Sonu Shivdasani ~ a man and his eco hospitality dream

By Dian Hasan | July 8, 2010

Sonu Shivdasani, the founder and CEO of Six Senses Resorts & Spas, tells Claire Ferris-Lay how he managed to create some of the world’s most luxurious hotels and still stay green.

Sonu Shivdasani orders a salad cooler and green banana juice, sits back and crosses his legs up onto the chair. With his collarless shirt and loose trousers one could be forgiven for mistaking Shivdasani as a tourist rather than the founder of the hugely successful Bangkok-based hotel management company, Six Senses Resorts & Spas.

That is, until a regular Six Senses holidaymaker wonders over to tell Shivdasani how much he is looking forward to catching up with him and his wife in February, when he’ll be holidaying at the couple’s Maldives resort.

The guest, Shivdasani later tells me, will spend between $20-30,000 on his holiday to the Maldives. Another Russian family he says spent $114,000 in one of the resort’s jewellery stores recently. Both examples are typical of Six Senses clientele who are usually high flying executives that enjoy luxurious boutique-style hotels in exotic locations.

This is exactly what Shivdasani and his Swedish-born wife Eva set up to do in 1995 when they opened their first resort, Soneva Fushi in Mauritius. Shivdasani, who attended one of Britain’s most elite schools, Eton, before studying at Oxford University, was a regular visitor to the Maldives while he was still at university. In fact it was his bad experience on one of the island’s resorts that inspired him to enter the world of hospitality, he tells CEO Middle East.

“Eva and I used to go on holiday to the Maldives when I was at university. It was a beautiful environment but in those days the standard of hotels was really bad as the incentive was to create the ugliest hotels possible,” he laughs.

“Italian and German operators who first went there would go to the island and lease from the government for $1,000 a year. They would say ‘you build us 100 rooms, we’ll take the rooms and we’ll give you a guarantee of 80 percent occupancy and here is an advance for the first year’. It was called a bed contract,” he explains. “There was no incentive to build anything of quality because your revenues were capped… and you didn’t want people to eat or drink too much because it was all inclusive… The only fresh thing you would have is fish, which was burnt.”

Today, Soneva Fushi, a 100-acre island, is the flagship development resort for the firm’s exclusive brand, Soneva (an amalgam of Sonu and Eva), which also includes a second resort in the Maldives, Soneva Gili and a third, Soneva Kiri in Thailand. The brand regularly sweeps the board at travel awards and has a host of fans including celebrities such as Madonna.

Other brands under the Six Senses umbrella include Evason Hideaways, Six Senses Latitude, Six Senses Private Residences and Six Senses Destination Spas covering twelve resorts from the Maldives to Vietnam. While Soneva caters to the “ultra rich” with a starting price of $5,000 upwards, a night’s stay at an Evason Hideaway resort will set visitors back around $150 per night, so the brand caters to a variety of guests.

But staying at a Six Senses resort isn’t just about lapping up the luxury. The company is also renowned for its approach towards sustainability and the environment. While Shivdasani remains the public face of the company, Eva — a former Vogue model — is its “conscience”, providing each resort with environment-friendly, recycled products from the toiletries to the building materials.

As well as sourcing the most sustainable materials for all of their resorts, the Shivdasanis also try to employ as many local staff as possible and also offer 0.5 percent of each hotel’s total revenue to support social and environmental projects on a local, national and global level. For example, at the hotel we met, Zighy Bay in Oman, the tiny village that shares its beach with the resort enjoys a regular supply of water and basic food while its villagers are taught English and hired as drivers to work within the resort.

Inspiration: Hotelier Middle East

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