In Conversation With Sonu Shivdasani, Founder And CEO Of Soneva Group Of Hotels

soneva Fushi founder FI

Soneva is a name that has come to become synonymous with luxury. You think Soneva and images of never ending vistas of turquoise waters, the feeling of having sand between your toes pop up. ELLE’s Editor Kamna Malik caught up with Sonu Shivdasani, Founder and CEO of the Soneva Group of Hotels. Read on about what he has to say about the brand’s philosophy, future expansion plans and more.

ELLE: You have been in the hospitality industry for 25 years now. How do you think the industry has evolved, grown and changed?

Sonu Shivdasani: Following the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have found that travellers are becoming more health-focused, more aware of nature and more sensitive to the challenges of the planet. Reunions with family and friends have also become very popular, and we are already witnessing this emerging trend at our resorts through an increase in multi-generational travellers coming to stay at Soneva.

Our guests do not have much interest in acquiring material luxuries, rather they have an increasing thirst for knowledge and learning, they seek discretion, special access and surprise. They want meaning, authenticity, and connection. Today people crave conviction, experiences, focus and depth, discovery, and understanding.

With climate change and its effects so apparent, the world is also striving for real experiences. Living in the moment is everything. When guests go on holiday, we don’t want them to do the same thing they do at home – we want them to escape, to dream, to feel. For that, you need to experience. I strongly believe that a successful business is the one that combines apparent contrasts and make these opposites compatible. When this is achieved, it creates an experience that is both unique and admired and one that immediately fosters loyalty from the guest.

ELLE: Soneva’s Slow Life  program was initiated in 2010 and is something that is very close to you. Now that it’s been 12 years to it, how would you define its growth and where does Slow Life  go from here? What are the programs that you are currently involved in?

SS: We believe that luxury is defined as something that is rare or uncommon for the consumer. It is something novel and authentic, that strikes a chord in one’s heart when it is experienced. Our Slow Life  (Sustainable – Local – Organic – Wellness – Learning – Inspiring – Fun – Experiences) philosophy aims to create unforgettable, enlightening experiences for our guests that illuminate and enrich their lives while treading lightly on the earth.

Slow Life  is a guiding principle for our hosts (employees). It is our moral compass, as well as our operating compass. Sustainability runs through our core, and we always strive to limit the negative environmental impacts of our activities – which is both difficult, and yet critical, for a company which operates resorts in remote places of pristine natural beauty.

When our guests arrive, the first thing we do is ask if they would like to take off their shoes. Our ‘No News, No Shoes’ mantra helps grounds our guests and lets them feel the sand between their toes. Some never put their shoes back on for their entire stay with us. 

With our food and beverage offerings we also do our best to source as locally as possible, be that from our organic gardens, from the plentiful seas that surround our islands, or sourced from nearby islands and countries. Sourcing locally has two main benefits: firstly, that our ingredients don’t have to travel so far to reach our guests’ plates, thus keeping their nutritional values intact; secondly, that it also reduces our carbon emissions. There is absolutely no detrimental impact on the environment and our guests savour their meals with the knowledge that the food they consume is free of chemicals, fair-trade, and sourced sustainably. Other examples are the fair-trade dark chocolate in our chocolate rooms or the biodynamic and organic wines that dominate our wine lists. 

Some of my favourite signature Soneva features of our resorts are the outdoor cinemas, our observatories, and the large outdoor bathrooms. We believe these are true luxuries; watching a film under the star-lit sky, exploring the wonders of space and bathing whilst surrounded by nature. 

Expense, we would argue, is not indicative of luxury. Rarity, however, is. The features in our resorts are not often found in other resorts or restaurants around the world. Sustainability and wellness are hallmarks of something that our guests rarely experience in their cities. It is rare to enjoy oneself while doing something positive for the environment. So, we have combined apparent opposites and found ways in which they can live hand in hand.

ELLE: Soneva Jani and Soneva Fushi were probably amongst the first resorts in Maldives that successfully married luxury, environmental consciousness and thoughtful design. Today, with Maldives becoming a preferred holiday destination, resorts are increasingly making sustainability a part of their narrative, where do you see the hospitality industry moving?

SS: I have spent my life working in the hotel industry and have devoted my career to building what is now a network of luxury resorts. I do not believe that this puts me at odds with conservation, but I am the first to say that the hotel and tourism se

There can be no doubt that we, as an industry, consume far more than our fair share of resources. But I believe that all companies, hotel businesses included, must have a purpose beyond profit. They must play a greater role in the world beyond just enriching their shareholders. I don’t believe that this has to run counter to a successful business model, in fact, it can be central to it. We can find opportunities to make small positive changes that do not impact negatively on our profitability or our guests’ perception of our products, yet which can generate considerable good for both the environment and society. In fact, they can often enhance our guests’ experience. 

