Exclusive Interview With Neil Jacobs in The Asian Story Magazine
Sasha Arms, MVHOTELS speaks to Neil Jacobs CEO of Six Senses Hotels, Resorts and Spas.
You’ve spent more than three decades in the travel and hospitality industry. Tell us your story and how it led to you becoming the CEO of Six Senses.
I feel blessed to have lived and worked in ten or more countries throughout my business career and am lucky enough to have experienced many different aspects of our fascinating industry in this time, having operated, developed, built, financed and owned upscale hotels in different places at different times. It has been fantastic and enriching every step of the way.
What was clear to me in 2011 when the Six Senses opportunity was presented, was that this was not just another great hotel company built on traditional standards of luxury. What was compelling was that the potential existed, through our wellness and sustainability platforms, to genuinely make a difference and do some good. That may sound corny, but we are focused on our resort and spa guests finding the space to participate in experiences and activities that touch them and leave them in a better place.
Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas was established in 1995 with the opening of the group’s first resort in the Maldives. We think that our resorts and spas represent a refreshing re- interpretation of five star travel for today’s sophisticated traveller and spa-goer. Wellbeing combined with ethical responsibility for the world we live in genuinely forms the central tenet to the Six Senses philosophy.
The company was purchased in 2012 by Pegasus Capital Advisors, L.P. a private equity fund man- ager in New York. Pegasus partners with management teams of growth companies, with a focus on those that benefit from the business implications of global re- source scarcity. Sectors where this trend is most pronounced are food, water, energy, health and wellness, and security. Through ownership, we are working with a variety of innovative companies and experts to elevate the offerings we present at our spas and resorts. A large part of my motivation to work at Six Senses was the values portrayed by Pegasus, and the alignment of their corporate goals with my own personal direction.
What kind of experience do visitors to Six Senses resorts and spas get?
Customers at Six Senses are seeking experiences that are unique and authentic. Sustainability and wellness are at the heart of the brand and as such, key initiatives are focused on these areas. We believe that guests want an understanding of where they visit and have pride and satisfaction in travel — for business, work, relaxation and enjoyment. Six Senses takes an active role in the local community with respect to design, environmental and social responsibility, incorporating sustainable construction and operating practices. Our architecture and construction standards establish a consistent quality for all Six Senses locations worldwide, without being formulaic. .
What is one of the most exciting developments at Six Senses recently?
Last year we opened Six Senses Douro Valley, situated in a UNESCO World Heritage site in Portugal. We took over a historic Quinta (wine estate) with a rich history that dates back to 1464. Unusual for the Douro Valley, this property was blessed with plenty of water, and earlier in its history a small water dam and an energy generator were installed. The house was the first to be electrified in the valley, and was wired with bells in most rooms and even had central heating, which was unheard of at the time. The original energy generator is currently at the Museu da Electricidade in Lisbon. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the estate’s park was extended with more forest, paths, a secret tunnel, staircases and niches with view- points. An ingenious irrigation system was also added, allowing a waterfall, fountains and ponds to be built.
In 2014, Six Senses took over the management, and following a multi- month refurbishment, the property reopened in July 2015. Clodagh Design from New York City was brought in to transform the interiors and bring an artful touch to the property. Extensive use of local woods, metals and fabrics was employed in the design.
One highlight of the property is the Wine Library which houses the 700 reference wine list, an oversized wine tasting table, wine shop, comfortable seating and dining options both in- side the tasting room, or outside on the terrace. The Wine Library features touch screens with information about the wines of the valley, fun art installations made from recycled local materials. It is also a pre-dining rendezvous, where daily tastings are held, many presented by the wine-makers themselves, paired with a tempting selection of local cheeses and smoked delicacies. Self-service wine dispensers, with some truly rare wines and ports being offered by the glass, are available 24 hours a day with a special card. Here guests meet with the Wine manager or Wine GEM (guest experience maker) to plan excursions, tastings and activities for the day. The room extends onto a covered stone terrace with comfortable armchairs, a fire pit and an open-air cinema.
Six Senses Douro Valley features 57 guest accommodations and a generously proportioned Six Senses spa with indoor pool and 10 treatment rooms. In addition to the Wine Library, the restaurant, Vale Abraao, features an open kitchen design with wood-fired ovens, oversize fireplaces and several informal spaces where guests can sample locally-sourced, regional specialties with a healthy twist. An exciting variety of activities including wine and dine river cruises, visits to nearby wineries, tree climbing, kayaking, cycling, hiking and bird watching are also offered.
