Sonu Shivdasani, CEO and Chairman of SonevaResorts, Residences & SpasSonu Shivdasani, CEO and Chairman of Soneva Resorts talks to us about how he has re-defined luxury in a way that has a positive impact on the environment and has resulted in giving over 60,000 people access to clean water.
What does ‘green’ mean to you as a hotelier?
Sonu: I am a strong believer that tourism can have a positive impact on the environment and social development. Our core purpose of SLOW LIFE – sustainable, local, organic, wellness, learning, inspiring, fun, experiences – is the moral compass that guides us, whether we are aiming to inspire a guest, an employee, a business partner, a member of our local community or the president of a country. If we are not living our core purpose, we cannot hope to inspire others.
Intelligent Luxury is our vehicle for delivering this inspiration to our guests. By sharing our passion for the natural world in subtle, respectful and innovative ways, our guests experience a unique perspective on luxury, one that delivers space, privacy, comfort and beauty in total harmony with the pristine location in which they are staying. By avoiding the usual clichés of luxury and instead focusing on what is rare and precious, our guests leave with a sense of wonder that stays with them long after they return home.
Soneva as a company is committed to lead the hospitality industry in the area of sustainability. It’s one of our five core goals and 2% of our room revenues each year go to supporting the SLOW LIFE Foundation to help us in this regard. We provide funding to other not-for-profit organizations but the majority of our funding has been into our own social and environmental projects including a reforestation initiative in Thailand which has planted over 450,000 trees, a cook-stoves project in Darfur which will provide efficient cook-stoves to 150,000 families surviving in the refugee camps, and a cook-stoves project in Myanmar which is the first Gold Standard registered project in this emerging country and which will directly address the scourge of fuel poverty. We also support the good work of others including ThirstAid and Water Charity who develop clean water projects in developing countries (we fund these through a share of revenues from the sales of water at our resorts) and Restaurants Against Hunger who operate nutritional programmes for the poor (and which we fund through a share of revenues from certain items on our menus).
It is our responsibility to do what we can for our own energy production. It is not just costly to us, but the planet too. Every month we carefully monitor our carbon footprint and do everything we can to decrease it. Through improving our energy emissions, expanding our use of solar energy and generally monitoring all our energy management, waste water management, composting, recycling, food production, responsible purchasing, chemical management and increased community engagement.
Soneva isn’t the only luxury resort group that champions sustainable living, How do you set yourself apart?
Sonu: SLOW LIFE is a guiding principle for all our hosts (employees).It is our moral compass as well as our operating compass. Sustainability runs through our core and we are always striving to limit the negative environmental impact of our activities – something which is both difficult as well as critical for a company which operates resorts in remote places of pristine natural beauty.
Our SLOW LIFE focus has lead to levels of guest loyalty and repeat business that far surpass industry norms, and this tells me unequivocally that the values of a company matter to those who consume its products.
How do you associate the two concepts of ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Luxury’, which seem contradictory to each other?
Sonu: Sometimes the more sustainable option is actually the more luxurious one. For instance, for someone living in an urban context, the fresh salad that was dug that morning, becomes more luxurious than the Foie Gras, the Wagyu beef or the Caviar that might be on the menu, as these ingredients are not “luxurious” but just “expensive” in that they are certainly not “rare” to the urban elite living in capital cities like London, Paris, Hong Kong New York etc. Whereas, that rocket salad that was plucked that morning is a certainly a rarity that is seldom achieved for a client living in an urban environment. So ironically the more sustainable of these 4 ingredients (not necessarily the most expensive) is certainly the more Luxurious based upon the definition that Luxury is something that is “rare”. There are other such examples; such as the open air bathroom or the open air restaurant. These are very luxurious for the urban elite that frequent us, because however wealthy you are you certainly cannot shower everyday in a city in a 100 square meter bathroom among waterfalls, tropical plants and watching the full moon at the same time; or eat bare foot with sand under your feet. These are “rare” experiences.
So often our competitors get confused between what is really Luxurious i.e. “rare, new and unique” but “true” something that strikes a chord in your heart, with things that are just expensive.
How is the feedback from your guests about this approach and especially the carbon footprint price charged on the invoice? How are these additional funds being utilised?
The SLOWLIFE 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.
As mentioned above, at Soneva we add on a mandatory 2% Carbon Charge to our guests’ bills with all proceeds going to the SLOWLIFE Foundation with the intention of off-setting our guests’ carbon travel emissions.
We find that our guests are more than happy to accept the small charge and we have so far raised about US$5m from a small collection of resorts.
It’s very encouraging to see that hotels can develop a high end luxurious brand while still being responsible to both the environment and the community around their property.
Hotel Intel will be keenly watching to see how this variation on a common theme continues to unfold as other companies push the boundaries of socially responsible luxury.