The luxury king

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By Sonu Shivdasani's Six Senses resorts are playgrounds for the super-rich, says Hoihnu Hauzel
  • Published 10.01.10

Sonu Shivdasani is always one step ahead of the pack. The ace hotelier has a nose for discovering picture-perfect locales, and an eye for turning them into breathtakingly beauteous resorts that are get-away-from-it-all playgrounds for the super-rich. His favourite stamping grounds are the beaches of Thailand — where he has just opened a resort, Soneva Kiri — and the exotic islands of The Maldives.

Now Shivdasani’s sixth sense is working overtime and it’s telling him that it’s time to strike out and build resorts in completely new locations like Zighy Bay in Oman. Besides that he has already wrapped up a deal that will put India on the Six Senses map. So, Shivdasani — who’s British but with Indian roots — is bringing his chain to south India’s Nilgiri Hills. It’s a location he’s familiar with because his mother owns a tea plantation in the Blue Mountains.

“We have already signed the agreement,” says Shivdasani, who is the CEO and chairman of Six Senses, one of the world’s top resort and spa management and development companies. We are sipping green tea sitting at the restaurant of The InterContinental Carlton Cannes, France, where Shivdasani threw a lavish bash to announce the opening of Soneva Kiri, a picturesque resort that opened its doors last month in Kood, a remote, under-populated Thai island.

Shivdasani is one of the global stars of the travel trade. His ultra-upmarket Six Senses chain was born in 1995 when he unveiled Soneva Fushi in The Maldives. Since then he has opened 13 other resorts mostly in Thailand and The Maldives (where he lives for part of the year) and also Vietnam. Incidentally, the folks at Kingfisher, who have an eye for beauteous girls and destinations, picked two Six Senses resorts, Soneva Fushi and Soneva Gili in The Maldives as the locations for their 2010 calendar shoot.

What’s Shivdasani’s secret of success? Firstly, he has an eye for the perfect setting even if it’s remote, and untried as a tourist destination.

Take a look at his newest destination Soneva Kiri. It’s located on the fourth largest island in Thailand but very few people live on it so Six Senses had to build a private airport to ferry in guests. Guests who land in Bangkok are transferred to the resort’s luxurious custom-fitted eight-seater Cessna Grand Caravan for the 60-minutes flight to Soneva Kiri’s own airport. From there it’s a 2km trip by luxury speedboat to the arrival dock.

Speedboats drop guests at the wooden jetty of the Six Senses Spa Destination in Phuket; (below) the sensory garden is strewn with reflexology stones

What else is special about Six Senses? The brand offers luxury with a difference — a back to nature experience without compromising on the comfort factor.

Also, Six Senses adheres to a strict green code and what Shivdasani calls the philosophy of ‘Slow Life’. What’s Slow Life? It rests on several pillars like sustainable tourism and a dependence on local materials. In addition, the cuisine is organic and wholesome. And each resort is also known by its top-class spas that offer treatments based entirely on natural products.

Shivdasani also personally believes in working closely with the local community, educating them about sustainable, ecological tourism. “Above all, we are seriously contemplating achieving a zero carbon footprint for all our 14 resorts,’’ says Shivdasani, who speaks ‘pidgin’ Hindi and fluent French.

For Shivdasani, the India connect is important. He was born in England to parents who originally hailed from Sindh in undivided Pakistan. His father migrated to England long before the Partition. So, he’s excited about his first India resort in the Nilgiris which will be just 20 minutes away from Coimbatore airport. “I believe that India needs a Six Senses Destination Spa for the discerning Indian traveller,” says Shivdasani, who is nattily dressed in an elegant pale pink shirt teamed with grey pants.

Trim and lean, there’s no a sign of extra flab making it evident that the founder of the ultra high-end and green spas and resorts is a fitness and health freak. Shivdasani isn’t just particular about his diet — he doesn’t miss his workouts even if he is travelling. “Being healthy is our company’s forte and staying healthy is an integral part of the company’s ethos,” he says.

There are different categories in the Six Senses brand but each spells exclusivity and it helps to have deep pockets if you want to book a room/villa. For instance, if you opt for the Soneva brand, like the Soneva Fushi, be prepared to shell out anything between $1,500 and $10,000 per night, per villa for a couple.

The next category includes Hideaway or Evason properties for which you could be paying anything from $500 to $2,000 per night, per villa for a couple.

But at the very top of the pecking order is the Six Senses Destination Spa that he says “go beyond luxury’’. The first (and currently the only one in the category) opened its doors in Phuket in 2008. A two-bedroom villa here starts at $5,000 a night and at the very top it costs a whopping $12,000 a night.