What has been the most notable change in the travel industry from your perspective since you first started working in it?
So much has changed since I started at my first hotel in the UK in the 1970s, but the biggest shifts have been in technology, health and wellness. The world has become more global and travel is easily accessible not only to the wealthy, but to the average per- son. Travellers have become very sophisticated in their choice of hotels, restaurants and quest for cultural exploration and understanding.
As mentioned, a major shift has taken place in the world of wellness. When I first started out, resorts were just starting to convert unused hotel space into massage rooms. Today, a city hotel or resort cannot open without a well-appointed spa. People are obsessed with getting fit and healthy, but the population in general has become more unhealthy. Six Senses Spas offer a wide range of holistic wellness, rejuvenation and beauty treatments administered under the guidance of ex- pert therapists. We incorporate local healing traditions together with a menu of specialist and signature therapies in each location. Pioneering wellness by constantly exploring, learning and rethinking the typical spa model, Six Senses Spas understand that before connecting with the world around us, we need to reconnect with ourselves. Today more than ever there’s a greater conscious- ness and considerable interest around wellness in general, and Six Senses continues to develop innovative and relevant programmes around fitness, nutrition, yoga, general education and much more that are enhancing in so many ways.
How do you stay abreast of the latest trends and innovations in wellness travel, and how do you decide what should be rolled out at Six Senses locations?
I am an avid reader and read a lot to stay ahead of trends. I also glean a lot of information from websites and social media.
Some of the trends that we are starting to see in the world of sustainability and travel include an increasing amount of transparency, accountability and re- porting on sustainable metrics; a growing awareness among travellers on the issues around and importance of sustainable tourism; an increased demand to stay with green and/or sustainable hotels; and greater interest in growing local and organic fruits and vegetables directly on the property, not only to reduce food costs, but to enhance the quality, fresh- ness and nutritional value of the food.
Six Senses Spas has a global following due to the group’s ability to consistently pioneer new standards and innovate. We recently launched Six Senses Integrated Wellness. The multi-dimensional wellness programme starts with a wellness assessment that evaluates a number of different and important bio-markers. Results allow us to determine behavioural and lifestyle change and create a personalised programme based on the needs of the guest. Created by the Six Senses Spas team along with respected medical doctors: Dr Michael Breus for sleep, Dr Steven Gundry for nutrition and Dr Mehmet Oz for overall health, each guest’s personalised programme may include spa treatments, exercise, yoga, meditation and sleep tips and guidance. The four programmes are called: Sleep & Resilience, Trim & Fit, Cleanse & Detox and Full Potential.
The wellness assessment has launched at Six Sens- es Douro Valley, Six Senses Laamu, Six Senses Yao Noi and Six Senses Zighy Bay. In addition, it is available at third party Six Senses spas in Koh Kood, Thailand (Soneva Kiri) and Muscat, Oman at Al Bustan Palace, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Additional Six Senses resorts and spas will launch the programme later this year.
Sleep with Six Senses is a resort-wide programme that allows guests to receive personalised guidance on improving their sleep experience. The programme is launching at Six Senses Douro Valley in Portugal and will be available at more resorts this autumn. It features two Six Senses sleep ambassadors at each property and in-villa items including: beds by Naturalmat, Beaumont and Brown bed linens, Valley Forge moisture wicking linens, Hanse pillows and duvets plus two sleep machines — one that blocks disruptive ambient noise and another with LED lighting (red awake and blue sleep light that tracks sleep). Each guest receives a sleep bag that contains pyjamas, a sleep journal, sleep mask, ear plugs, neti pot and nose strips. It’s one of the most innovative and in-depth sleep experiences any hotel group has ever launched.
Nutritional guidelines are also underway and this includes looking at all menus and improving them so guests can enjoy the same great taste experienced in the past at Six Senses restaurants, but delivering even healthier dishes than before. Chefs are creating low sugar and low sodium items, gluten free and hormone free options, plus offering home grown and organic ingredients where possible.
What does ‘luxury’ in the modern day really mean?
