genuine and friendly. You’re made to feel like family.”
A real gem
Alongside her luxury travel brand, in 2022 Lulu is also growing her jewellery company – started during lockdown as a bright, colourful and creative way to keep her spirits high and mind occupied as travel restrictions and lockdowns loomed.
“Mixologems came out of my desire to go to India,” Lulu explains. “I was researching the trip and came across these wonderful families who hand carved and hand polished stones and made jewellery so I decided to set something up.
“Something that would spark happiness.”
Lulu built a website herself from scratch and sourced gems from around the world to be transformed by the artisans who inspired her new business. “I went to India to meet them and it was so sweet. They welcomed me into their home and I felt really honoured to be able to take time to meet them and their families. It really was special. And a bit scary. I was on my own and didn’t know where I was. I’d be walking down a dusty road thinking ‘where am I going?’, but it was worth it.
“They are so pleased and proud of their work.”
Mixologems, says Lulu, is filled with variety, with a piece for every pocket. “The idea is you collect and mix and match gems and chains. Pendants range from an acrylic gummy bear for £2.95 to 18 carat gold tourmaline lips for £300. Weve got sparkling red lips, hand carved flowers, evil eye charms, little clouds with cubic zirconia raindrops. So much choice.
“There’s literally something for every age and every budget. It can be fun, sophisticated, luxurious. Everything’s designed by me and there is a lot of colour – I just absolutely love it.”
Find out more about Lulu at lulusluxurylifestyle.uk, order Mixologems at Mixologems.com and Lulu also has an Instagram blog interviewing strong female businesswomen @fabulousfemalefounders