The Six Senses Destination Spa Phuket has 61 villas and comes with 44 treatment rooms. The resort has been built using reclaimed building materials collected from different parts of Thailand. All the greenery in the resort is edible — except of course the trees. Herbs and organic vegetables are grown on the property and subsequently utilised in its kitchens.

At Phuket there are four interrelated spa concepts that focus on Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Thai inspired therapies. “We have ground-breaking fitness programmes and offer wellness inspired ‘fishetarian cuisine’, which is a light and healthy fish meal,” says Ana Maria Tavares, managing director, Six Senses Destination Spa, Phuket.

The swimming pool at the Six Senses Spa Destination in Phuket; (below) the Kingfisher calendar for 2010 was shot at Soneva Fushi and Soneva Gili in the Maldives

Soneva Gili, located in one of the largest lagoons in the Maldives, also offers its own interpretation of by-the-sea luxury. The resort offers 45 sumptuous over-water villas (built on stilts) including seven Crusoe Residences and The Private Reserve that can be accessed only by boat. Each villa has its own private water garden and sun decks.

At Six Senses Hideaway Samui in Koh Samui, island guests who guard their privacy can freely walk around incognito. The resort is set on 20 acres around a sloping headland on the northern tip of Samui Island. There are 66 villas of which 52 villas have private infinity-edged swimming pools and come with personal butlers.

It’s taken Shivdasani much time to turn his sights on India. He says: “Quite honestly, India has limited locations for Six Senses. India does have plenty of beaches but they are not exceptional or remote enough for our signature hotels. The Andaman Islands, however, are remote, exotic and unique with a strong local culture. They could form some of the best locations for the Six Senses group.”

He adds that the beaches in Thailand and in The Maldives are unbeatable. “I’m afraid Indian beaches pale in comparison,” he says with a shrug.

But what’s with the obsession with green hotels? He says that it’s his better half, Swedish-born, former model Eva, who has been the inspiration behind the chain’s green philosophy. “Eva is very environment conscious and her personal values affect the details of the properties,” says Shivdasani.

Shivdasani met Eva in Monte Carlo when he took a break to prepare for his final Master’s exams. Eva was introduced to Shivdasani by his sister. As a creative director of Six Senses, Eva takes charge of details like interiors, fabrics and furnishings for the resorts. And as CEO and chairman, Shivdasani conceptualises the resorts and concentrates on the development and conceptual architecture of the buildings. “We do (often) have diverging opinions but I am more inclined to give way on an interiors question and Eva more likely on an architectural one,” he says.

Shivdasani’s wife Eva is the moving force behind the chain’s green philosophy

Even the name Six Senses came up during one of their brainstorming sessions. “It was an apt name as we were appealing to all five senses of our guests and then we thought of Six Senses, believing that we are, with our offer of intelligent luxury, providing the sixth sense,” adds Shivdasani.

So how did an Oxonian with a Master’s degree in English Literature land in the hospitality business? It all began when he completed his education in 1988 and joined the family business for three years. His father ran a multinational trading company and was also involved in breweries, vineyards and tea plantations. The Shivdasanis also owned a 10,000-acre farm in Africa where the young Sonu learnt all about plants and how to raise them. At eight, Shivdasani even learnt to drive a tractor and a Land Rover. His father died when he was 13, and the reins of the business passed into his mother’s hands.

“My father even told me that I would land up being a farmer,” says Shivdasani, who reckons that today he’s no different from a farmer. “I think about my resorts business, like a farmer would about his farm. A resort needs to be tended and nurtured, cared for and developed. Profits need to be ploughed back into it and into the local community and environment. All conditions, including hard work and constant care, must be right to enable it to flourish and grow into a successful business.”

And that’s exactly what’s taken him to such heights. While expansion plans are ongoing for Six Senses and there are expectations of a compound growth of 20 per cent in 2010, there’s no compromise on quality and service.

Shivdasani and Eva live in the Maldives, but home could be anywhere in the world where his belongings are. So, home could be even his old home in Oxford from his university days. Shivdasani and Eva visit their Oxford home at least twice but sometimes as many as four or five times a year and they stay, normally, for two weeks each time. Or home could also be at the Soneva Fushi where they love the beach and the twinkling blue sea.

Today, he reckons that being innovative is integral to the Six Senses success story. “Six Senses has been a pioneer. We are constantly exploring and pushing the boundaries of what we do,” says Shivdasani.

However, he says that the culture of Six Senses is not conventional. “We have very strong values and our ecological principles alone have made our work very challenging,” points out Shivdasani.