Sonu Shivdasani.
Sonu Shivdasani.

Luxury today is all about space, time and privacy: Sonu Shivdasani

The Indian-British hotelier talks about the symbiotic link between sustainability and luxury

Sonu Shivdasani can talk about sustainability at length. An Indian-British hotelier, Shivdasani, now 50, met his wife Eva Malmstrom in 1986 when he was studying English literature at Oxford and she was a model. Together they travelled a lot and took a liking for the Maldives. In 1995, he founded Six Senses and Soneva Fushi spa and resort on the island of Kunfunadhoo in the Maldives. In 2012, he sold Six Senses to focus completely on the Soneva line of luxury resorts. In a phone interview from the Maldives, Shivdasani spoke about why luxury and sustainability go hand in hand. Edited excerpts:

You had a vision for the group to be completely decarbonized by 2015. How far have you got?

Quite a bit, actually. But before I get into that, I want to explain what it is because sometimes people get confused between carbon neutrality and decarbonizing. We have been carbon neutral since 2008. We were the first hotel group and I think still are the only hotel group to measure all three scopes of carbon. The industry standard is to measure Scopes 1 and 2, which are carbon footprints from energy consumption. Whereas we also measure air travel, freight, ground travel, food, waste, paper and water consumption, known as Scope 3. We generate about 24,000 tonnes of CO2 per year per resort, 85% of which comes from guests and appliances coming in.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate any CO2 emission due to our operations. And we are making progress. At Soneva Fushi, we burnt some 150,000 litres of diesel per month when we started and we are now down to 80,000 litres. There is also a solar power plant that is just about to be installed and that will knock off probably another 20,000-30,000 litres.

What steps have you taken to ensure sustainable living?

The essence of Soneva is to create imaginative and engaging SLOW LIFE. It is an acronym for sustainable-local-organic-wellness learning-inspiring-fun-experiences. We offer our guests luxury while minimizing our impact on the planet. Luxury, sustainability and wellness go hand in hand for us.

We have been imposing a carbon levy on our guests, which is an additional charge of 2% of room revenue since 2008. This has generated $5.5 million, helping fund a windmill in India, 500,000 trees being planted in northern Thailand, and 150,000 cooking stoves in Darfur and Myanmar.

I also believe that 21st century companies must have a purpose, something they believe in and stand for, beyond getting rich and paying employee salaries.

A part of our annual revenue goes to community projects. We have the Soneva Foundation, a UK-based charity. At Soneva Fushi, we have banned branded water and have our own rainwater bottling plant. The money saved goes to water charities that provide clean drinking water for thousands of people elsewhere. We recycle 80% of our waste.

How do you define luxury?

If you think about the rich in the past, say the 19th century, you’d find that they lived in large estates. They had plenty of space, privacy and fresh air, which is exactly what the rich don’t have today. So for them luxury was about dressing up, champagnes and chandeliers. But the urban rich do that every day. So luxury for them is all about time, space and privacy. At Soneva, our guiding principle is about inspiring a lifetime of rare experiences because luxury is about creating something rare, something new, true and inspiring. But what is rare? Also, is something rare because it is expensive or because it is not possible to experience every day? For instance, there are wealthy people who could drink a bottle of Bordeaux wine every day. But then that’s not rare, that’s just expensive. We keep thinking what would touch a chord in the hearts of our guests. For example, when they arrive on the island, we ask for their shoes to be taken off and they walk barefoot. You can’t do that in Bangkok or London, no matter how wealthy you are. There is more open air here. For people living in an urban environment, that’s a premium. Instead of all air-conditioned restaurants, why can’t we have a restaurant on the sand bank? About 90% of our food is from our gardens and the sea. We also have an observatory and a telescope at Soneva Fushi.

How have the customers reacted to these green initiatives?

We have a 52% return rate, so more than half of our clients are repeat guests which, for long-haul destinations, is remarkable. Ninety per cent of our guests travel about 11 hours to get to us. I think they come back not only because they love the experience but also because they identify with our values.

Why did you choose the Maldives to start with?

I met Eva in 1986. She was modelling and I was studying at Oxford. We did a lot of travelling and loved the Maldives. We believed we lived here in a previous life. It has lovely beaches. The climate is more or less constant since it is so close to the equator. We also felt there was an opportunity. It has got about two billion people within the short-haul distance, even though I mentioned that most of our guests are long-haul. So we thought, we could do something exclusive here with the nature and other experiences, and people would pay good money for that.

Sonu Shivdasani, chairman and chief executive officer of Soneva Resorts, Residences and Spas and founder of Six Senses Resorts and Spas, will speak on New Frontiers of Design at the forthcoming Mint Luxury Conference.