The Indo-British hotelier and visionary Sonu Shivdasani founded Six Senses Resorts & Spa and Soneva in 1995. Soneva owns the luxury resorts Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani in the Maldives and Soneva Kiri in Thailand. The pioneer of the sustainable luxury concept also sees opportunities in the corona crisis. “We survived the crisis better than others in many ways,” says Shivdasani.
Mr. Shivdasani, 20 years ago luxury and sustainability were almost irreconcilable contradictions. You have been living a sustainable strategy in your luxury resorts for many years. How important is sustainability for a guest today?
In general, what is considered to be luxurious is something that is particularly modern and shiny. At least in the urban context, this definition still applies. At Soneva we offer our guests all-natural luxury and lead them back to the original beauty of our world. An air-conditioned, urban restaurant furnished by a famous interior designer may seem luxurious. But beautiful buildings are nothing unusual in the urban environment.
Of course there are still people who don’t see sustainability and luxury in connection. When our guests visit our resorts in the Maldives or in Thailand, we quickly convince them otherwise. True luxury touches people’s hearts, and that’s exactly what happens here in this remote area. We are sustainable because we use nature intensively and experience it every day. Our guests can see the stars through the largest telescope in the Indian Ocean or eat the salad fresh from the garden.
The world and, above all, travel behavior is currently changing a lot. How are you dealing with the corona crisis and how is the pandemic affecting your future strategy?
Every crisis harbors opportunities, even if they do not show up immediately. I love the Chinese characters for crisis: The first character translates as “danger” from which one obviously has to protect oneself. The second character stands for “opportunities” or “opportunities”. We grew much closer as a team during the corona crisis because we experienced the difficult time together.
Fortunately, all of our resorts are private islands or completely isolated from the public. We have complete control over who we allow access to our resorts. We are responding to growing traveler concerns and implementing some of the strictest protocols in the Maldives and Thailand. We survived the crisis better than others in many ways. This is partly due to our corporate values. We continue to look positively into the future and take care of our projects.
They founded the Six Senses and now run Soneva. What has changed for you?
Six Senses is a superordinate brand, a lifestyle brand for the luxury hotel industry, under which various luxury resorts and spas are united. This is exactly where the significant difference lies: in my role as CEO and founder of Six Senses, I managed hotels that were run by others. In Soneva we are the owners of our hotels. From my point of view, luxury has become very institutionalized, which does not always have a positive effect on the host values. I last got this feeling at Six Senses. At Soneva we create our own, natural luxury. That is the advantage and the great freedom of acting as owner and operator at the same time.
How do you implement ecological values in your management structure and among your employees?
Enduring values are an important part of any success strategy. I founded my company at the age of 26. At this young age, I had little management experience, but I took on this challenge. We also fought against many prejudices. People around us thought we were crazy with our focus on environmental issues. On the other hand, many people have also placed their trust in us. With our concept we were able to create something completely new back then. Our way of thinking was also different.
We started to attract like-minded people. My actual title is officially CEO and Creative Director. My most important task is to promote the corporate culture and, above all, to preserve our values and philosophy and live them every day. For example, our Chief Commercial Officer is vegan and has a very strong environmental belief. This attitude comes straight from the heart and fits into our concept. All team members have a strong commitment.
How did you start the luxury resort Soneva and how did it develop into one of the most beautiful properties in the world?
Together with my wife Eva, I founded Soneva Fushi in 1995. At that time I was still studying in Oxford. The Maldives immediately fascinated me. It is a beautiful travel destination with an amazing geography. Back then, the Maldives were dominated by German and Italian guests. There was only one resort with very simple standards. Everything was imported, including the vegetables. The owners had no capital and got building materials from the reef for their houses. Unfortunately, they didn’t respect their environment. I can understand that because if you’re from the Maldives and you’re not into the ocean, you may not appreciate what you see.
We decided to do something different, to live in harmony with nature and to follow our own individual path. We respect our natural surroundings, do not cut trees for our villas and take care of ourselves as much as possible. With our resort, we have focused on the traveler who is looking for unique experiences and who values nature. With us he finds space in nature, for himself and a bit of slow life. Is there anything nicer?
About the author: As a former grand hotelier and operator of a travel platform, Carsten K. Rath is a professional globetrotter. He travels to all of the hotels he writes about for the Handelsblatt on his own account. Rath is the source of ideas for the new ranking “The 101 best hotels in Germany”, Handelsblatt is one of its partners. It will be released on November 27, 2020.
More: Rath checks in: Nine factors by which you can recognize a really good hotel