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Why travel agents rock, and other trip advice from HGTV's Tommy Smythe

Toronto-based designer Tommy Smythe.


For the past decade, Toronto-based designer Tommy Smythe has roamed the world for his "Tommy Takes Us" segments on CTV's The Marilyn Denis Show and HGTV's Great Canadian Homes, hitting dozens of countries along the way. With an aesthetic that is vintage within a modern context, Smythe is always on the lookout for sophistication amidst the everyday. Next up? He's designing a room at the Gladstone Hotel and launching his latest TV show, Where To I Do?, wherein he helps the newly engaged choose their wedding venue.

Design first

I always leave room for chance encounters and the idea of discovery in any given place, but to avoid disappointment I make reservations for at least one extraordinary restaurant experience and accommodation. When I book hotels, I'm interested in staying in either a timeless classic I've never experienced, or a new and notable design-driven property. For instance, in New York, if I want the classic, I stay at the Carlyle Hotel with interiors by Dorothy Draper and Mark Hampton that are still more or less intact since the 1920s and 1980s, respectively. It represents a storybook version of Manhattan that never fails to capture the imagination. I'm heading off to San Francisco at the end of February and I've booked accommodations at the San Francisco Proper, with interiors by Kelly Wearstler, who is arguably California's most admired contemporary designer. From what I've seen online, it looks really beautiful and it's also surprisingly affordable for San Francisco.

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Style and sustenance

I'm not a snob when it comes to restaurant decor and food. What I'm looking for is an experience, and that experience can come from either of those two things, or both of them. Ideally, it's both. A restaurant that has incredible design and also serves extraordinary food – for me, when travelling, that's the holy grail. Let me give you an example. Last year, Le Coucou in New York, with interior design by Roman and Williams, was the most Instagrammed restaurant interior pretty much of all time. Roman and Williams first became known as film set designers and then they segued into residential and commercial interior design. So they have an understanding of theatricality when it comes to interiors. I went there because I knew the interiors would be spectacular, but then the food was also great. I had a croque-monsieur that was the size of a phone book. I thought I couldn't eat the whole thing, but I did because I had to. It was that delicious.

Looking the part

Years of extensive travel have taught me that I don't need to pack an outfit for every day. Every hotel that I stay in has laundry services that I use in order to keep my suitcase at a manageable size. And I have a total formula when packing. In my suitcase I have one pair of jeans, one pair of chinos, one pair of dress pants, all navy blue, because navy blue goes everywhere. I pack two white button-downs, two blue button-downs; all Oxford cloth. A navy-blue blazer, one navy-blue thin cashmere sweater, one pair of stylish sneakers and one pair of dress shoes. Usually one or two scarves, for warmth or for flair, and one tie, just in case. Socks and undies; done. I wear fresh clothes every day, so if I'm away for more than three or four days, I just have what I've brought with me cleaned at the hotel. My big tip is that navy is the friendlier version of black. Blue says, "Hi, I'm looking for a great coffee."

Kill them with kindness

I've never seen a bad situation resolved through rudeness, abruptness or impatience. The nicer you are to people, the more you get. It's the golden rule. Nobody wants to deal with someone who's panic stricken, especially in the travel industry.

Get a travel agent on your speed dial

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I think a lot of people think they can book their own travel, but three days in and many internet rabbit holes later, you realize that if you had just sent a short e-mail to a travel agent with the dates and times of travel, you could have gotten an e-mail back within a couple of hours, and usually with confirmed travel at a reduced rate. I sent my travel agent an e-mail telling him I needed to get from Toronto to Boston, Boston to Barcelona, Barcelona to Lisbon and Lisbon home to Toronto. I gave him my departure dates and times for each city, and in less than 24 hours the whole thing was booked for under $1,400. It literally would have taken me two weeks to figure that out.

Immersive design time

Every city I go to, I ask whether there's a local flea market, and there usually is, especially in Europe. I also visit a house museum (a home that's been preserved because of its architecture or cultural significance). And I like finding a retail experience that is totally unique to where I am, such as A Vida Portuguesa in Lisbon. Finally, I always want a live experience, whether it's theatre, dance or music. When I was in Paris with my mom, we went to see a Vivaldi concert at La Sainte-Chapelle, a medieval church, on Île de la Cité in the centre of the city. It's year-round and something everyone can do. It's magic.

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