By taking bold steps we can fundamentally redress the balance between business and communities and shift back to the original purpose of the corporation as a service to society.

ELLE: During the pandemic, Maldives was the only holiday destination that saw an upsurge of tourism. What are your thoughts on this? How do you think this has changed things for Soneva and the island in general?

SS: Throughout the pandemic, the Maldives had very few travel restrictions in place, so we were still able to welcome a high number of international guests over the past two years. 

As a result, our growth in markets such as India has been exponential due to its close proximity which is also aided by the incredible guest safety and care implemented by our hosts. Usually, our guests from India have stayed for longer durations and often come back more than once a year. 

In addition, we have also witnessed a dynamic shift towards family travel to the Maldives versus only honeymooners that were symbolic of the destination in the past. 

Soneva Soul  our expansive new wellness concept is already being very well received and that reinforces our belief that guests are singularly prioritising personal wellbeing like never before.

ELLE: In 2019 you launched Soneva Namoona, Soneva’s flagship project that reimagines waste management in the Maldives. Tell us more about this. 

SS: We launched our Soneva Namoona project with a workshop in January 2019 with participants from the islands of Maalhos, Dharavandhoo and Kihaadhoo, and the central Maldivian government including the President’s Office, Ministry of Environment and EPA, Clean Blue Alliance, Parley and Soneva. 

In February 2020, Soneva Namoona celebrated a Maldives’ first: Maalhos become the first island in the country to end the practice of burning its garbage in open bonfires. This was made possible by the opening of the island’s Eco Centro, a waste-to wealth-centre funded by Soneva and modelled on Soneva Fushi’s own Eco Centro. In November and December 2020 Dharavandhoo and Kihaadhoo followed suit respectively, so all three islands ended open burning of waste by 2020.

In 2021 we began with the Baa Atoll Council to get the remaining 10 islands of Baa Atoll to stop the open burning of waste. We have already received a commitment from the Maldives President’s Office that they will fund this so that the Namoona model can be a proven method of dealing with waste sustainably in the Maldives.

We are also working with Action Against Hunger through our Restaurants Against Hunger initiative to help fight child malnutrition in Bangladesh and Nepal. Furthermore, we support Care for Children which promotes foster care in China and Thailand.

Finally, earlier this year we implemented one of the largest coral restoration programmes in the world, located onsite at Soneva Fushi. With a one-hectare coral farm consisting of 432 tables with 120 coral fragments each, we aim to propagate 50,000 coral fragments each year. 

ELLE: Sustainability is the core of your personal and professional philosophy. Describe a regular day in your life. How have you adopted sustainable living in your day-to-day life?

SS: Our Slow Life is a guiding principle for both our hosts as well for myself. Having gone through a health crisis a few years ago I made significant changes to my lifestyle.  For instance, when it comes to my diet, I always opt for delicious healthy food that is made with local and organic ingredients, avoid dairy, white flour, sugar, beef, and generally stick to a plant-based diet. 

In terms of my personal daily routine, I am usually up by 6:30 am and will then spend 1.5 hours preparing myself for the day and going through my emails. At 8:00 am I will either go to the gym or do yoga. At 9:00, I will meditate for 30 minutes before I start any meetings or calls. 

At Soneva, these are also activities that our guests experience on a day-to-day basis. Our organic gardens provide the freshest ingredients for our kitchens, guests usually cycle all over the island and we have state-of-the-art gyms and tennis courts, our experiences strive to create lasting out-of-this-world memories and our spas have wellness therapies from multiple origins and applications.

ELLE: You call yourself a Guardian of Culture. A responsibility that has heightened over the years from a jetsetter to a mindful entrepreneur. When you look back on your journey, what would be that turning point in your life that you think changed you completely.

SS: I think the major turning point for me was when I first visited the Maldives with Eva in 1987 and immediately fell in love with the place. I had never seen anything quite like it. Eva, who had been coming to the Maldives for modelling shoots in the late 1980s and early 1990s, loved the untouched, simple way of life. 

From there we decided we wanted to open a resort like no other, whilst ensuring we protect the environment. We believe that a company must have a clear purpose beyond turning a profit. It must serve and contribute to the society in which it operates and should not negatively impact the environment in which it is located. We bought an abandoned resort on far-flung 100-acre Kunfunadhoo Island in the Maldives and set about creating our dream. 

