INTERVIEW WITH Sonu Shivdasani, CEO and Joint Creative Director of Soneva - Seanses
Home Island times INTERVIEW WITH Sonu Shivdasani, CEO and Joint Creative Director of Soneva

INTERVIEW WITH Sonu Shivdasani, CEO and Joint Creative Director of Soneva


“Companies must become the solution, not the problem.”

Soneva is a privately owned company, backed by 25 years of operational success, leading the world in the development of sustainable luxury resorts and private residences. Sonu Shivdasani, a pioneer in the travel industry, talk to us about sustainability, what makes its resorts special and the travel trends to watch for.

Interview by: Marilyne Morin, Founder of IMPACT M

Soneva recently turned 25, and is a pioneer of sustainability in hospitality; how did you get the idea, 25 years ago, at a time when sustainability and responsible tourism were not a hot topic, to integrate sustainability to luxury hospitality offerings?

I first visited the Maldives with Eva during our honeymoon and we fell in love with the place. I had never seen anything quite like it. Eva loved the untouched simple way of life in the Maldives.

We decided we wanted to open a resort like no other, whilst ensuring we protect the environment. We believe that a company must have a clear purpose beyond turning a profit.

It must serve and contribute to the society in which it operates and should not negatively impact the environment in which it is located. Together we combined our respective experience in management, style and design to develop a resort that would satisfy our desire for a dream destination for those who liked to travel in luxurious style. We bought an abandoned resort on far-flung 100-acre Kunfunadhoo Island in the Maldives and set about creating our dream.

Did you face any challenges in establishing your first eco-friendly resort?

The biggest challenge was dealing with people who had no interest in sustainability and getting them on board.

But of course, as we started to implement things and people saw what we were doing, we started to convert a lot of people around us and also create a critical mass of people who are now passionate about this issue, and who work with us.

What is the greatest innovation you have introduced in the travel industry?

I am proud that Soneva is known as the original barefoot and sustainable luxury destination, and of our ability to combine luxury in a sustainable manner. I am also proud that we have won some of the world’s top awards for both luxury and sustainability, including the World Travel & Tourism Council’s Tourism for Tomorrow Award. The readers of Conde Nast Traveller U.K. have voted us the Best of the Best many times.

Here are some of the other innovations we have pioneered over the past 25 years: Barefoot Luxury, No News, No Shoes, Sustainability, Intelligent Luxury, SLOW LIFE, Organic Gardens, Ice Cream Parlours, Chocolate Rooms, Cinema Paradiso, Outdoor Bathrooms, Water Slides, Observatories, Soneva Drinking Water, Carbon Neutrality, Eco Centro and Total Impact Assessment.

Why is conservation and the environment so important to you?

For us, sustainability is the continuous focus on reducing one’s negative impact on the environment and the local community and overall creating a net positive impact.

Our sustainability report shows that our overall impact on society is net positive. For us, sustainability is a continuous pursuit of improving our overall net impact

Can you tell us more about the Soneva Foundation and how does it contribute to a sustainable future?

The reason we set up the Soneva Foundation was to reinforce our SLOW LIFE Core Purpose and also as a result of making small tweaks to our business model that did not negatively impact on either our profitability, or our guest’s perception of us, but which raised substantial capital for good causes such as banning branded water and introducing our mandatory carbon levy. The hotel industry benefits the richest 20-30% of the planet and because of our resource-hungry ways, at the expense of the poorest 70-80%. In summary, we as an industry consume more than our fair share of resources.

Companies must become the solution, not the problem. Companies must have a purpose beyond just enriching shareholders and paying employees a salary. This approach can also lead to much higher levels of staff engagement and as a result magical service which is the ultimate measure of a luxury hotel experience.

The Soneva Foundation has used the money it has raised to fund a reforestation programme in northern Thailand where we have planted around half a million trees to mitigate 400,000 tons of CO2. It has funded a windmill in South India. It is also using the money we raise to provide 150,000 heavily subsidized cooking stoves in Myanmar and Darfur. These stoves are extremely efficient and thus prevent the need for trees to be felled, reduce indoor toxic emissions, and also mean that women do not need to spend as much back-breaking time carrying firewood away from the protection of their villages.

