HE BEFRIENDED NATURE AND STARTED ENJOYING HIS NOMADIC LIFE FROM THE YOUNG AGE OF SIX, AND NOW HE STANDS PROUDLY AS THE OWNER OF THE ‘SONEVA’ GROUP OF RESORTS. MEET SONU SHIVDASANI, HOTELIER, AND ENTREPRENEUR WHO IS THE OWNER OF THE WORLD’S FIRST ECO-TOURISM HOTEL IN THE QUAINT ISLAND OF MALDIVES. IN A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH THE PEACOCK MAGAZINE, SONU TALKS IN-DEPTH ABOUT HIS SLOW LIFE AT SONEVA, HIS DREAMS FOR THE RESORT, AND HOW HIS WORKDAY USUALLY LOOKS LIKE.
Images artist’s own.
[Q] How were your growing up years like?
Life has its challenges. My youth had its ups and downs, and I believe that disaster shapes people. Difficult times lead to better times. We need to think of it as the Chinese concept of yin and yang, the idea that you could learn to have one on one side without the other. I was born and brought up in England and I went to school there. When I was about six-seven my father was building a farm in Nigeria (He was an importer there), as the Nigerian government decided to start import substitution and ban imports. He built this farm about 10,000 acres, near the Saharan desert. He was there for about two years. I would miss one term of school as I would go live with him. So one term, I’d be at my pre-prep school and the other term, I would be in Nigeria. I had a donkey and a tutor in the local village which was about three-four kilometers away. Sometimes I’d go to the school, and sometimes the tutor would come on his donkey to teach me. I absolutely loved it. I grew up loving nature and being at one with it. I then went to prep school at eight, which is a bit of a challenge. I was a bit too young to go to boarding school. I was away for the week, and then I come over the weekend. Later I went to Eaton and I loved it there. But my father passed away when I was 13. That was a bit tragic because he was really my secure base and my anchor. It was a very difficult time. I have an elder brother and an elder sister. After Eaton, I studied at Oxford where I met Eva. After University, we spent a couple of years when I had graduated. We lived in Geneva for a while and then ended up developing this island. One thing led to another and we ended up spending more time here in Asia.
[Q] How did the idea of setting up an island come to you?
In those days, around the 1980s, there are only four resorts in the country, and these four resorts were mainly by Germans. Eva had been sent by a German company to do a photo-shoot of sorts, so the photographer loved the Maldives. He’d been here once before. It was very simple back then. They just served bananas and fish, and then some tin foods. The buildings were built out of the coral from the reef. They had no sweet showers, only salty water. And of course, then they pumped out that sewage into the sea. So, the standards weren’t great. It wasn’t a fantastic guest experience. But the geography was amazing, although we didn’t like what was being built. So, one day I said, well, why we don’t just see if we can just use an island and build a house. We went to Male and I asked if I could see the Director of Foreign Investments. After a nice chat, he said, unfortunately, they only auctioned islands. I was then introduced to the director of tourism. He gave me the bid papers and we applied. But we failed because we didn’t have a bid contract. Then a few years after that, I graduated. I was living in Geneva when we went on holiday here. We met a lady who knew the president very well and even knew the former ministers at the time. And this island had belonged to a gentleman called Ahmed Julio, who was very well connected with the influential circle. He had built a resort in 1974. The rule to transfer any hotels were only by the virtue of birth. He then kept on subleasing it to people who never got to develop it because they’re worried about the transfer logistics. In 1991, we met this Maldivian who introduced us to the Head of Lease. After a failure of repayment by a sub-lease, we pitched in and paid off the last few months’ rentals. He terminated the contract with them and that’s how we got to develop the island. It was all a new experience!
[Q] Was becoming a hotelier or starting your own venture something that was on your mind while coming off age?
I studied English literature. My father loved hotels and he loved traveling. So, on any holiday we took, we were always traveling through Europe and staying at some of the best hotels. That’s how I’ve been exposed to the best hotels. But when we came here, we realized we could do Soneva differently because we’ve been to so many great hotels around the world. We were here staying amidst simple things with amazing geography at a destination that was so close to the world. We quite like property development. When I was at Oxford, I sort of bought an old cottage and we rebuilt it. I developed a thing for rebuilding and refurbishing, taking buildings redoing them, etc. By the time I’d graduated, I was, in a way, a small property developer with a new house in London. Of course, on a very small scale.
[Q] How were you as a kid?
I was quite happy and quite mischievous, as well. I have an elder brother who is eleven years older than me and an elder sister who is 17 years older than me. I was like the forgotten child. (laughs) My sister was more like a mother to me, while the age of my parents was more like grandparents’.
[Q] What motivated you to become environmentally friendly?