After considerable effort and some good luck, our first resort, Soneva Fushi, opened in 1995. We were the first luxury resort in the Maldives, which at the time was a diver’s paradise, and the few hotels that were there had very low rates. In 2011, Soneva became the first company, and is currently the only one, to offer luxury resort real estate for foreigners in the Maldives, at Soneva Fushi. The Soneva Villa Ownership programme is also available at Soneva Jani in the Noonu Atoll.

We then went on to build  one resort after another, and we also founded Six Senses Resorts and Spas, as well as the Evason brand, which we then sold back in 2012. The Soneva brand was always our premium brand. Since 2012, our strategy has been to only operate resorts which we own. To manage the level and quality of our brand the way we want to, we pay an extraordinary amount of attention to detail, not least because we want to maintain our dedication to our sustainability goals.

ELLE: You have two resorts in the Maldives and one in Thailand. Are there any plans for new resorts or a renewed expansion policy? 

SS: This year, we will continue to innovate, both reinforcing our existing concepts and creating new, unforgettable experiences for our guests. Over the coming months, we have a number of exciting new projects that we will be introducing, including new one-bedroom beach villas at Soneva Jani. We will also be launching some new family experiences at Soneva Jani very soon in late July/early August. 

Soneva Soul, our new wellness offering that we launched late last year will also be introducing some new specialist wellness treatments such as Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapies and Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments. 

In May this year we also hosted the first JLF Soneva Fushi literary festival which hosted  over 30 world-renowned authors  and speakers  and guests from all around the world; the event will return next year from   May  12 -21, 2023 . Next year we will also be hosting a wellness festival – Soul, which will be held over a ten-day period and will feature some leading Indian practitioners for a series of insightful talks, presentations and specialist wellness offerings.

ELLE: You and Eva have been working together towards a common goal through Soneva and your foundation. How has your relationship evolved over the years? How do you balance your professional and personal relationships?

SS: It can be both an advantage and a challenge to have a spouse who is a working partner in the business. It is important that we set clear boundaries between work and time off and when it is a holiday we try to avoid talking about work. This is difficult as Soneva is our passion. So, we can discuss things like design and concepts, but we cannot discuss things like day-to-day working issues. It seems to have worked well. I met Eva back in 1986 so we have been together for 36 years.

We both share a deep passion and commitment to sustainability, and we are very clear about our responsibilities as custodians of these beautiful places in which we operate. Eva allows me total freedom on the architecture and the design of the buildings, and I give her total freedom on the interior design. Communication is so important to us. Once we talk through the problem and see the perspective from each other’s eyes, we generally come to an agreement or find a solution.

We also have a deep respect for each other. And, whilst we live together at Soneva Fushi, we have fairly different work routines. Both before the pandemic and now that borders have reopened, I need to travel a lot to see all our travel trade partners around the world. Eva spends quite a lot of time with her creative team and loves to go home to Sweden for a month or so each summer. We then come together in our Oxford cottage for a month. But our time together at Soneva Fushi is definitely our favourite.

Quick questions:

  • Favourite meal

Lunch at The Crab Shack at Soneva Jani, served with a crisp Chene Bleu Rose is my ideal summer dining setting. Here, guests can dine barefoot with toes in the sand, in line with our ‘No News, No Shoes’ ethos. The Crab Shack is also open-air, allowing for the cool sea breeze to flow through and uninterrupted views out across the lagoon, towards the sunset. One of my personal favourites is the calamari – and our rotating crab dishes, of course. 

  • A book you recently read that you liked

I really enjoyed reading both Rebel Ideas and Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. He was also one of our speakers at our inaugural literature festival, JLF Soneva Fushi.  

  • A series or movie in the recent times that left an impression on your mind

I love watching old movies because it is so nice to see how the world was 60 years ago. Eva and 

I love some of the old films of the South of France such as the two with Cary Grant; “To Catch a Thief” and, “An Affair to Remember”. Both of them have great scenes depicting the  South of France at that time. It seems so beautiful and undeveloped compared to what it is today.

  • Favourite holiday destination

Eva and I absolutely love the Maldives but on holiday we like a change. During the European summer  we  always go to Sweden where Eva is from and stay at her family home.  We often visit European capitals and we both love visiting cities such as Istanbul and Florence  for both their food and culture.

  • Describe luxury in 3 words

If luxury is defined as a rarity, then in today’s society that means peace, time and space

  • I seek inspiration from…

It is very important to have inspiration in hospitality. Soneva’s brand proposition is “Inspiring a lifetime of rare experiences” and you see that in our offerings at each resort; it’s the small details in the lighting fixtures, the objects made from scrap and recycled materials. I personally look for inspiration everywhere and implement it into Soneva, to further encourage more creativity.

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