Game Changers The Norm Breakers Issue

Meet the man who is re-defining luxury

Sekka meets Sonu Shivdasani, the chairman and CEO of the Soneva Group.

By Manar Alhinai

Sonu Shivdasani. Courtesy, Richard Waite.

When Sonu Shivdasani and his wife, Eva, visited the Maldives 30 years ago, all they wanted was to build a house on one of its enchanting islands.

Little did they know that they would soon establish a leading luxury and environmentally friendly resort—a game changer—that would be followed by other resorts around the world. Not only that, by that they would also be pioneers of intelligent luxury and sustainable tourism that would redefine hospitality around the country and the world.

Sonu Shivdasani is the chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Soneva Group, a luxury resort operator with properties in the Maldives and Thailand, a hotelier who along his journey also founded the world-renowned Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spa, which he sold in 2012.

‘Intelligent luxury’ is still a foreign concept to many in the GCC. What is intelligent luxury anyway? Many would associate ‘luxury’ with marble-finished hotels and crystal chandeliers. However, not Sonu or those at the Soneva Group. To them, it is something much simpler than that.

Thus, we had to meet with Sonu to better understand the intelligent luxury concept, discuss hospitality in the GCC and what trends we could expect in this sector, and how GCC entrepreneurs and others around the world can apply some of the lessons Sonu learned along his journey.

You would expect to meet the multi-millionaire with many accolades on his job in an upscale restaurant, where he would walk in dressed in a sharp suit. Not Sonu, though. We met with the soft-spoken English businessman at his Maldives resort, Soneva Fushi , in a cozy, warmly lit restaurant located in a bungalow built on the water.

The 52-year-old Oxford graduate, who is the son of an Indian merchant and banker, walked in with an aged-leather brown agenda in hand, dressed in a light-blue shirt and white linen shorts. He was barefoot, as the motto of the resort is: ‘No news. No Shoes’.

Soneva Fushi, a castaway resort that was inspired by the Robinson Crusoe novel,  was built on the then deserted island of Kunfunadhoo, which is in touching distance of a UNESCO Biosphere-protected coral reef.  With no satellite channels in the resorts’ villas or restaurants, this densely vegetated island is exactly what we needed amidst our busy schedules.

‘Intelligent luxury is about giving people rare experiences, hence our brand proposition’, begins Sonu. ‘Why rare? Because in its essence, luxury is that which is rare, that which is not common. The moment it becomes common, it is no longer luxury.’

‘Today, most people are exposed to urban environments.  By 2030, 70 per cent of the world’s population will be urbanized. Being able to walk around barefoot, seeing the stars on a clear night’s sky away from light pollution or just sitting outside, that is rare. That is luxury’, he adds.

But intelligent luxury extends to far more than that in Soneva Fushi—from guests’ experiences to how the business operates.

‘It is about engaging in the local community and creating a sense of ownership among staff’, explains Sonu.

Sonu with his wife Eva. Courtesy Calle Slotz.

All employees are called hosts, and 75 per cent of these hosts are from the Maldives, when in other resorts, that number is around 50 per cent. In addition, 90 per cent come from the islands just across Soneva Fushi.

For every job, the group aims to have one man and one woman. At the Soneva Jani resort, which is 40 minutes away by boat, 35 per cent of the staff are women, the highest in the Maldives.

In its hosts’ local communities, the Soneva Group taught the children how to swim when they discovered that 50 per cent of the children under the age of 7 were not able to do so.

‘If you don’t put your head under water and see what’s down there, then how would you protect it?’ asks Sonu, referring to the protection of the coral reefs and marine life, an environmental issue about which Sonu is passionate.

Water plants have also been installed, which proved to cost less for the locals than purchasing bottled water from the capital, Male.

‘These sorts of initiatives engage our hosts and make them more passionate about their jobs’, he adds, with many of the staff onboard for more than seven years, a relatively long time in the world of hospitality.

When asked about what trends we will see in the GCC’s hospitality sector, Sonu stated that there will be a move to create a bit more individuality and to place more focus on experiences and transformational holidays, where guests will pick up new habits or new ways of life.

‘I think the demand for what we offer will grow, and more guests will want to experience this rural way of life’, he explains.

The Soneva Fushi resort is located 35 minutes away from the capital of Male by seaplane, on a densely vegetated island, which is rare in the Maldives. That in addition to seeing many  birds and animals freely roaming about the resort, the open-air cinema, which was the first in the country, and the astronomy observatory with an in-house astronomer is what surprises guests when they visit the resort, says Sonu.

What was interesting for us was the Eco Center ( also known as ‘Waste to Wealth’), or the island’s waste management center, which is open for guests to view, where 80 per cent of the island’s waste is recycled. 

Sonu refers to waste as ‘assets’ and states that the resort’s future goals entail having the island powered 90 per cent with solar panels in the next nine months.

Another interesting fact that we discovered through our conversation was that it was Sonu who started the intra-island air transfers in the country, with the first batch of helicopters imported from Europe, to enable his guests to reach his resort, which would take about five days on a boat on a bad day. This ultimately changed tourism in the Maldives and encouraged resorts to open in islands not around Male.

There is much to learn about this resort and from its founder, Sonu. GCC nationals and international ones could apply for internships at the resort to learn more about intelligent luxury.

‘Your business doesn’t have to be what you study. I’m the perfect example of a hotelier with an English literature background’, advises Sonu.

‘You have to be passionate about what you’re doing and have the resilience to stay because a business has its ups and downs, like pushing water up a hill’, he adds.

Our favorite advice was the following: ‘If the business isn’t doing well, then fail quickly, and move to the next business’.

Failure is something many GCC startups have to deal with, and it is commonly due to mistakes that could have been avoided.

‘Sometimes business owners fail because they don’t quite understand what their clients want’, he says.

He also adds that if businesses do not innovate and evolve, then they will soon become obsolete.

Will we soon be able to experience a similar resort in the GCC?  Sonu says it is in the plans, but Japan is a priority destination for now.

Manar Alhinai is the co-founder and storyteller-in-chief of Sekka.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.