Most people would feel bitter after having a disastrous vacation, but for Lulu Townsend, creator of the ultraselective hotel collection Chic Retreats, the worst travel experiences can be the most inspiring. The 34-year-old Londoner remembers almost fondly the catastrophes that motivated her to launch her business. "When I was young, my parents often walked out of hotels. I remember one place in France: The loo was as tiny as a cupboard and there were hornets in our bedrooms. So we left. I thought it was funny—a real adventure." Today, she admits, "I am a nightmare guest. I notice all the details. It really annoys me that I can't go into a hotel and just relax. My husband finds it extremely annoying too."
An especially frustrating hotel experience at a big hotel on Barbados in 2002 finally led to the concept for Chic Retreats. "Our room was in between the housekeeping stations. The staff chatted so loudly that there was no way to have a midday snooze. We couldn't take a bath because the plug didn't work, and the food was awful." The travel agent who had arranged the trip charged a high fee to change hotels, but moving to the eight-room Lone Star—which impressed Townsend with its design and service—turned out to be well worth the additional $400. While talking to the manager, who suggested she book directly next time, Townsend had the idea to create a Web site for travelers seeking small, beautifully designed and impeccably run hotels, places that people often hear about only through word-of-mouth.
Lulu had an ideal for the kind of properties Chic Retreats would represent: her parents' own country house hotel, Palazzo Terranova, in an 18th-century villa in Italy's Umbria region, furnished with antique sofas and four-poster beds. The whole family has been involved in running the Palazzo since it opened in 1999. Lulu's mother, Sarah, a skilled hostess, oversees everything: booking guests, arranging weddings, giving out tips on local cashmere outlets and trattorias. And Lulu's sister Honor, who trained at London's Leiths School of Food and Wine, runs the kitchen, serving deliciously rustic dishes like grilled quail with a pine-nut-and-prune stuffing.