Sasha Arms, MVHOTELS speaks to Sonu Shivdasani, Founder, Chairman and CEO - Soneva.
Tell us your story. Why did you decide to build your home on a deserted island, and how did this lead to you becoming the Founder, Chairman and CEO of globally famous resorts in Asia?
My wife Eva fell in love with the untouched beauty of the simple way of life in the Maldives. When we married, we spent our honeymoon travelling around some of the world’s most exclusive hotels and resorts. We decid- ed that we’d like to open a resort like no other. I already had the management expertise and Eva the style and design concepts. So we bought an abandoned resort on a far flung 100-acre atoll in the Maldives and set about creating our dream. It grew from there. We always wanted to develop a resort that would satisfy our desires for a dream destina- tion for those who liked to travel in luxurious style, and we both had an overwhelming desire to protect the environment.
What we conceived was a unique philos- ophy of simple sophistication whilst returning luxuriously to nature. We are very clear about our responsibilities as custodians of these beautiful places in which we operate.
You’re also the founder of the hugely successful Six Senses Resorts and Spas, which you sold in 2012. Does keeping a closer eye on Soneva help you deliver a better experience to travellers?
The Soneva brand was always our truly high-end brand. Since 2012, our strategy has been to only operate hotels of which we also own at least 50%. When we owned Six Senses, we found in such a big hotel group that many things started mixing up: the brands, the standards and so on. Soneva reflected our views, so we decided to concentrate on this project and keep our individuality.
To manage the level and quality of a Soneva resort takes inordinate attention and focus on details, not least to be able to maintain our dedication to our sustainability goals. The high level of the Soneva resorts is all down to the details. We employ a number of roles that most other hotels don’t, such as healers in residence, artists in residence, choco- latiers, master butchers, resident astron- omers, astrologers, conservationists, permaculturalists, recycling and environment experts, mycologists (mushroom experts), freedivers, shark and manta ray experts, raw food experts, resident ayurvedic chefs and doctors. It’s difficult to apply that kind of approach and detail to a large chain of resorts.
What has been the most notable change in the travel industry in the Maldives since Soneva Fushi opened in 1995?
Before we opened Soneva Fushi, the Maldives was considered a package tour destination for mass market tourists. Today things are very different; the Maldives is considered to be the, or one of the, leading luxury travel destina- tions in the world. Previously, Maldivian resorts never won awards for the quality of guest experiences. In the last 15 years the resorts in the Maldives have quite literally dominated global awards and the media!
Also in the early 1990s, Soneva Fushi was one of the very few resorts outside the Malé or Ari Atolls, as the domestic transfer infrastructure had not been developed. Today, there are many resorts in outer Atolls. This all started with the arrival of Hummingbird Helicop- ters that morphed into one of the seaplane companies...now there are several companies that fly guests all around the Maldives. Also on the increase are the domestic airports, which make a big difference to the general reach. Daravandhoo, an island 20 minutes by boat from Soneva Fushi, now has a domestic airport which means that guests arriving into Malé after sunset can still fly north to us in the same day. It opens up flight options from all around the world.
You’re widely considered as being the first luxury hotelier in the Maldives. How have you seen the Maldives benefit from luxury tourism?
It has been proven that luxury travel supports the destination and the community living in it, whereas mass market tourism actually undermines the quality of life of the local community, so the country has benefitted over the years from its shift from mass marketing tourism to wealthy luxury travellers. There is of course competition where there was not before, but I believe the presence of other luxury hotels has benefitted everyone including Soneva Fushi. In the past, hotels in the Maldives spent very little money on marketing. They would sign a contract with a single tour operator and the tour operator would do all the selling and marketing. Now luxury hotels have large sales and marketing budgets to market both their properties and also the destination. It is a virtuous circle, as the Maldives has such a critical mass of luxury hotels that it has encouraged premium internation- al airlines such as Emirates, British Airways, and Lufthansa to fly into the country. This in turn attracts more tourists to the destination.
What does Soneva’s ‘intelligent luxury’ mantra mean?
Our desire is to challenge and fully understand true luxury, not an outdated version which is commonplace in the luxury industry. The last 30 to 40 years have seen a major shift in consumer geography. The modern luxury consum- er no longer comes from the countryside but from the city — London, Paris, New York, Tokyo — where he or she lives in a variety of ‘boxes’. Their apartment ‘box’, car ‘box’, office ‘box’ and so on. They are bombarded with technology, stress and pollution. One drinks at bars with marble counters and dines at restau- rants where one eats imported Wagyu beef, with a chemically enhanced salad. One walks on metal, plastic and concrete with leather-bound feet.