I think the terms ‘luxury’ and ‘luxurious’ are overused. Our vision at Six Senses is to help people reconnect with themselves, others and the world around them. Our resorts and spas are located in some of the most pristine natural environments and feature unique and rich cultures. As the world evolves, we also evolve and strive to operate sustainably and in a manner which conserves and pre- serves while offering a platform for our guests to experience it. Six Senses has been at the forefront of sustain- ability even before the buzzword of ecotourism became in vogue. It is in our DNA and something everyone at Six Senses believes in dearly. It goes far beyond the way we build and operate resorts and spas to how we respect and preserve the communities where we are located and how we treat people. Balancing luxury travel with an authentic feeling of geography and local community is what Six Senses believes in and strives to do at every location where we operate.
We work hard to balance technology with a personal touch. We know guests want and need to stay connected, but we also want them to dis- connect from the stress of everyday life when at our resorts and spas. If I am able to craft the perfect vacation for someone, it would be a time that a guest gets away from it all with someone they love. Time is a precious commodity and giving a guest the opportunity to savour moments and simply enjoy the beauty of nature, good design and an activity that makes them feel happy and restored is what’s important to Six Senses. We try to create moments that are crafted and bespoke. From private dinners, challenging hikes, amazing diving experiences to paragliding, yoga and meditation, we want guests to discover a new side of themselves when staying with us or rediscovering an old self that has been lost. Whether someone is 20 or 90, this formula works!
What plans have you got for Six Senses this year?
Six Senses will open on a private is- land in the Seychelles in the autumn featuring one of our greatest sustain- ability stories yet, and next year we’ll open five small resorts in Bhutan. Each resort takes advantage of the land and its geographical site, and the architecture and design celebrate the stunning locations. Our spa division is booming and this year we will add seven new spas: two in Doha, plus Dubai, Mumbai, Pune, Seychelles and Courchevel.
We are also looking at several sites in Europe and the Americas and believe we will take over two existing properties in both regions next year. Our eyes are on Africa as well. Beyond 2017, construction is underway on projects in Bali, Taiwan, India, Tunisia and Yangzhou in China.
Currently regarded as a resort company, we have developed an urban concept and feel confident we will soon enter key city centres. Sustain- ability and wellness will be at the forefront of design and operational initiatives. And we are confident that our urban projects will set new standards and benchmarks for living that combine a healthy approach to work, leisure time, dining, fitness and entertainment. We envision dining venues focused on organic, healthy cui- sine; innovative meeting and function spaces, plus world-class spas that are all about interactivity and wellness exploration — a completely new approach that has never been created before. Six Senses hotels will also feature private members’ clubs for socialising, dining, relaxed business meetings and educational pursuits.
And we would love to have another one or two properties in different parts of the beautiful Maldives.
Where do you call ‘home’ and what do you like about it?
That’s a difficult question. I have homes in Singapore and New York, although I spend most of my time on the road with a minimum of one week per month in Bangkok where our home office is located. My family is in Singapore and London, we have projects on all continents and shareholders in the US, so I suppose there are a variety of hotels and air- ports that are also home. I’ve spent 15 years living in Singapore and love how the country has trans- formed. It has the best food in Asia, it’s a cultural melting pot, it has spectacular architecture today, is international in flavour and something critical to me: a world-class airport and an amazing airline.
Where are your favourite places to go in the Maldives?
I enjoy the occasional trip to male’ to visit the market and experience the colour and vibrancy of the capital. The seaplane ride to the northern atolls is fantastic, swimming with the mantas is an emotional experience, surfing near Six Senses Laamu is amazing, and a dinner for two on a picnic island is great. I also enjoy flying yoga at our spa, plus spending a day or two on a live-aboard boat just cruising around and diving. There’s so much to see and do that is active and rejuvenating.
Where is on your bucket list for your own personal travels, and why?
One of my favourite quotes is by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” There are still so many places I would love to see: high on the list are Rajah Empat and Sumba in Indonesia, Tibet and Mongolia, Patagonia and wait for it, a cruise through Alaska.
Source: Originally Published on The Asian Story 2016 Issue
The Asian Story is a luxury travel magazine with high profile hotelier interviews, hotel indept profiles, reviews and much related content to the luxury travel industry. The magazine is exclusively distributed in high end lounges of Asia, Inflight libraries and key people within the industry. MVHOTELS, a travel media based in Maldives is the publisher and owner of the title.