In Conversation: Sonu Shivdasani, Purposeful Travel & How to Be Sustainable in Luxury Hospitality
The first in a series of special interviews for our 10th anniversary, our Managing Director Jenny Graham speaks with Sonu Shivdasani, CEO, Founder, Guardian of the Culture and Trailblazer at Soneva on how to travel purposefully, sustainbility in luxury travel and how he finds his 'escape'.
...the experience we have created for our guests 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...
Your path to being a hotelier – a fortuitous accident or a passionate ambition?
Soneva was set up as a consequence of my dream to build an island home for Eva and I. She had taken me to the Maldives in the early 1990s, and the breathtaking beauty of the stunning Maldivian atolls blew me away. We found the spectacular deserted island of Kunfunadhoo in Baa Atoll and we knew instantly that we wanted to live here. The only challenge was that the Maldives did not allow foreigners to own private homes.
To overcome this challenge the only solution was to set up a resort. It was not done overnight though. We met a lot of scepticism in our quest to build our dream. For one, my family thought I was mad given I had no experience in the hospitality industry. We also faced challenges to get funding for the construction. One of the reasons for this was that we refused to build hundreds of rooms and aim for the low end mass market, which was the norm in the Maldives at that time. We did not want to offer a product that served tuna in tin cans and relied on volume. Instead, we opted to build a limited number of villas – 42 initially – despite being situated on one of the largest islands in the Maldives. Additionally, we built a spa, which was also unusual at that time. Today, you would be deemed crazy if you did not include a spa in a resort development.
It took a good four years to raise the funding and construct the resort and in 1995 we opened Soneva Fushi. Our focus on low volume, high quality and high end clientele was a conscious decision. What attracted us to the Maldives was its natural beauty and we knew that to preserve that, one needed to limit the number of people coming. I strongly believe that combining luxury and sustainability is the right business model and that when done right is the most successful business model. However, 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 realise was that our decision helped transform the Maldives from a three star high volume destination into the luxury destination it is today.
As you know I did not have any hotel experience before starting Soneva. In fact, an absence of hotel school, training, and experience has been the hallmark of some of the most successful visionary hoteliers. Isadore Sharp was an architect/developer who ended up with a motel that he could not sell and had to run it himself. Adrian Zecha was a writer at one of the Asian weekly economic magazines. Quite often not coming from the hotel industry allows us to bring a fresh set of eyes.
"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."Sonu Shivdasani
As the pioneer of one of the most well-known environmentally friendly luxury hospitality brands, how did you ensure your commitment to sustainability would enhance your guest’s experience and not compromise it?
We have pursued our concept of Intelligent Luxury, which is our desire to challenge and to 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 consumer no longer comes from the countryside but from the city: London, Paris, New York, Tokyo, etc. where he or she lives in a variety of boxes; apartment box; car box; office box, and so on, and all the while surrounded by pollution. One drinks at bars with marble counters and dines at restaurants where one eats imported Wagyu beef, with a chemically enhanced salad. One walks on metal, plastic, and concrete with leather bound feet. 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. The first thing we do with our guests is to offer 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.
With our F&B offering, our most popular dish is our signature rocket salad. The organic leaves are lovingly grown by our gardeners on our island. Absolutely no detrimental impact on the environment and our guests savour their meals with the knowledge 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 healthiest and more sustainable choice is also the more luxurious. Other such examples are the fair trade dark chocolate in our Chocolate Room or the biodynamic wines that dominates our wine lists. Some of my favourite features of our resorts are our outdoor cinemas, our observatories, and the large outdoor bathrooms. These are signature Soneva.
We believe that these are true luxury. Expense, we would argue, is not indicative of luxury. Rarity, however, is. The features in our hotels I just mentioned are seldom found in any of the best hotels or Michelin-starred restaurants in any large city across the world. Sustainability and health are hallmarks of something that our guests rarely experience 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.
Does the passion you and your wife have, to help save the planet determine how you shape your business even more now as there is much greater understanding and acceptance of the importance of ‘taking action’? Will you be bringing in new ideas alongside your existing and highly successful initiatives?
We have a team that is dedicated solely on eco projects, and they are based both on location at the resorts and in other locations, so that we have a clear view of how we can initiate projects both within our operation and outside.
Since 2008, we’ve also applied a mandatory 2% carbon levy to our room rates. The levy goes towards our Soneva Foundation and funds projects that offsets our carbon emissions, from planting trees in regions around the world, to providing fuel efficient, low pollution cooking stoves in rural Myanmar. Our projects are constantly developing and our team is always looking for new ways to increase sustainability.
Do you feel travel can be more of a ‘force for good’ and make both a social and environmental difference this decade?
