Sonu Shivdasani is a pioneer in the sustainable luxury hotel industry. The Indian-British hotelier founded Soneva which owns luxury resorts Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani in the Maldives, and Soneva Kiri in Thailand. In the interview he talks about his moving journey with Carsten K. Rath.
I am very impressed to see how diverse your journey was. Please tell us about your background.
Sonu Shivdasani: Yes, my whole life is quite diverse. I was born and brought up in England. When I was six, my father took me to Nigeria. He was very successful in trading. 50 years ago, the Ministry of Trade decided to import substitution industry. That´s why my father spent a year in Nigeria building up a tomato factory. I spent six months there and was educated by a teacher in the local village. I went to the village by donkey. So that was a little bit of my young life.
Finally I ended up in the Maldives where we built Soneva Fushi. At Soneva we are the owner of our hotels. Luxury, even in hospitality, has become quite institutional. So the idea of Soneva is being both, the owner and operator. We created our own luxury. When you are the owner and the operator together, you can follow a clear philosophy that’s not diluted like sometimes you have third parties owning properties.
20 years ago luxury and sustainability did not go together. You started many years ago and you have stated there is no true luxury without sustainability. How important do you think sustainability is from a guest point of view today in the world of luxury?
Sonu Shivdasani: I think there are still a few people who believe that if it is sustainable, it can’t be luxurious especially in some of the newer markets. But once people visit our resorts, we completely convince them that’s not the case. The context of the rich has changed because the world nowadays has changed. There is a greater urbanization.
In an urban context, luxury is what is new and modern. We offer our guests natural luxury, taking them back to the natural beauty of the world.
A great air-conditioned restaurant with famous interior designers may be luxurious, but it is nothing unusual anymore. True luxury touches people´s hearts and that is exactly what we do here in this remote area.
I think we’re the most sustainable because we take advantage of the nature that we live in. Our guests can see the stars through the largest telescope in the Indian Ocean or having the salad fresh from the garden.
How did you start Soneva and how did it develop into one of the finest properties in the world?
Sonu Shivdasani: We opened officially in ninety five when I first came to the Maldives. I was studying at the University of Oxford at the time. In those days the Maldives were dominated by German and Italian guests. It was one resort, one tour operator, the standards were very simple. Everything was imported, including the peas and the vegetables. They were using salt water for showers and toilets. They didn’t have any capital, you could see this at first sight. So they were taking material from the reef to build the houses. Unfortunately there wasn’t any respect for the environment. I can understand that because if you come from the Maldives and you’re not passionate about the ocean, you might not respect what you see.
We arrived at the Maldives and felt that this is a pity. It is a beautiful destination with an amazing geography. We decided to do something different that is more sensitive because we came from a different context. We started in ninety five with one hotel. People then asked us to manage theirs. We did not come from a traditional hotel background, we focus on the leisure traveler and the fact that people were looking for unique experiences. And today that is our common place.
How do you implement ecological values within your management structure and your employees?
Sonu Shivdasani: You have raised an essential point which I believe is part of our success: We have consistent values. I was twenty-six in the early days when we started this company. I was quite young and had limited experience of managing people. And that’s exactly what was a challenge in the first days. People thought we were mad, they thought the environmental thing was mad. But nevertheless quite a lot of people, including general managers, joined us because we had the luxury of creating something different. We were excellent because it was different at that time. And our way of thinking was different, too. We started to attract like-minded people. My real title is officially CEO and Creative Director. If you look at my business card, it is in brackets. And the biggest part of my title is guardian of culture. believe that the most important task of a CEO and my most important task is to create a culture in terms of values, philosophies, beliefs and language.
Our chief commercial officer for example is vegan and has very strong environmental beliefs. It has to come right from the heart. You should have a purpose that your hosts believe in you and start to accept your way of life.
The world is changing because of the corona virus. What impact does this have this crisis on your future strategy?
Sonu Shivdasani: Every crisis has a learning. I love the Chinese word for crisis: One side is danger, which obviously one has to protect against and the other side means change in opportunity. And we have looked on to this crisis like other crises in that way. I think us as a team, we are much closer together because we have gone through this. We have survived in many ways better than others. So we have commanded a lot of respect amongst those here whose family members work in other resorts where they are now redundant.
We reject opportunities that we might have said yes to in the past. So when we sold Six Senses, we did not give up, we delegated to focus on other aspects such as the experience of eating and drinking. Now we are returning to wellness: Soneva will have the world’s largest one and two bedroom water treatments. We have the space and privacy, and that is why we are going to add this. And we will add a second wellness center. All our resorts are focused on wellness and wellbeing.
You will be happy to hear that for the first time in Germany we start the one hundred and one best hotels in the world and one of the main focuses lays on sustainability. Thank you for your time!