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A rich man’s world

Sonu Shivdasani is an NRI who runs some of the most luxurious resorts you can find on this planet. So why do we know so little about him? Vir Sanghvi finds out.

india Updated: Mar 27, 2010 15:58 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Sonu ShivdasaniSonu Shivdasani is probably the most successful upmarket Indian hotelier in the world – whom you have never heard of. His resorts in the Maldives – Soneva Fushi and Soneva Gili – are rated as among the world’s finest luxury resorts with a celebrity clientele that takes in the likes of Madonna. His Six Senses spas have won every award you can think of. And his Evason group of hotels is fast emerging as a major player in the luxury business. By the end of next year or so, he will run 26 properties all over the world, making him a formidable force at the top end of the luxury business.

So why is so little heard of him in India?

Well, partly because his group has had very little to do with India – so far. And partly, because though he is Indian, his life has been spent abroad, the scion of one of the world’s leading NRI families.

Sonu is the youngest son of the late Indoo Shivdasani, the legendary businessman who became one of the world’s great experts on the Eurodollar market in the sixties and created one of the largest Indian private fortunes in the world, at least partly because of his extensive investments in Nigeria.

Indoo Shivdasani died in the late 1970s, when Sonu was just 13. (Before dying he set up the Inlaks foundation which has sent so many young Indians to study abroad.) The young Sonu was sent off to Eton and then to Le Rosey in Switzerland before going up to Oxford to read English.

He had, as I seem to recall, something of a reputation of a slightly spoilt, slightly wild child – which he denies completely now – and it was expected that, as he settled down, he would join his brother Azad in managing the family’s global portfolio of businesses from Geneva to Lagos and London.

And certainly, Sonu did do that for two years but by then his life had already began to change. In 1986, when he was studying for his Mods (or first year exams) at Oxford, his sister Bina Sella di Monteluce (the surname came from her Italian husband) invited him to join her on the family yacht in the south of France, for the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo.

It was here that he met Eva Malmstrom, a Swedish fashion model, who would later become his wife. And it was probably from this point on that his life began to change.

Sonu and Eva starting going out while he was still at Oxford and she travelled the world on modelling assignments. While, given his background (yachts in the South of France, Eton, homes in four continents, etc.) Sonu was no stranger to conventional luxury, he was not used to the kinds of experiences that Eva had enjoyed during her travels.

While she had also seen a fair amount of the good life, she was already interested – long before it became fashionable – in the environment. When Sonu took her to Goa for a holiday in 1987, she complained that the hotel was dumping all its sewage into the bay and made it clear that she did not like ecologically irresponsible resorts.

She took him, instead, to the Maldives which she knew from modelling assignments.

In the 1980s, the Maldives was a group destination. Developers built hotels to the specifications of tour operators who then guaranteed them a certain level of business over the next few years. Consequently, there were no deluxe hotels and the country made little effort to market itself.

Sonu recognised that Eva was right when she said that the Maldives was a very special place – hundreds of small coral islands surrounded by the cleanest water in the world, the sea teeming with exotic fish and bright blue skies.

As you would expect of a very rich young man with a global bent of mind, Sonu decided to build a house there. And the only way he could do this was by buying a small island for himself. (This is less grand than it may sound, islands can be tiny in the Maldives.)

But even that wasn’t easy to do. The government did auction islands but they went to hotel companies. Till then, the Maldivian economy had survived on the basis of exports of dried tuna to Sri Lanka. Now tourism had started to increase revenues and create jobs and the government was not going to waste islands on which hotels could possibly be located by selling them to rich young men for use as private residences.

The answer was obvious. Sonu and Eva would bid for an island at auction, would build a hotel on the property and would also build a home on the non-hotel part of the island.

Except that they failed to win anything at the government’s auctions. So eventually, they leased an island from the country’s Finance Minister. There had been a hotel on the property but it had failed because the boat journey from the airport (on an island far away) to the hotel was much too long.

Initially, Sonu and Eva had not necessarily intended to run the hotel themselves. They knew nothing about the hotel business and in any case, were only able to secure bank funding to build the property if they declared that a professional hotel company would run the show.

The process of getting the money together took time. The Shivdasanis had ambitious plans and wanted to build a resort that was not only luxurious but also seemed as though it belonged on the island. So there would be no concrete structures, no plastic and only natural materials and fabrics. Then, there was the problem of access. The island was a long way from the airport. The only way they could bring in guests was by helicopter which further added to the costs. Nobody would pay those prices for the Maldives, they were told.

Sonu’s mother, Lakshmi, was especially concerned about the viability of her son’s first business project. Sonu’s sister Bina was best friends with Namita Panjabi (then not yet the famous restaurateur she is today) and Lakshmi implored Namita’s sister Camellia (then executive director of the Taj Group) to knock some sense into him.

Camellia had a proposal. Sonu could build the resort but the Taj would run it for him. After all, the Taj already ran two hotels in the Maldives. But Sonu did not think much of the two downmarket hotels the Taj ran in those days. (Neither did the Taj, as it turns out. It now runs two upmarket hotels in the Maldives.) So he took Lakshmi to see them. His mother saw his point.

Other negotiations with Aman and other chains failed as, coincidentally, did a Bangkok-based hotel management company called Pavilion management in which Sonu had an investment. So finally, Sonu took over Pavilion completely, found the funding from Thai banks and in 1995 Soneva Fushi opened to a sceptical world.

