Soneva Resorts’ Sonu Shivdasani talks sustainable travel and reveals his favourite hotels, while offering some sound business advice
Sonu Shivdasani has the midas touch. What he dreams, he creates. Having founded Six Senses Resorts & Spas, which he sold in 2012, he went on to invest his time and effort in Soneva Resorts, which today boasts three resorts (Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani in the Maldives and Soneva Kiri in Thailand), as well as a luxury yacht (Soneva in Aqua) that sails from Soneva Fushi. He lives in the Maldives with his wife Eva, and together they turn dreams into reality.
EVA AND YOU HAD A DREAM 30 YEARS AGO TO BUILD A HOTEL. DID YOU EVER THINK THAT ONE DAY YOU WOULD OWN A WHOLE SERIES OF HOTELS?
No! I had no idea that our intensely personal vision of a locally crafted villa and environmentally responsible lifestyle would form the basis of a successful collection of world-class resorts. But that’s exactly what happened. Soneva Fushi was the first ‘castaway’ resort in the Maldives, pioneering a trend for back-to-nature luxury holidays. What we also did not realize was that our decision helped transform the Maldives from a three-star high volume destination into the luxury destination it is today.
SONEVA IS ALL ABOUT THE “SLOW LIFE” MOVEMENT. WHAT IS THE MEANING BEHIND IT?
SLOW LIFE is our core purpose and stands for Sustainable – Local – Organic – Wellness Learning – Inspiring – Fun – Experiences. Sustainability runs through our core and we are always striving to limit the negative environmental impact of our activities – something, which is both difficult as well as critical for a company, which operates resorts in remote places of pristine natural beauty.
Our SLOW LIFE focus has led to levels of guest loyalty and repeat business that far surpass industry norms, and this tells me unequivocally that the values of a company matter to those who consume its products.
In essence, we offer a slower, more appreciative lifestyle. City people today live in boxes: our apartments are boxes, our cars are boxes and our offices are boxes. It’s nearly impossible to breathe healthy air! Spending a short time at Soneva Fushi, people forget about life’s supposed necessities: checking the smartphone, wearing elaborate outfits…Our customers change a little while they’re with us. In fact, they love taking a shower or watching a movie under a starlit sky. This may sound like a naive message coming from a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, accessible only to a handful of privileged travelers, but we see it as an awareness-building experience. We want people to recognize the necessity of repairing the damage that we, the rich, have caused. The energy we consume, the water that we take for granted…The hotel industry can put that idea across. We get our customers involved so that they can spread the good word.
HOW DID YOU MAKE BAREFOOT LUXURY POPULAR? WHAT IS YOUR SECRET TO SUCCESS?
Soneva has become known for its “No News, No Shoes” policy. Our guests arrive to the resort by private plane; either a float plane landing on the lagoon 2 kilometers away or a privately owned wheeled plane landing on our neighboring airport belonging to the resort. The journey from the Soneva International Airport to the resort takes between 5 to 10 minutes usually by boat. After the guests have received their cold towel and their fresh local drinks, the Mr/Ms Friday ask if they can remove their shoes and place them in a bag with No News, no Shoes written on it. The bag joins the suitcases and makes its way to the guest room. When the guests depart, the last gesture from the Friday, before they leave the boat for their plane, is to give them back the No News, no Shoes bag, open it and hand their shoes to them. So, a holiday at Soneva is in essence a barefoot experience.
This is a perfect example of our “Intelligent Luxury” philosophy, where questioning what is truly “rare” but is desired by the urban elite that frequent us has worked. The wealthy today live in cities and fly for about 300 hours a year for business.
When they pack their suitcases they are packing for “others” not themselves. They are usually packing a suit, black formal shoes, dress or high heels…depending on their disposition. In contrast, when they pack to go to Soneva, they know that they won’t need shoes. So suddenly there is a lot of place in the suitcase as the formal wear is left at home, and instead there is room for the books, DVDs, the camera, the snorkel mask, sport shoes etc. In other words the guests start to pack for themselves rather than for others.
This is a sharp contrast, to some of our competitors who insist that the guests wear shoes and trousers for the evening meal. The number of comments we have from our guests about the bliss of spending a week without shoes is remarkable.
I take my shoes off every opportunity I can. I firmly believe it is good for me. To feel the earth. To experience similar benefits as acupressure. To feel free.
SOME INDUSTRY PEOPLE SAY TRAVELLERS AREN’T INTERESTED IN ECO TRAVEL ANYMORE. WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON SUSTAINABILITY IN TRAVEL?