Our core purpose is engaging in imaginative soil life. We’ve always been passionate about being environmentalists. Growing up in Oxford in the 80s, we saw the negative impact of ‘Thatcherism’. At that time, you had a huge economic expansion where you would see these beautiful meadows, but if you came back six months later there weren’t any. There were too many problems. I think the onion best describes our sustainability journey, where each time you peel a layer, you think you’ve cracked the code, and there’s nothing more you can do, only to find that there’s another layer to unpeel. So, we started with conservation. They were slaughtering turtles. It was natural in the Maldives to kill the turtle for its shell, or its food because they didn’t have fridges in those days. They also didn’t have power. It’s a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. We saw that they would eat a turtle over a week, where they would take one out leg off and the next day the other leg. It was shocking. We tried to explain that a turtle in the sea swimming was worth so much more than a dead one, from the point of view of potential tourism income. Then with the sharks, too, there were conservation campaigns. We had tour operators supporting the EIA agencies. We got the government to ban the sale of turtle products and shark fins on the islands, along with conservation about not removing the trees around. That included using woods from a tropical hardwood, tropical rainforests because even if it’s forestry, stewardship certified, there’s so much corruption, the tropics, obviously, near the equator, there’s greater corruption. No shark’s fin, no turtle soup, and then no bluefin tuna. So, we have our no-no list. It was a small change we made that didn’t affect our profitability but made a big impact beyond our shores. For the mosquito project, we used these traps to sustainably catch mosquitoes by following the natural behavior of mosquitoes. Our catch has dropped by 95% since we started our initiative a year ago, and we’ve now brought back a lot of beneficial insects. You’ll now see a lot of dragonflies and bumblebees around. We recycle in our eco-centers and send our waste to ‘Wealth Centre’. It is the first island in the country to stop open burning. We separate the waste and then we do different things. The cardboard and food turn into compost. We compress the plastic that has to go to the tail of the ship. Aluminum is compacted and we sell that. And then there’s ‘Inspire,’ inspiring a love for the sea. Inspire is a recycled reducing spiral. It sort of led to the government deciding to commit, and the President went to New York at the UN last September and made this commitment. It was a small little stone that we threw which had an impact well beyond our shores. It’s like a little society here, where we’re regenerating our power and we have to desalinate water. It’s not like you’re going to plug it in the government utilities, we have to use all that we have to manage our waste. We have a welfare center, where we have welfare funds. We’re trying to support it as much as possible. We try to help their children. I believe, a company must have a purpose. And when you do that, it can lead to great success and greater levels of employee engagement. That should be the biggest target of any company.
[Q] Sonu, you were born into a family of businessmen, while Eva, you were a model. As you both come together as entrepreneurs, what has your partnership taught you both?
I think Ava is very uncompromising. She’s very strong-willed, she has got a great heart, and she’s extremely determined. When she has a point, she will not compromise her values. That makes us very much a values-based organization, which is very important. Having a purpose, strong values, and beliefs in the philosophy is very important for a brand. That’s what defines a luxury brand, especially today when a lot of luxury is institutional. If you go down one street, we’ll see all these names of people who were passionate about making a watch or a shirt or a dress or luggage or a bag, or jewels; and all of these names are now few big groups. As they become more institutionalized, they lose a little bit of their soul. And we’ve seen that with hotels, as well. The founders of a lot of these iconic brands are long gone, and they’re now a part of big conglomerates. These conglomerates don’t even own their hotels. Their owners are public real estates companies like a sovereign wealth fund or a listed hotel company or a private equity firm, and they only want to maximize shareholder returns. There’s no sort of philosophy values that they’re trying to push forward. And I think that’s what separates a true luxury brand from a company that has values. Eva is our creative director and she does the interiors. I am also a joint creative director, but I do more on the architectural front. But we work a lot together. It’s a friendly battle. She is also the conscience and the one to drive the ecological agenda and pushing it, from a point of view of being the figurehead.
[Q] Tell us about that significant turning point in your journey so far?
The success came after a big fight. It was a big battle, to be honest. It took a good four to five years’ struggle to open up and we took a lot of risks. We opened up, and thank God, the demand was there. In fact, we opened in October, and by Christmas, we were full. We were staying in the guest filler, because, like any project, there was a cost overrun. So, what went was our own villa because it’d been sold and we had to leave over the Christmas holidays. We went back to Sweden and spent the Christmas with the family.
[Q] Were there any highlighting happenings/aspects of your journey as hoteliers that nobody knows about?
The sale of ‘Six Senses’ was as difficult as giving up a baby. It was quite traumatic. There was a lot of to and fro whether we should do it or not. But I believe very much in Einstein’s quote that you have to give up who you are to become who you are will. If the glass is full of water, then nothing new can come in. But if it’s half, then there’s space for new things. Giving up ‘Six Senses’ created a new space because like I said, luxury becomes quite institutional. We’re competing in the luxury space. We weren’t going to be a success just managing other people’s hotels. We weren’t the developer ourselves. So, we started to lose our brand identity because the developers would have their own views. If you spent $100 million on a hotel, you’re going to want to have some say on how it looks, feels, and operates.
