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Soneva founder on what the pandemic means to luxury resort sector, and the world

Soneva CEO Sonu Shivdasani on staff welfare, silver linings and lessons to learn, during times of crises.

The history of Soneva is an interesting one. In 1990, Sonu Shivdasani, then a 25-year-old Oxford undergraduate, visited the Maldives with his wife, Eva. Like many visitors, both fell in love with the place, but they went one step further to lease an uninhabited island, Kunfunadhoo, in the Baa Atoll to call home. Five years later, they decided to open a resort and called it Soneva Fushi (Soneva, after Sonu and Eva; while “fushi ” means “island” in the local Dhivehi language).

Today, the Soneva brand is well known in the luxury hospitality sector for its focus on sustainability, the natural environment and mental wellness. And this is because Shivdasani believes that the more sustainable option is the more luxurious one. He has grown the brand to include Soneva Jani in the Maldives, and Soneva Kiri in Thailand. While offering guests a slower lifestyle, they also show support for green and social programmes – to this end, the Soneva Foundation was set up.

Soneva-Fushi-beachfront

Soneva Fushi, located in the Maldives, is both founder Sonu Shivdasani’s first Soneva resort and his residence.

What makes a world of difference, though, is the level of service of its staff, known as Soneva Changemakers, who both deliver exceptional guest experiences and take part in the initiatives. The staff, though, are also the ones who have been hugely affected by the pandemic which swept across the world in March.

Shivdasani spoke to us in May about the impact of the crisis on his resorts, and how he’s helped his staff through this time.

 

What has been the impact of the global pandemic on Soneva villas in the Maldives and Thailand? 

Eva and I have been through many crises during our long career and there are few things that are common to all of them: They always end!

We have always operated on the basis that we have no control of the cards with which we are dealt, but we have complete control over how we play the cards. Difficult times bring out people’s true characters. One can either make good or bad from difficult events and it depends very much on one’s attitude and one’s frame of mind. Like many other businesses, this period is very difficult, but the most important thing is that we do not lose our values and our humanity.

Each resort is open, although with very few guests in-house, except for Soneva Fushi which is running with about 20 villas occupied.  The other resorts have a few guests but we have managed to keep all our hosts employed.

(Related: Experiences from luxury hotels and resorts to tide you over until it’s safe to travel)

 

How do you manage staff’s concerns?

I am always working from “home” as I reside in Soneva Fushi. We were able to secure all our hosts’ jobs. They agreed to make sacrifices; salaries have been cut at a greater level from the top and less at the bottom. So entry-level hosts have experienced a 5 per cent salary cut, whereas Eva and I will not be taking salaries at all during the next three months. Our core team will only receive 50 per cent of their salary.

This quieter period is also an opportunity for our hosts to improve the property and to carry out things that they have never managed to do when we have been busy. Most importantly, it is important that each and every one of us thinks about this experience and considers what we have learnt from this.

We offer our hosts:

  • Daily meditation with our resident yoga expert
  • Any host can talk to our resident psychologist in the UK, Dr Martin Lloyd Elliot, at any time
  • Daily Ayurvedic herbs and treatment to boost immunity
  • A frequent chance to have time with our CEO and senior management to address any issues or concerns
  • All resorts have their own activity schedules to keep the hosts entertained during quiet times – there are host bands being formed, pub quizzes and lots of sports activities
  • Hosts are required to volunteer on local islands to help our island communities with any projects they need completing, such as gardening, waste management, etc

(Related: Leadership during a crisis: Hexogon Solution group MD Adrian Goh on taking his team through tough times)

 

Has the pandemic affected Soneva Foundation’s work?

Soneva Foundation is a UK charity that has money in its bank accounts, so we are still going ahead with a lot of our charitable initiatives. Our Soneva Namoona initiative continues – Soneva Namoona is a partnership between Soneva Fushi; the three nearby Baa Atoll island communities of Maalhos, Dharavandhoo and Kihaadhoo; and the global not-for-profit organisation Common Seas. The goal is to manage waste effectively, reduce the use of single-use plastics, and inspire a love for nature.

Soneva-Fushi-Recycling

Soneva Fushi recycles 90 per cent of its waste through its waste-recycling centre, Eco Centro.

In February 2020, we celebrated a Maldives first. Maalhos became 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 Waste to Wealth Centre, funded by Soneva and modelled on Soneva Fushi’s own Eco Centro.

We are in the process of building another waste recycling centre at a local island. This time the centre will be located on the island of Dharanvandhoo, where a lot of our hosts at Soneva Fushi come from.

 

How does Soneva prioritise wellness? 

