Interview With Soneva Resort Founder, Sonu Shivdasani
A Q&A on sustainability and true luxury with the founder of Soneva Resorts.
When you arrive at a Soneva resort, a barefoot butler welcomes you with a bag that says, “No News, No Shoes.” Drop your shoes in the bag and reset your mind. Barefooted luxury awaits.
This laidback approach to the good life comes from the company’s founders, husband and wife duo Sonu and Eva Shivdasani. Together, they’ve taken relaxation to a new level with resorts that understand the needs of modern travellers to disconnect from the digital world and reconnect with the natural world.
Soneva resorts bring travellers right to the edge of wild spaces without encroaching on them. The architecture embraces the surrounding environment, and the beauty of these secluded beachfront properties integrates into the entire experience of visitors.
The overwater villas at the resort in the Maldives have windows with views of the turquoise horizon as well as the coral reef below the living room.
Nestled in an untamed jungle of Thailand, another resort features treetop dining and tropical gardens. Almost all the rooms come with outdoor bathrooms and offer the rare experience of seclusion amidst nature.
The harmony and balance of these resorts arise from the inner balance of Sonu and Eva. They live by the principles they promote, and the spaces they create reflect those values. We had the opportunity recently to ask Sonu a few questions about his life, philosophy, and work. His answers reveal a man who cares as much about sustainability and health as he does about fine dining and beautiful architecture.
Tell me about your “Slow Life” philosophy and your policy of “No News, No Shoes.”
“Slow Life” is a guiding principle for all of our working hosts. It’s our moral compass as well as a guide to operations. Sustainability is core, and we always strive to limit the environmental impacts of our activities. A difficult but also critical task for a company operating in pristine places of natural beauty.
Our “No News, No Shoes” policy is deeply ingrained in the “Slow Life” philosophy. Our guests arrive at the resort by private plane, either a floatplane landing on the lagoon or a privately owned wheeled plane. After guests have received their cold towel and fresh local drinks, the barefoot butler asks if they can remove their shoes then places them in a bag with “No News, No Shoes” written on it. The bag joins the suitcases and makes its way to the guest room. When the guests depart, the last gesture from the barefoot butler before they leave the boat for their plane is to give them back their shoes.
The name of your resorts, Soneva, seems to be a combination of your name and your wife’s name. How have family dynamics shaped the nature of your business?
Eva allows me total freedom on architectural design, and I give her total freedom on interior design. Communication is key. Once we talk through a problem and see the perspective from each other’s eyes, we generally agree or find a solution.
It can be both an advantage and a challenge to have a spouse as a working partner. Many years ago, Eva would read emails in bed late at night while I was drifting into sleep. She would stir me with talk and disturb my rest. Now we have better boundaries. For instance, during our time off, we can discuss things like design and concepts, but we do not discuss things like day-to-day work issues.
Your family is Indian, but you were born in England, then you married a Scandinavian woman and moved to the Maldives. It’s a very multicultural existence.
A descendant of Indian parents, I was born and educated in England, with some periods of my life also spent in Nigeria and Switzerland. I’m an Alumnus of Eton College and a graduate of Oxford University, where I earned an MA in English Literature. During my time at Oxford, I met my Swedish wife, Eva, at the Monaco Grand Prix.
And then you honeymooned in the Maldives, right?
Yes, we first visited the Maldives during our honeymoon. We fell in love with the place and bought an abandoned resort on a far-flung 100-acre island and set about creating our dream.
We met with a lot of skepticism during our quest. For one, my family thought I was mad, given I had no experience in hospitality. We also faced challenges to get construction funding. Funders wanted us to build hundreds of rooms aimed at the low-end mass market, which was the Maldivian norm at the time. We didn’t want to offer a product that served tuna in tin cans and relied on volume. Instead, we opted to build a limited number of villas, 42 initially, and also chose to build a spa. The spa was unusual back then, but today you would be deemed crazy if you didn’t include a spa in a resort development.
An absence of hotel schooling and experience is a hallmark of some of the most successful visionary hoteliers. Isadore Sharp, founder of Four Seasons, was an architect/developer who ended up with a motel that he couldn’t sell and had to run it himself. Adrian Zecha, founder of Aman Resorts, started as a writer for an Asian economic magazine. Quite often, not coming from the hotel industry allows us to bring a fresh set of eyes.