It is true that some people in some markets believe “if it is sustainable, it can’t be luxury”. Fortunately, this is an ever-shrinking number of people. However, our external communication focuses much more on our brand proposition of “Inspiring a Lifetime of Rare Experiences” rather than sustainability. SLOWLIFE is an internal core purpose that we communicate to our hosts.
We believe strongly that at Soneva, as a result of our “Intelligent Luxury” guiding principles, that we are able to offer our guests luxuries whilst minimizing our impact on the planet.
For example, we touched upon above about the point of our guests being able to walk barefoot for a week. This is rare and hence a luxury. It is of course, a more sustainable option in that it means one can leave the nature at our resorts very much as it was.
Let me give you another two examples. All our resorts have Chocolate Rooms. In the Chocolate Rooms, we serve only dark chocolate and chocolate sourced from fair trade companies. Chocolate, when it’s dark, can be very healthy for you. It’s full of anti-oxidants and generally good for the heart, blood pressure etc. When it is fair trade, it supports local rain forest communities. So, it is clearly a more sustainable form of enterprise.
Half the wines on our wine list are based on bio-dynamic farming. These wines have less pesticides, so they are healthier. They are generally of a higher quality and of course for obvious reasons are a more sustainable option than wines made through traditional methods.
DOES SUSTAINABILITY GO HAND IN HAND WITH A DIGITAL DETOX?
I wouldn’t say sustainability and digital detox go hand in hand. But they are both areas of focus that we have at Soneva. We offer Wi-Fi with strong bandwidth in our villas and the central areas. However, in the villas, the Wi-Fi can be turned off and this certainly helps with a more restful sleep.
HOW ABOUT YOURSELF? DO YOU USE SOCIAL MEDIA?
No, I don’t use social media.
LAST YEAR YOU LAUNCHED SONEVA JANI. WHAT’S NEXT? YOU’VE MENTIONED OPENING HOTELS IN OMAN, BALI AND IBIZA BEFORE. IS THAT STILL A GOAL?
We intend to develop two more concepts in the Maldives over next three years. And we are also very keen on Japan, Bali, Oman and Ibiza. Hopefully we should be starting work on a project in one of those areas in the next two to three years.
YOU’RE PLANNING TO LIST ON THE STOCK MARKET. WHAT PROMPTED THAT DECISION?
We do plan to list as it will allow us access to a cheaper source of capital. However, we see this happening towards the end of 2019. This will fund some of the expansion that I described above.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE HOTEL?
I have a few favorites. In Singapore, I enjoy staying at The Ritz-Carlton. The Peninsula in Hong Kong is a truly great hotel. My wife, Eva, and I love Florence. Our two favorite hotels there are the Lungarno because it is bang in the middle of town, only about 50 meters from the Ponte Vecchio. Also, there is no road between it and the river Arno. We also love Villa San Michele up in Fiesole. The view down into Florence from there is stunning.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNT FROM RUNNING AND OWNING HOTELS?
My lessons from running our properties have been life lessons rather than lessons about hospitality. I feel privileged to have been in a position to have risked and learnt a lot. I have always described our earlier days in setting up the business and building our first resort as jumping off a high living board into an empty pool where the water has just started to fill, with a hope that the pool will be full by the time I reach the surface.
One has to be passionate and committed to whatever one does and this leads me to the concept of “Resources and Resourcefulness”. Where by “Resources” is people, capital, assets etc and “Resourcefulness” is values such as passion, integrity etc. My lesson form life is that “Resourcefulness” is much more important in achieving success than “Resources”.
As a CEO, I focus a lot of my time and attention in creating a culture and reinforcing that culture, as I believe it is the most important thing that I can do.
WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
Listen to your wife. 🙂 (this is of course advice given to me by my wife)
WHAT KEEPS YOU UP AT NIGHT?
Nothing. I sleep very well. I get many ideas after I wake up. I lie in bed 20 minutes and the ideas pour in. This also happens when I am at the gym or doing yoga. The thoughts are usually about how we can continuously improve what we are doing and areas where we can.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE “ME” TIME?
I enjoy going to the gym, doing yoga and meditation. I also enjoy food and always look forward to a great meal. I tend to consult the San Pellegrino restaurant award list, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. I try and visit their Top 50 when I am in those cities. I also look out for local street food favorites. I enjoy skiing very much.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
My father was a big inspiration and now my wife Eva. They both have very strong convictions.
DO YOU HAVE A MOTTO? A FAVORITE QUOTE?
I like what Einstein said: “I must be prepared to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.”