I think travelers need to be quite conscious about where they go on holiday and how they spend their money. I always believe that businesses must be a positive force for change, so if you support businesses that create jobs in their communities and protect the environment in which they operate, this can be very beneficial. There are lots of examples where conservation has flourished thanks to tourism, so these are not opposites.
What do you feel is the essence of Soneva, your signature style?
Soneva distinguishes itself because we are about space, privacy and showing how sustainable materials can have a great aesthetic. For example, we avoid teak and favour bamboo and eucalyptus: both fast growing trees that we grow in plantations and that are just as beautiful as rarer materials. We believe in bringing out the beauty of nature and this sets us apart. Intelligent luxury is about combining the traditional opposites of sustainability and wellness with luxury. We believe that these things actually complement each other.
As I said before, when guests arrive at one of our resorts, we take their shoes and put them in a bag. Having no shoes and no news is very healthy and grounding. A lot of our competitors apply a dress code, whereas at Soneva, you don’t have to wear shoes or trousers anywhere. Not only does that distinguish us from other places, but it allows our guest to feel at home without the worries and obligations of their everyday lives. In our concept of luxury, a fresh salad from our organic garden becomes more appealing than a Mouton Rothschild and is certainly healthier. Open air cinemas, an observatory and outdoor showers are all things that urban dwellers, however wealthy they may be, are deprived of. Our bathrooms may not have marble or gold taps, but our guests can take a shower while gazing at a full moon.
When it’s not raining, all of our guests dine outside. One restaurant is actually in the trees, with a cable car for guests and a zip wire for our waiters to service tables. Also, we do not serve imported water. Instead, our water menu offers six kinds of purified water, each with a different healing crystal in it.
We deliver wellness from a mental point of view. When we live in our urban boxes, we start to believe that a few neighbourhoods in Manhattan or Mayfair are all that there is in the universe, but the reality is: there are more planets in the sky than there are flecks of sand on all the beaches of the earth.
"if one fills the glass up entirely with water, there is no room for anything else to come in"
Are there any lessons that you would love to share with your early self when you launched Soneva Fushi in 1995?
Two weaknesses I have had are a lack of patience and in the past, a lack of focus. These are two weaknesses that I have worked on over the last 20 years and I feel that the business is so much the better for my having overcome these. I am much more focused on the key priorities for our business and I am not distracted as I was, especially when we ran Six Senses.
You have a love of fine food and great cuisine (as your great Michelin Chef partnership demonstrates) but if you could dine out with anyone anywhere in the world – who and where would it be?
My wife, Eva, and I love to share great meals. We had a wonderful lunch a few years ago at Quique Dacosta in Denia. He is an innovative Spanish Chef who, in some ways, took over from Ferran Adria. He is extremely creative and has a beautiful terrace where one dish after another continues to be served. We spent a lot of last year in Istanbul and enjoyed early dinners at Mikla where one would watch the sun set and the view over the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus with the Princess Islands and the Sea of Marmara in the distance. We of course enjoy very much the concept that Mehmet Gurs has put together.
We are always astounded by the sushi that Chef Akira at Soneva Fushi prepares for us, or his inspiration, Chef Kenji Gyoten, who is one of only four Sushi Chefs to have three Michelin Stars.
Last summer, we had a lovely meal at Adam and Albin in Stockholm. They are both disciples of Mathias Dahlgren, one of Sweden's great Chefs. Eva and I also love simple Italian food. We enjoy Florence very much. There are two lovely restaurants very close to the Uffitzi in Piazza Cimatori; Da Ganino, and Birreria Centrale. We also love having lunch on the terrace at Villa San Michele in Fiosole looking down on Florence.
Do you have a travel aspiration list and if so where would you like to explore in 2020?
Eva and I know Italy very well but we have never visited Puglia. We love Impressionist painters and we are looking forward to visiting the Hermitage in St Petersburg in September. We enjoyed a fantastic cruise East of Bali near Komodo. We would love to cruise the Raja Ampat area soon.
What or who inspires you?
My father was a big inspiration and now my wife Eva. They both share in common a very strong strength of their convictions.
Your resorts are famously known for their No News, No Shoes policy; where do you go to Escape the Everyday?
I enjoy going to the gym, doing yoga and meditation.
You often quote Einstein’s “I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be”, do you feel this approach will continue to shape your vision?
Of course, if one fills the glass up entirely with water, there is no room for anything else to come in. It is the same with one's life. One must leave space for new things, new challenges.
What’s next for Soneva? New openings, new initiatives, new destinations...
We are planning to add two more resorts in The Maldives. We also plan to open a Soneva in Okinawa, Japan, in about three years, where it will be a resort with spa and residences like Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani.
There is one more thing that I am excited about, Soneva Soul. It will be a resort with a wellness concept. With Six Senses, we operated many spas that were more for healthy people. At Soneva Soul, we want to place more emphasis on the medical aspect.