When they come on holiday, they wish to escape that. With this in mind, the experience we have created for our guests is as far detached from an urban scenario as possible and it allows them to indulge in things they rarely ever get to do in their urban or suburban lifestyles; our intention is to provide ‘real’ luxury. In other words, experiences that are rare and which at the same time touch a chord in their hearts.
Expense, we would argue, is not indica- tive of luxury. Rarity, however, is. Sustain- ability and health are hallmarks of something that our guests rarely experi- ence in their home cities. It is rare to enjoy oneself and not harm one’s body. It is rare to enjoy oneself and not damage the environment. It is a luxury in which we too rarely indulge. So, we have combined apparent opposites and found ways in which apparent opposites can live hand in hand.
What kind of ‘intelligent luxury’ do guests experience at Soneva?
The first thing we do with our guests is to take away their shoes. Our fondly observed No News, No Shoes mantra grounds our guests — both to nature and also socially. Rather than a dress code, at Soneva we encourage our guests to go bare — when it comes to their feet! Within all our food and drink offerings, our most popular dish is our signature rocket salad. The organic leaves are lovingly grown by our gardeners on our island. There is absolutely no detrimental impact on the environment and our guests savour their meals with the knowl- edge that all the tasty food being consumed is free of chemicals, is fair-trade, and is sustainably sourced. This simple salad for the urban élite becomes rarer and more cherished than caviar, foie gras, Wagyu beef or another gourmet food item. Our rocket salad is the perfect example of where the healthi- est and more sustainable choice is also the more luxurious. Other such examples are the fair trade dark chocolate in our Chocolate Room and the biodynamic wines that dominate our wine lists.
Tell us about the SLOW LIFE Foundation.
The hotel industry benefits the richest 20-30% of the planet at the expense of the poorest 70-80%. We as an industry consume more than our fair share of resources and companies must become the solution not the problem. Companies must have a purpose beyond just enrich- ing shareholders and paying employees a wage. The SLOW LIFE Foundation reinforces our core purpose, and making small tweaks to our business model that do not negatively impact on our profita- bility or guest perceptions of us raises substantial capital for good causes.
The SLOW LIFE Foundation has used the money it has raised to fund a reforestation programme in northern Thailand where we have planted around half a million trees to mitigate 400,000 tons of CO2. It has funded a windmill in South India. It is also using the money we raise to provide 150,000 heavily subsidised cooking stoves in Myanmar and Darfur. These stoves are extremely efficient and thus prevent the need for trees to be felled, reduce indoor toxic emissions, and also mean that women do not need to spend as much back-breaking time carrying firewood.
How do you make sustainability and luxury travel work hand in hand at Soneva?
At Soneva we add on a mandatory 2% carbon charge to our guests’ bills, with the intention of off-setting our guests’ carbon travel emissions, with all proceeds going to the SLOW LIFE Foundation. We find that our guests are more than happy to accept the small charge and we have so far raised about US$5m from a small collection of resorts!
We produce all our drinking water on site. We have made imported bottled water obsolete; this reduces carbon emissions and also avoids the thousands of plastic bottles that would need to be disposed of. The money we charge for our drinking water goes to a number of charities that work to improve access to clean drinking water across the world. So far 600,000 people have benefitted.
So, you can see that with the most incremental of changes, a company can do an extraordinary amount of good without negatively affecting business aims.
What are your plans for Soneva this year?
We have started the construction of a new water villa resort in the Maldives and it is our intention to develop two further concepts in the Maldives that will complement Soneva Fushi. We will identify other locations to work on in the future too.
Aside from Soneva Fushi, where are your favourite places to go in the Maldives?
Before opening Soneva Fushi we were based in Malé and in those days there were very few restaurants; Twin Peaks and Park View were the two best places to eat. I am not sure if they still exist! We used to visit Kudahiti for a getaway when it was just small villas as part of the Vacanze Group.
Since we sold Six Senses in 2012, Eva and I are now able to spend a lot more time in the Maldives. Our time is very precious so we tend to stay in Soneva Fushi whenever we are in the country. We love taking the boat out and go snorkelling in remote areas.
Where do you consider to be ‘home’?
Home is Soneva Fushi in the Baa Atoll. We are very comfortable here and we find that even five to six months is not enough. We just love the geography of the destination; I have never seen anything quite like it. We are so happy living in the Maldives, it has an amazing climate and environment. And it’s good living at the resort, which is our passion anyway. We enjoy visiting the competi- tion too, but home is always best!
Source: Originally Published on The Asian Story 2015 Issue.