Soneva charts new style of resort luxury
21 JULY 2014 6:23 AM
The desires of the world’s wealthiest travelers have changed in recent decades, and Soneva offers experiences they can’t encounter in their daily lives.
BANGKOK—Luxury in the hotel industry has nearly as many definitions as there are luxury properties. Sonu Shivdasani, chairman and CEO of The Soneva Group, defines luxury as how it fits into the lifestyles of a new class of wealthy travelers.
“The definition of luxury is something that is rare. It’s got to be new and true, and it’s got to ring a chord in your heart when you experience it,” he said.
Soneva’s two small ultra-luxury resorts—the 55-villa Soneva Fushi in the Maldives Islands and the 35-unit Soneva Kiri on an east coast island of Thailand—combine sustainability, wellness and luxury to cater to the upper echelons of consumers seeking experiences they can’t encounter every day.
“In the 1970s and ‘80s, the richest people were mostly old money, landed gentry living in rural environments. Today, the wealthy tend to be the urban elite, an emerging group that live in cities that have become quite similar to each other,” Shivdasani said. “Whether they’re living in London, New York, Shanghai, they live in similar apartments, stay in similar hotels designed by similar designers and architects, go to similar restaurants and eat similar dishes and drink similar wines.”
What Soneva offers is a fresh-air, casual environment guided by the company’s core purpose Shivdasani describes as the “slow life,” which stands for sustainable, local, organic, wellness, learning, inspiring and fun experiences. He said the philosophy serves a higher calling than just turning a profit.
“Companies need to have purposes that go beyond enriching shareholders and giving employees a good salary,” he said. “They also need to improve the planet, and this can be a great mobilizer for employees. Hospitality experiences are ultimately judged not by the hardware of the hotel but by the people and the services and by how passionate are those people working at the resort.”
The Soneva experience
Soneva’s concept of what Shivdasani calls “intelligent luxury” starts at arrival, where guests take off their shoes and place them in a bag labeled “No news, no shoes.”
Much of the Soneva experience is outdoors and facing skyward—from open-air restaurants to observatories with powerful telescopes to explore the skies.
“No matter how wealthy you are you really can’t see the sky in an urban area,” he said. “And we have open-air bathrooms in garden settings with waterfalls so guests can watch the full moon while they shower. You can’t do that in an urban environment.”
The two hotels rely heavily on repeat business (approximately half of guests return) and word of mouth. Shivdasani said 15% of the company’s guests account for half of the company’s revenues, with many guests regularly spending $50,000 to $100,000, even up to $1 million, a year at Soneva properties.
Public relations is another marketing tool. In addition, a global ambassadors program includes approximately 100 affluent and well-connected fans of the company who introduce Soneva to their friends and associates in return for small commissions.
Sustainability and social responsibility are pillars of Soneva’s slow life philosophy.
A 2% carbon tax levied on guests has so far generated $5.5 million for environmental causes. And seven years ago, the company removed branded bottled water from its hotels, with the savings going to local charities.
Soneva formed the Slow Life Foundation, which annually hosts a symposium at the Maldives resort in which a group of global environmentalists meet to discuss and collaborate on sustainability issues.
One of the initiatives undertaken at Soneva Fushi is a learn-to-swim program for the local community. It, too, has a sustainability element.
“In the Maldives, half of the population can’t swim and in that culture the beach is a place where you throw your rubbish,” Shivdasani said. “Historically, all the waste was organic so the fish bones, coconut shells and banana skins could be left on the beach and the sea would take them away. Today, it is the opposite and you see lots of plastics and metals on the beach.
“We thought the best way to change this mindset was to teach children to swim and appreciate the water and beaches,” he said.
Shivdasani has a 10-year strategy to expand and improve the company and its assets:
- As high-end luxury resorts, money will need to be spent to improve the two existing properties.
- The company wants to expand in the Maldives with three or four additional resorts.
- Shivdasani sees potential for expansion elsewhere in Asia and then to Europe. “We want to benefit from the approaching tourism time bomb, so we need to be in destinations where in the future there will be a shortage of (high-end resort) supply,” he said. Additional resorts will include residential components as part of the developments.
- In Thailand this winter the company will launch Soneva in Aqua, a 22-meter, two-bedroom boat villa that will come with a crew of six, including a personal chef.
- Further extension of Soneva’s slow life principal could include related consumer products, such as a line of skin care products, Shivdasani said.