[Q] What do you think has helped you grow and sustain?
I think it’s my passion for what I do, strong belief, strong values, and attention to detail. I reflect upon it and that supports our ability to achieve what we do, and innovate continuously. And, I believe I have that enthusiasm, which hopefully reflects on others too.
[Q] What do you believe in more – Doing the right things or doing the things right?
It’s a good question. I think both are important. I think you have to do the right things. And, it’s important to do things correctly, as well, giving attention to detail. I think when you combine both, that’s an overall success which you achieve by combining rather than either-or. So, we believe we don’t have to make compromises just because we are sustainable and luxurious, and, healthy.
[Q] How would you define your design aesthetics?
We like to recreate the reality of the destination as much as possible. We like to have a bit of fun and you will always see that fun twist to anything we do. We also like to recycle materials as much as possible, especially in this context. And yes, we like to create spaces that are comfortable for people and which bring out the beauty of nature within our designs.
[Q] Apart from the obvious parameters, what according to you qualifies to be a luxury hotel?
As I said before, it’s not necessarily the size of the rooms. Ours is the largest inside-water retreats and the largest one and two-bedroom water retreats in the world. It’s not about the spa, too. We created the success of spas many years ago. All the wellness is not about the food, as well. We have top chefs from around the world who come and cook at once on a table, and they say the food here is the best food they’ve had at any hotel. It’s not about the magical service that our host delivers. What, in my opinion, makes the difference in a hotel, is the people who occupy it.
[Q] Mr. Sonu, we’ve heard that you never travel without a compass, a tape measure, and a magnet. Could you tell us why?
The compass is for the times when I’m on a site visit on a project. I like to understand where the sunset is, where the west is, where the winds will come, etc. So, when I go to a site, I can immediately say what we can build here. I carry the tape measure because I’m always measuring distances. If I see something nice, I’ll say, well, that feels nice and I’ll just measure it. And then I have the magnet as it helps me overcome jetlag. So, what I do is, I have a baseball cap in my hand luggage and the magnet is on either side of the baseball cap. It supports the recovery of jetlag in just two to three days with the magnets.
[Q] What is on the cards for the next five-year plan?
We have two more projects here. We’re continuously evolving in our existing resorts and we never stop. We’ve doubled the size of Soneva Jani. We’ve added the water retreats here. We now have the Crusoe suites, which we’ve renovated, so Soneva Fushi is the first luxury resort in the Maldives that is twenty-five years old. We have the zip line concept and we use it to a dining platform, which is a state-of-the-art kitchen. We’ll have two or three Michelin star chefs who are in the top 50 restaurant list. We are going to add more solar equipment here. In Soneva Jani, we’re going to build a den for the children like the den we have here. We’re also very keen on Japan. And then we’re also looking at developing retail online retail.
[Q] Tell us about your favorite luxury experience, apart from that at Soneva.
We like to go to the cities. I love Barcelona and I love Florence. I love the Lungarno, which is right on the river. You’ve got the road in between the hotel and the river. It’s very close to the Pontiac. It’s great to be out there on the terrace having breakfast. We also like to go skiing every year to the Dolomites. There’s a lovely hotel called Rosa Alpina. They have a restaurant in the mountains there which has three Michelin stars, and all that I need is a coffee. And he’s quite an amazing chef and a great skier. He knows all the owners of all the restaurants in the mountains and they come to the Dolomites for a celebration. It’s a food festival where they come for a weekend. At the bottom of the ski run, there are these little stalls. They give them some recipes and they teach the chefs how to cook them. So, the food is great in the Dolomites!
[Q] How do you unwind?
I love to learn and read. I believe in what Einstein said, ‘When you stop learning, you start dying.’ So, I try and read a book every month. What I also do is I don’t do any calls on Fridays. I’ll try and catch up with emails. Sometimes when the week has been hectic then Saturday morning also I’ll do emails. Saturday afternoon is for creative things. So, if there’s a drawing of a villa that I need to look at, or I might be writing an op-ed, or writing a script for one of our films or whatever, I’ll do that on a Saturday afternoon. Saturday after dinner we might watch a movie and then Sunday is all about reading. Reading in the morning while I just lie in bed from eight in the morning till two in the noon. We normally have a late lunch at about 3:30, and then I’ll sit on the beach. I’ll be reading a lecture sometimes or there may be a good TED talk or whatever. I store up all the interesting finds of the week and I keep ready my list of Sunday things to look at. And then I’ll make time for MOOC. I’ve got a couple of open MOOCs I’m doing at the moment.
[Q] What’s that one thing that you love about Eva?
She’s got a great heart. She’s got a fantastic heart!
[Q] Is that one thing that ever Eva loves about you?
I think she loves my sense of humour. I’m easy-going, I’m kind, and yeah, generous.