Our savings from not serving imported branded water but water that we produce on the island has given 600,000 people access to clean water from over 400 projects that we have funded in 50 different countries.

How can guests actively take part in conservation projects during their stay? 

At Soneva, we offer our guests the ability to completely cut off from their daily lives and experience things that they do not normally experience at home. For that is what luxury is about. It is about that which is not commonplace, that which is rare, that which one does not get each day, and essentially, that which is both new but true, because it is cherished, and it rings a chord in your heart when you experience it.

We are rich with learning experiences, whether it is at our observatory, learning to free dive or snorkelling with our Marine Biologist.

Our guests change a little while they’re with us. They love taking a shower or watching a movie under a starlit sky. This may sound like a naïve message coming from a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, accessible only to a handful of privileged travellers, but we see it as an awareness building experience. We want people to recognize the necessity of repairing the damage that we, the rich, have caused; the energy we consume or the water that we take for granted. The hotel industry can put that idea across. We get our guests involved so that they can spread the good word.

How do you give back to the local community and integrate them in your developments?

We are proud of many local achievements in terms of how we engage with the local community. Since the mid-’90s, we have been running a Kids Environment Camp program which brings children from the capital Malé to the Baa Atoll. They will stay with us for 4 or 5 days camping on an uninhabited island. They are taught about the marine environment. They are shown around our Eco Centro where we recycle 90% of our waste. They are also taken around our vegetable gardens and shown how we are growing mushrooms etc. In the evening, there is a lecture on waste management. It is a program that is well appreciated by the children in the Maldives. One of our other initiatives is to teach the children of the Baa Atoll, where Soneva Fushi is located, how to swim, and to fall in love with the ocean. Unfortunately, a big part of the population in the Maldives does not know how to swim, and their traditional term for the beach is: “there where you throw the rubbish.”

This is because historically, their rubbish was organic, so they just put it by the shore and the tide would clean it away. Today of course it is a different story, so we need the Maldivians to know how to swim and put their head under the water. Back in 1995, we played a big role in campaigning against the killing of turtles and sharks. It is now banned to kill either species, which we are very proud of. We have set up a water bottling plant on a neighbouring island. The water from our bottling plant that we have set up will not only be cheaper, but environmentally friendly as the bottles will be recycled, and we will avoid the local island community drinking water from plastic bottles.

What is your favourite Soneva location /place in the resort? And why?

The view from my desk at Soneva Fushi is great. I am often sitting there on a conference call and some dolphins swim by and start spinning around.

What is the most exclusive and out-of-this-world experience you offer across your resorts?

An out-of-this-world experience need not need be one that involves a high adrenaline rush or even profoundly expensive. Sustainability runs through our core and we are always striving to limit the negative environmental impact of our activities.

At Soneva, the experiences that revolve around our pristine natural beauty are plenty and these would be the most exclusive experiences for our guests.

How do you select the location of your resorts?

In terms of the site location, we look for sites of outstanding natural beauty, and also locations that are both remote (they feel like in the middle of nowhere)

but are still accessible as we know that our guests are time poor and the e journey to get to us cannot be too difficult.

One quite extraordinary location is the Soneva in Aqua… what makes it different than any other yacht cruise?

The opportunity of Soneva in Aqua was to create a unique yacht experience. There is something special about being on a yacht, the open water, it is much cooler and breezier and one is even closer to nature than in a villa. We spent many years designing our own yacht, building a mould, building the first prototype.

The beauty of the yacht is that it is a similar rate if one were to stay in a 2-bedroom villa at Soneva Fushi. The yacht goes further north, within 30 miles of Soneva Fushi one is touching very, very remote parts of the Indian Ocean with no other resorts and just a few local villages. It is a great way for guests to get to know and appreciate the Baa Atoll and beyond.

Can you tell us a bit more about the concept of Intelligent Luxury and how it impacts your guests?

Luxury is anything that for the consumer is rare. Something that is new but still true and that rings a chord in one’s heart when one touches or experiences it.

We have pursued Intelligent Luxury in our desire to challenge and to fully understand true luxury.

Can you describe a signature experience from each of your resorts?

