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February 24, 2009updated Feb 04, 2014

Sonu Shivdasani

By Chris Boyle

Sonu Shivdasani

Chairman, CEO and Founder
Six Senses Resorts & Spas

Sonu Shivdasani might be the accidental hotelier, but he has nonetheless made a mark on the industry with his couture approach and relentless commitment to high-end and green spas and resorts. The Chairman, CEO, and Founder of Six Senses Resorts & Spas recently had breakfast in Bangkok with Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan, talking about what it takes to go green and stay independent. Here’s what’s next for the soft-spoken Englishman.

ET: Tell us about your background and how you started Six Senses.

Sonu Shivdasani: I was born in England, studied at Eton and then went to Oxford, where I studied English literature—really nothing that you would normally associate with a business or hotel career. When I graduated from university, my wife, Eva, and I used to go on holiday to the Maldives. We were living in Geneva. My father had been very successful trading with Nigeria, so the office was in Geneva and my brother was running the family business. We had this unique opportunity to lease what’s now Soneva Fushi, the Island of Kunfunadhoo. We’d bid for islands a few times. We wanted to offer a different concept, a very high-end model with fewer villas, but double the lease rental. They nearly accepted us, but at the last minute, some people had doubts about the Maldives being a real luxury destination, so our bid was rejected.

Then we had the opportunity to lease this island, which had been abandoned since 1979, when the previous resort had closed. In those days, the boats weren’t very sophisticated, so it would take some guests three days to transfer the last 60 miles across the channel. The resort failed because of the transfers. We went to see the island and fell in love with it. It’s the largest island for tourism in the Maldives, which is quite unique. At that time, we were the only island in that atoll, so we had 60 uninhabited islands to ourselves. We still have five private picnic islands in addition to our main resort island.

It’s a unique environment, so we took it over. Then, all the hardship began in terms of developing a deserted island and the trials and tribulations of building in an environment which did not have building companies and where supplies were very difficult to find. With a bit of luck, as well as hard work, Soneva Fushi was a success. And that led other people to us, saying, “Will you manage our hotels?” That’s how we expanded and developed the Soneva brand [a combination of the owning couple’s first names]. We manage the Six Senses branding, with Six Senses Hideaways, Six Senses Latitudes, Six Senses Destination Spas, and Six Senses Spas.

We just opened a destination spa on the East Coast of Phuket, which is very beautiful. It’s on the Island of Naka with views of Phang-Nga Bay. It’s a pure destination spa. The lady who created Chivasom, Anna Maria Tavares, who’s the MD of Six Senses Destination Spa, put it together. We have 80 practitioners, therapists, lifestyle counselors, Chinese herbalists, and acupuncturists who are there for overall well-being and counseling. Every guest is doing about two or three treatments a day, so when we’re full, we’re up to 350 treatments a day.

The difference from other destination spas is people are given more freedom and flexibility with the schedule. You have a nice villa with space and privacy. It’s for your 21st-Century, wealthy traveler that lives in London, Paris or New York, where a 300-square meter apartment costs $30 million. Our guest villas are about 300-square meters. When they’re on holiday, they don’t want to stay in a 50-square meter room. They want a nice pool villa and time to relax in the morning if they want to. People normally live very hectic schedules, so to have your time dictated by a destination spa too? You should really have your own time.

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ET: Going back to the beginning, no background in the hotel business? Obviously you’ve accomplished a lot because your resorts are known worldwide for their uniqueness and level of service. Was it an advantage to not come from a hospitality background?

Sonu Shivdasani: I wouldn’t say that no background in hospitality is an advantage. That said, quite a few hospitality leaders today come from outside the industry, so it does give a different perspective and different priority. What’s important is that one has a tendency and a nature towards hospitality. So whether you come from a hospitality background or you don’t, it’s whether your personality fits. Eva and I love the creative side. We love the interior design and the conceptual architecture. We love experiences.

The hospitality industry is nice, because unlike pure property, where you design, build and then sell, you can actually build a business. There’s continuity. It’s like a farmer, each year going back to the property, looking at how one can continuously improve the yield. If you look at Soneva Fushi today, it’s a totally different place than it was five years ago, because we’re continuously evolving.

Even our concepts within new properties are continuously evolving. The philosophy of the Soneva brand is intelligent luxury, which means we question and challenge what really is luxury. The 21st-Century traveler is living in a totally different context to the travelers of the 19th or 20th Century. We live in London apartments and travel on a plane 400 hours a year. So simple things like having sand on the floors in the public areas is counterintuitive to luxury. You normally think of marble and air conditioning, but to have an open-air space, especially in a temperate climate, is more comfortable than an air-conditioned marble floored dining room. You don’t even have to pack shoes.