At Soneva, a lot of thought is put into ensuring that our built environments are as healthy as they can be. We ensure that the villas are light and airy. A window is never more than 5m away. We’ve designed our villas so that they are naturally ventilated, and our guests can live comfortably without requiring air-conditioning. It is very important for our health that we are exposed to the natural temperatures, and that we do not spend all our lives in artificial environments. Our villas are designed so that Wi-Fi can be turned off at night. This is very important in order to achieve deep restful sleep. A Wi-Fi on/ off button is a standard feature of any Soneva villa.

Soneva-Fushi-Cinema-Paradiso

Watch a movie under the stars at Soneva Fushi, which prioritises experiences with Mother Nature as much as possible.

We also go to great lengths to select materials that are both sustainable – in that they are usually from renewable sources, and no endangered materials are used – and good for health. We always check the VOC (volatile organic compounds) of the materials and finishes that we use. Only low VOC materials are allowed. Our villas are designed so that the guests have amazing views. Looking at the beauty of nature is uplifting, and beneficial to one’s health.

Finally, whilst our villas are naturally ventilated and have substantial shaded areas where guests can stay in the open air during the day, they also have big open gardens and decks where guests can be exposed to the sun. Vitamin D3 is very important to boost one’s immune system.

(Related: Mental health wellness avenues and tips to get us through the coronavirus outbreak)

 

What are your future plans for Soneva?

We have a lot of projects for the future and we are sure that things will get better and that we will realise them. It is my expectation that people will come out of these times with a different perspective on life and different priorities. I believe that people will prioritise Mother Nature and will want to minimise their impact on the environment when they travel. All of this should be to our favour as sustainability is part of our DNA.

We will be happy to welcome our guests at Soneva Kiri, Soneva Jani and Soneva Fushi whenever the governments of Thailand and Maldives lift the travel restrictions. Our resorts are located in pristine, unique locations, where we ensure the safety and health of our guests. We will be covering new regulations on sanitation with our teams to move forward with the new normal. 

Soneva-Fushi-Island-Picnic

Soneva Fushi delivers wellness to guests that live the majority of their lives in urban boxes.

Do you see any silver lining to this crisis?

It is my sincere hope that some of the sacrifices that we are making will be maintained even after we come through this crisis. Hopefully, some of the terrible habits that were dropped, remain abandoned. To quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

 

One day, Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.

“Which road do I take?” she asked.

“Where do you want to go?” was his response.

“I don’t know,” Alice answered.

“Then,” said the cat, “It doesn’t matter.”

 

As we recover and journey out of this crisis, we will reach a fork in the road. I hope that we will clearly know where we want to go. The global pandemic has highlighted how interconnected we are, and how important it is that as humans on planet earth, we break through our national boundaries and collaborate together in order to preserve life on earth as we know it.

If we do not change, and just go back to business as usual after this crisis, it will be a sad, lost opportunity. All the suffering that we have been through over these past months would have been for nothing. This pandemic will end but the important question is whether the bond we have with the way we live has been sufficiently broken and whether we can attach ourselves to a new reality and a new way of doing things.

(Related: Five luxe resorts and holiday operators that put animal conservation first)

 

How should hospitality operators adapt post Covid-19?

I believe that only through introspection can we shape a better post-Covid-19 reality. In a post-Covid-19 world, consumers will be more conscious of their impact on both nature and the communities they visit. I have to specifically mention air travel which, while being a big part of an individual’s ecological footprint, is a very small contributor to greenhouse gases – compared to the negative impact of the beef and dairy industry.

Our chefs have as one of their key performance indicators, the reduction of sugar, dairy, white flour and dishes featuring beef. Beef consumption has been reduced by 75 per cent at our resorts. Dairy consumption has been reduced considerably as well. It is our goal to bring the consumption of these two ingredients almost to zero. Apart from being good for our guests’ health, this approach is good for the environment. After the built environment, the dairy and beef industries are the next biggest contributors to greenhouse gases.

It is my hope that we will become more sensitive to nature’s innovations. We will try to work in harmony with nature, rather than battle it.

 

On a personal note: What keeps you going during periods of uncertainty?  

I have been fortunate enough to have experienced many crises during my lifetime. My choice of the word fortunate is deliberate. The Chinese word for crisis is two characters: danger and opportunity. According to Lao Tzu, the Chinese writer and philosopher, “Good fortune has its roots in disaster.” And, over the years, I have come to understand that crises are opportunities to learn, grow and develop.

I have realised that if we consider a crisis in a positive way, we can always find an opportunity to learn and develop and make our lives more enriching as a result.