All our experiences are unique and in line with the local culture of their locations, both in the Maldives and in Thailand. It’s hard to pick one. We recently launched a range of conscious experiences at each of our resorts.

These experiences allow guests to immerse themselves in Soneva’s sustainable philosophy with garden-to-table experiences, marine conservation and cultural excursions amongst many more.

Taking personalized service to the next level – the Barefoot Butler – doesn’t seem to be your usual butler… can you tell us how they make your guests feel so special?

We have a team of Barefoot Butlers who offer a 24/7 private butler service. Our Barefoot Butlers will oversee every tiny little detail of a guest’s visit. And when guests return for their next holiday, they are welcomed by the same Barefoot Butler– so that we can ensure 100% consistency and really know what each guest desires from his/her holiday.

They ensure that our guests feel like they are returning home and connect with them like they are members of their very own family.

What do you think has been most important for the success of your resorts to date?

We opened Soneva Fushi in 1995. Today Soneva is synonymous with intelligent luxury. We are known for crafting rare and authentic experiences for our guests while pioneering sustainability across every level of our operations.

What has made Soneva such a success has been that we are always trying new and innovative things, we enjoy doing things first and setting trends. We have the concept of SLOW LIFE, which guides us in coming up with incredible experiences that create unforgettable memories, all while having the minimum impact on the natural world and its fragile ecosystems.

Sustainability is at the heart of everything we do. We banned plastic straws in 1998. We banned imported bottled water and started making our own in 2008. Each of our resorts has an Eco Centro where we recycle up to 90% of our waste, we make our own compost, charcoal, and coconut oil, to name a few. As a result of our introduction of the environmental levy in 2008, we are now carbon neutral across all three scopes. Included in Scope 3 are emissions such as guest air travel (which counts for 80% of our emissions), sea, air and road freight, and staff travel. We took it even further and developed the first Total Impact Assessment in the hospitality industry in 2015, which includes environmental profit and loss, human capital and social capital.

Can you tell us more about your future developments and the launch of Chapter 2 and Soneva Unlimited?

We are planning to add two more resorts in The Maldives. We also plan to open a Soneva in Okinawa, Japan, in about three years, where it will be a resort with spa and residences like Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani.

There is one more thing that I am excited about, Soneva Soul. It will be a resort with a wellness concept.

Chapter 2 at Soneva Jani is a new dawn for the resort, with new food and beverage offerings, and new overwater villas. This chapter sees the start of greater things for Soneva. The all-inclusive Soneva Unlimited concept is primarily focused on allowing our guests to fully experience every facet of the resort.

As a visionary, what do you see for the future of hospitality and which trends we shall look forward to?

We have seen dramatic changes to hospitality over the past 20 years, I believe that we will experience a similar, if not faster, rate of change over the next 20 years and that current trends will continue to accelerate. I do foresee significant improvements in sustainability. The built environment accounts for 40% of global warming gases. The technology today exists to reduce this negative impact by 80%. Apart from being good for the environment and society, these innovations will also make good economic sense.

So, we should expect huge reductions in energy consumption from hotels and considerably more thought on sustainability; whether it is more responsible purchasing, more thought about energy and waste management and the reduction of unnecessary waste etc. Another demographic shift is that technology means less need for business travel. Urban hotels in prime capitals will go from being corporate orientated to becoming urban oasis and a nucleus of urban living and all that makes living in the communities worthwhile. 

Furthermore, the needs of our guests have evolved from luxury to meta-luxury. It is no longer about owning luxury items that indicate statuses like premium whisky, luxury watches, and the latest it bag. High net worth individuals are no longer satisfied by owning status. They have an increasing thirst for knowledge and learning. They seek discretion, special access and even surprise. They want meaning, authenticity and connection. Meta-luxury is about authentic conviction, experience, focus and depth, discovery and knowledge and understanding the industry is yearning for authentic experiences.

With climate change and its effects so apparent, the world is striving for real experiences. Living in the moment is everything. To do that you need to experience. When guests go on holiday, we don’t want them to watch television or do whatever they do at home – we want them to escape, to dream, to feel. For that, you need to experience. I am certain this trend will continue and perhaps become even more radical.

You can learn more about Soneva’s ground-breaking initiatives and latest news in the third issue of their SLOWLIFE magazine here.