What’s the common thread linking the luxury experiences of a formal dinner and a barefoot brunch?
Luxury is anything that is rare for the consumer. Something that is new, but still true and rings a chord in the heart when touched or experienced. We have pursued “Intelligent Luxury” in our desire to challenge and to fully understand true luxury. It doesn’t matter if we’re in England, the Maldives or Thailand, as long as we’re creating meaningful experiences.
Why do you think it’s important to have your resorts so closely connected with nature?
Our “Intelligent Luxury” philosophy questions what is truly rare and desired by the urban elite that frequent us. Today’s wealthy tend to live in cities and fly approximately 300 hours a year for business. When they pack their suitcases, they pack for others, not themselves. Their luggage is often full of formal clothes and shoes.
When guests pack for Soneva, they know they won’t need that stuff, so there’s space in the suitcase for books, DVDs, a camera, snorkel gear, etc. In other words, guests pack for themselves rather than others. This is a sharp contrast to some of our competitors who insist that guests wear shoes and trousers for dinner. The number of comments we have from our guests about the bliss of spending a week without shoes is remarkable. I take my shoes off every opportunity I can. It’s good for me to feel the earth and be free.
The rich ecosystem creates fantastic guest experiences. At Soneva Jani, we have a huge lagoon where one regularly sees eagle rays, stingrays, and other interesting fish. We also have some areas of seagrass where turtles come to eat. At Soneva Kiri, some of the trees are so large that we can offer a tree pod dining experience.
Your resorts are in beautiful locations on isolated beaches. How do you balance the needs of luxury hospitality with your impact on the surrounding environment?
Traditionally, people would say that if something is sustainable, it cannot be luxurious. If something is a luxury, it can’t be good for you. At Soneva, luxury and sustainability are not opposites. They work together in perfect harmony and feed off each other, and the result is that the more sustainable we are, the more luxurious we become.
To remain relevant in the environment we find ourselves in today, with its speed of change and high rate of obsolescence, it’s important to continuously innovate and evolve. But for that innovation and evolution to be successful, the creative outlets need structure, and the principle that guides our creativity is the phrase, “Intelligent Luxury.” We take stock in the word’s Latin origin, intellego, meaning to understand.
Luxury is often misunderstood. Luxury is that which is rare, and that which is new, but also true. It’s rare to enjoy oneself and not harm one’s body. It’s rare to enjoy oneself and not damage the environment.
Our magazine’s theme for this issue is Awaken the Five Senses. When people stay at one of your resorts, how do you awaken their senses?
At Soneva, we offer guests the ability to completely cut off from their daily lives and experience things they don’t experience at home. That’s what luxury is all about. We encourage our guests to walk barefoot, turn the WIFI off, give up the television, and immerse themselves in the beauty laid out before them.
Our most popular dish is the signature Rocket Salad. The organic leaves are lovingly grown by our gardeners on our island without any detrimental impact on the environment. Guests savour their meals with the knowledge that the food is free of chemicals, fair-trade, and sustainably sourced. This simple salad for the urban élite becomes rarer and more cherished than caviar, foie gras, Wagyu beef, or other gourmet food items. It’s the perfect example of the healthy choice being the luxurious choice. Other such examples are the fair-trade dark chocolate in our chocolate room or the biodynamic wines dominating our wine lists.
Some of my favourite features of all our resorts are the open-air cinemas, observatories, and the large outdoor bathrooms. These are signature Soneva. We believe they are true luxury. Expense, we would argue, is not indicative of luxury. Rarity, however, is.
We’re also rich in offering multisensory learning experiences. Guests can observe the stars in our observatory, or learn to free dive, scuba, or snorkel with our marine biologist. We also feature other learning opportunities from special guests, such as an astronomer at our observatory, a glass artist at our state-of-the-art glass studio, a world champion freediver, a famous author, an award-winning chef, a winemaker, or a grand slam tennis champion like Jonas Björkman or Todd Woodbridge.
Our guests change a little while they’re with us. They love taking a shower or watching a movie under a starlit sky. It’s the simple things that take our guests’ experience to a new, rare, and very beautiful place.