Before you come on the island, you have a cold towel, a coconut drink, and a little bag that says “No news, no shoes.” The shoes go into the bag, and we write your room number on the tag. The butler puts them back on your feet just before you’re leaving to go back to the international airport. That’s part of our intelligent luxury philosophy.

ET: Tell us about your portfolio. You have Soneva, Six Senses Hideaway, Six Senses Latitude, Six Senses Destination Spa, Six Senses Spas, Evason, Six Senses Private Residences. How many properties are in the portfolio, and what’s the philosophy between all these?

Sonu Shivdasani: We started off with the Soneva brand as our flagship. Then we found that a few properties didn’t quite meet that criteria, so Evason was created, which is the opposite of Soneva. Last year we went through a re-branding exercise, and we felt we should try and club everything into Six Senses – apart from the Evason. So we have Soneva Fushi by Six Senses, and Gili by Six Senses. At Six Senses Hideaway, you’re hiding away. Latitude is about more community, and then there is Six Senses Spas and Six Senses Destination Spa. So Six Senses is the main branding. Today we have 12 hotels open and another five opening by next summer. There are about 20 projects in the pipeline.

The question and challenge is why you are growing – what are the real benefits and what are the dangers to growing? What are the economies of scale that are relevant to our particular business? What are the dangers of brand dilution, quality and standards? We’re not going to have 50 properties in 50 different countries. We’ll instead have five or ten properties in 12 clusters, where people can be promoted from one to the other. The clusters we’ve identified are Vietnam, Thailand, South India, South Asia, North Indian Ocean, and South Indian Ocean. We’ll be taking over Mozambique and Mauritius. And then there’s the Middle East cluster: Oman, Jordan, and Egypt. Another cluster is Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. We’re going into the Caribbean area, Central America and Brazil.

ET: When all of this development has evolved, how many properties will it be?

Sonu Shivdasani: In the next five years, we’ll be up to about 40 or 50 properties. We don’t have a target number of properties. What drives our growth are opportunities that make sense for Six Senses, where we feel that we can add a different destination with a twist.

ET: You and Six Senses have become identified with sustainable tourism and green tourism. It seems like everybody has now jumped on the bandwagon. How is green is evolving?

Sonu Shivdasani: Our DNA at Six Senses is to create innovative and enlightening experiences in a sustainable environment. We’ve got a team of people who are continuously focusing on that. Every property has an environmentalist. The challenge we have at Six Senses is to take people luxuriously back to nature, to show that natural harmony with the environment and luxury can work hand in hand.

There’s a general feeling that you either have luxury or you have nature, but I think there’s an ability to offer people comforts whilst not emitting carbon. We built a zero carbon villa. For example, the walls are made of earth—no cement in the construction of the room, just the lining of the pool—and the beams are made from local eucalyptus trees. The foundations are stones found on-site. It’s about six degrees cooler than just a simple thatched roof, because there’s a lot of earth and then there’s planting on the roof. But that has a Bose Sound System and a big plasma TV. You have all the normal comforts with very little CO2 emission.

It is our goal to get Soneva Fushi not carbon neutral, which it will be by the end of the year, but zero carbon where we turn the generators off. I think we’ll get to that by the end of 2010. We’ve been trying different cooling units from India, which are non-corrosive by using water. The water’s quite deep and there’s very little oxygen in it, so it’s not that corrosive anyway. The test rooms are working very well. It’s actually quite chilly in the rooms, so that will save about 30 percent of our energy load.

We’re also using hot waste heat from the generator for our hot water recovery. But the big break is the solar power balls, which are like sun dishes that power a steam turbine. The steam turbine generates electricity that goes for about three hours after the sun sets. We’re looking at ways to store that energy.

ET: What advice would you give me if I were a business owner who wanted to make my business more environmentally-friendly?

Sonu Shivdasani: First, you need to create a culture of that. Habits don’t change very easily, and people have old habits. If something’s convenient, it’s difficult to make people change. You need people within the company who have a passion for that, who can then support the rest of the team. In terms of offsetting, any capital that goes into renewable energy is generally helping the overall growth and improvement in technology.

ET: Tell us about the management philosophy and “virtuous circles” that you talk about on your website.

