Six Senses for success

Never mind hotel experience, says Six Senses chairman Sonu Shivdasani, it’s confidence that makes all the difference
Shivdasani: spas are great business

IT’S not every day that you find someone leasing an unpopular and undesired vacant island in an exotic locale, with the guts, gumption and go-ahead to turn it into one of the most beautiful and luxurious resorts in the world.

That’s what Six Senses founder and chairman Sonu Shivdasani, a true visionary, has managed to achieve with the help of his wife Eva Malmström, in the process creating one of the world’s most successful hotel groups in just a few years.
“We’ve been travelling to the Maldives since the late 1980s, and because Eva and I fell in love with the country in all its natural splendour, we initially decided it would be a great idea to lease an island and put a little house on it. However, the Maldivian government made it quite clear at the time that such an idea was impossible and that we could only take an island for a resort, with the opportunity finally arising in 1991,” says Sonu, who opened the ultra-exclusive Soneva Fushi Resort & Spa in 1995, the first Crusoe-styled hideaway in the Maldives, set on the privately owned 100-acre tropical island of Kunfunadhoo in the Baa Atoll.
Amazingly, neither Sonu nor his wife, the company’s creative director, had any hotel management experience before. A former student of Eton, with an MA in English Literature from Oxford, he attended various management programmes at IMD, London Business School, and Ashrideg, before beginning his career with a two-year induction into the family business in West Africa and Europe, where  he covered industries such as breweries, vineyards, tea plantation, oil services, computer distribution and financial services.
In 1991, Sonu reduced the amount of time he spent in the family businesses, which are run by his brother Azad, and made a small investment in Pavilion Resorts. Since then, the small shareholding has been extended to full ownership.
The company’s focus was changed to the higher-end four- and five-star designer resort and hotel niche. Today, the Six Senses Resort and Spa Management and Development Company, established in 1995, owns the award-winning Soneva Fushi Resort & Spa in the Maldives and manages properties under the brand names Soneva Resorts, Evason Hideaways and Evason Resorts, each a clever blend of the owners’ names.
Excerpts from an interview:
You had no hotel experience, how did you deliver?
We just believed in the concept and we were passionate about what we were doing. And I think that helps in a way, because of the confidence in our approach. We knew we were different in what we were and are doing.
Even the management company came through our bankers, since we had no experience managing a resort, and we did not want to work with a mainstream chain, because we felt they would not be able to understand what we wanted to do. And we also believe how different resort and signature hotels are, with resort you are really creating an experience more than just the product. It’s an old approach philosophy that’s added to the value of the product and priorities.

Why are you managing spas?
We realised we’re all about creating an experience and we realised very quickly that spas play such an important part in the overall experience. So we decided we needed to manage ourselves rather than sub-contract it. That led to people asking us if we would manage their spas because we won a lot of awards.

In the Middle East you made your mark at the Madinat Jumeirah. What’s the market’s potential?
With any destination, I think what you’ll see are people going for more authenticity. So, Dubai will always be very successful, because of the infrastructure that is being put in, the marketing dollars, and that whole sort of no-holds-barred approach. So, I think there’ll be a continuous growth in Dubai. That said I think, the rest of the Middle East is looking to follow the Dubai formula, and where I think people will be really successful is, if they create that formula in reality.

Qatar is going to have your biggest spa?
Qatar will be a very natural Qatari type village. The spa itself will be quite different. We are also opening an Evason Hideway in Oman and that will be a Omani feel to it, so it’ll create absolute reality.

What do look for when you are opening a new resort?
The site is very important, access is also very important. I think you want to find a site that is very unique, very untouched and feel very remote, but also very accessible. Like Oman, it feels very remote, but it’s just outside Dubai. It’s definitely going to be a great winner.

There is a lot of competition in terms of spas today, how does Six Senses stay ahead?
Our whole philosophy is balancing senses, so it’s having your enjoyable pampering type of treatment at the same time offering a holistic treatment in a very natural relaxing atmosphere. We offer innovative ideas and focus on the software as well, not just the hardware. So, we don’t just build beautiful spas, but the quality of their services are excellent as well.

Where do you see yourselves five years from now?
We never look at number of properties. But we will be in Europe with some of our new developments. There may be some involvement in the US. Asia is our hub, and we are partial to that region, so no matter how many properties we have there, we’ll look for acquisition.
And we’d like to be considered to be trend-setting and innovative and be known for redefining responsible leisure lifestyle, so that’s how we’d like to be in five years not have a certain number of properties.