Sonu Shivdasani: The virtuous circle at Six Senses is that the bottom line comes after various steps. If you just focus on the bottom line without the basics, you’ll miss the plot and never be truly profitable. So we believe that our success comes firstly from our host and ideas, really capturing the imagination with great concepts. We have a team that is passionate about delivering amazing experiences and have really bought culture and values to the company. Once you’ve done that, you have satisfied guests who come back again and again. Eventually you get the profitability. But if you straight go for the financial numbers, you miss the first three steps, and you’ll never really be truly profitable and successful.

ET: Stepping away from business, what do you like to do when you’re not working?

Sonu Shivdasani: We love all sorts of art and creativity, travel and food. Good food is a great pleasure, and traveling for food is nice. We love beautiful places. From a sport point of view, I love skiing, and we love beach resorts. We enjoy water sports a lot.

ET: Any thoughts to having a Six Senses ski resort?

Sonu Shivdasani: I’d love to do that. It’s not terribly green, but if we were to do one, we’d probably look at a heli-skiing resort. The best type of skiing is when you’re heli-skiing, and you’re not at all limited by the ski lifts or the ranges. That’s something we may look at eventually. But if the right opportunity were to come up, we would certainly look at it. I was talking to the minister of tourism in Montenegro, where he has some interesting lodges, and he’d like us to do something.

ET: Your company is a family business, you and your wife, Eva. What is a typical day like for each of you? Do you interact? Any advice for spouses that work together?

Sonu Shivdasani: I think you need to agree on having some space. You need to agree on the lines. It’s clear: Eva does the interiors, I’m more into the conceptual architecture. That way, if there’s anything more architectural, I’ll have the last decision. Interiors, she’ll have the last decision. But we bounce ideas off one another quite a lot. And if one of us feels very strongly against something, we won’t do it from a design point of view.

I’ve also been focusing more on other areas of business: sales, operations, and human resources. HR is a very important strategic initiative for us. She’s less involved in those. She’s more involved on the creative interior side and the environmental sustainability.

ET: As a husband and wife team running an expanding global company, I’m sure there’s quite a lot of cross-communication. How do you make sure everyone’s on the same page?

Sonu Shivdasani: Everyone knows that anything to do with taste and what the guest sees, even if it’s the crockery or cutlery, needs to run it by Eva. We have sessions where everyone will come up with ideas. Eva will be there and myself, and we’ll agree on all our best new practices.

I think our management knows exactly which areas I like to have some say on and which areas they can drive. We have a lot of communication, which is very important. If the communication is strong, then that helps in any company. There are clear lines of responsibility to help clarify things.

ET: When you’re not in a beautiful beach resort or in a city at a business hotel, what do you look for in the hotels where you stay?

Sonu Shivdasani: You need to look at the practicalities. Is there an element of comfort in the room? Is there a nice, soft mattress with a nice duvet? Is the bed facing north? For me that’s quite important. I need to sleep to the north, so I have a little compass. The housemaids must think it very odd when they see that the pillow’s at the front of the bed. A gym is clearly very important. And just a very friendly, efficient team.

ET: Any favorite hotels?

Sonu Shivdasani: I was at the Peninsula Hong Kong last week, and that has to be one of the best city hotels in the world. It’s truly remarkable, from the quality of the hosts to the fantastic delivery of service and quality. It’s faultless—they never slip up. The phone itself is possibly the most efficient phone I’ve ever come across. If you want to press Guest Services, you just press Guest Services. You don’t have to press Speaker and then Guest Services. It’s little things like that. The lighting is very easy and the air-con’s very simple to operate. You can virtually walk into the room and it’s all very easy to operate. And just extremely comfortable.

There are others like the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo. It is quite fun, with a super design and restaurant. I quite like the Taj Mahal in Bombay, the way they’ve renovated that. It wasn’t as nice before, but they’ve totally renovated it with an art deco design inside.

ET: Is there anything you’re thinking about beyond the actual hotel properties?

Sonu Shivdasani: We have the retail shops within the group. We’d like to develop the retail offering further. We’re also looking at developing spa products. We have our first product range coming out, and we want to take that to another level.

ET: And real estate, residences?

Sonu Shivdasani: Half of our new developments have a residential component. That is becoming a fundamental thing, to have residences attached to the resort. I think there’s a fundamental need for people to have second homes. About 2 million baby boomers are coming to retirement age and would like to have a house in the sun. A lot of people actually want houses that are managed, so the whole concept of buying your second home attached to a hotel, means you’re getting everything managed by the hotel.

For a lot of people, it’s quite compelling. People nowadays are short on time. The whole thing about 19th-Century luxury and 21st-Century luxury.

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