This was a time when luxury was just beginning to take off. Amanpuri had opened in Phuket to great acclaim and had demonstrated that there was room for hotels that charged very high prices. Also in Phuket, the Banyan Tree with its pool villas was throwing open its doors. The Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay where every villa had a pool was in the works; the Aman group had already changed the profile of the Bali market.

So, in that sense, Sonu’s timing was right. Eva and he promoted the resort relentlessly, especially in the British press and some would say that the British love affair with the Maldives was at least partly a consequence of their efforts.

Within months, Soneva Fushi was getting room rates that were double those of every other hotel in the Maldives and within a year, every single hotel chain of consequence was planning an upmarket hotel in the Maldives.

I asked Sonu if it was not intimidating to sink so much time and money into a business about which he knew nothing. Did he never have any doubts about challenging the status quo? How was he so sure that travellers would pay such high rates for the Maldives? And where did he find the confidence to design a hotel to Eva and his specifications, telling hotel industry professionals how to do the jobs they believed they had already been trained to do?

The question took him by surprise. And though he answered that it had to do with passion etc., I had the distinct impression that he never had any doubts about the validity of his vision.

Clearly, he was right to challenge all the old rules because he kept breaking the mould. He built the first spa in the Maldives (now an essential part of every Maldivian hotel), introduced gourmet dining and fine wines (at Soneva Fushi, you enjoy nature while sipping a first growth) and was ready to expand.

As with all expansions, it began slowly. Sonu and Eva were approached about taking over a property in Vietnam. It had been commissioned by a developer who had run over budget, had been taken over by one of the investing financial institutions and now needed an operator.

While it could not be run the same way as Soneva Fushi – it had been designed differently – it nevertheless represented an opportunity to translate some of the concepts that had been developed in the Maldives.

The success of that resort led to other offers, including a second hotel in the Maldives (Soneva Gili) and more openings in Asia. Sonu and Eva looked carefully at each opportunity before deciding whether it fit in with their conception of the group. But the opportunities kept coming and over the last few years, the chain that Eva and Sonu built almost as an after-thought has became among the world’s leading operators of luxury resorts. There’s a new, much-praised, Soneva in Thailand and their other brands, Evason and Six Senses can now be found all over the world.

I asked Sonu how he managed the growth of the chain. The answer seemed to be that he had developed three distinctive brands, each with its own values and appeal.

Soneva remains a name used for top-end resorts and though Sonu does not use the parallel himself, the comparison most often made is with Aman Resorts. Just as Aman became the destination of choice for well-heeled, slightly jaded travellers who had tired of the standard luxury hotel experience and wanted something different over the last decade, so the Sonevas seem set to occupy a similar place over the next decade.

There are other parallels with Aman, among them the high proportion of repeat guests. Just as Aman has its Aman junkies, so Sonu has his Soneva club consisting of people who visit his resorts again and again, often making new friends at the hotels and networking with fellow millionaires.

But the best-known of the brands is probably Six Senses because the company operates stand-alone spas under that name. There are Six Senses hotels with their own spas but there are also Six Senses resorts at other people’s hotels – at the Ritz Carltons in Europe, for instance – and at places where you might be surprised to find them: at the Etihad Airlines First Class Lounge.

There are also the Evason hotels. Most of them are conversions, consisting either of properties that the group took over while they were under construction or existing hotels that have been renovated and refurbished to the group’s standards.

Sonu’s strategy is to develop his resorts in clusters. He argues that it makes less sense to have a chain that is far-flung with say, one property in Venezuela and another in Vietnam. It makes more sense to develop a cluster of resorts in one area and to then develop another cluster.

So far, the group has developed two clusters: south-east Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Yunnan province in China) and the Indian Ocean(Maldives and Sri Lanka with a project on the Andaman Islands in the works). There have been forays into the Middle East (a resort opened in Jordan recently) and this will now be a priority area. Among other clusters that Sonu is looking at are: Morocco, Brazil, Spain and Portugal and the Adriatic.

The stand-alone spas, of course, can exist outside of those clusters and new spas are scheduled to open in such places as Gstaad and Burgenstock in Switzerland.

Looking at Sonu’s list of projects in the pipeline, it is clear that the plans are ambitious. There are 11 projects in the Americas (including a Soneva in the Bahamas), six in Europe and the Middle East and two in China. He had hoped to open a Six Senses spa at Delhi’s Imperial but the plan fell apart when the hotel could not get permission from the urban authorities. Even so, he is optimistic about finally entering India through projects in the Andamans and in Maharashtra.

Like most groups in the luxury sector, Six Senses was hit by the global recession but now the guests are returning and business is looking up.

Sonu maintains a peripatetic lifestyle while managing his companies. Given that he got into the business only because he wanted to build a house in the Maldives, he insists on spending four-and-a-half months every year at his home on the same island as Soneva Fushi. (“Not enough,” he says.)

The company’s head office is in Bangkok so Eva and he spend several months of the year in a service apartment in Sukhumvit. (They have not been able to find the time to buy and decorate a house.) Strangely, he spends very little time in England, the country he grew up in, perhaps because it has little relevance to his business (though Brits constitute a large proportion of the guests at the Sonevas). He keeps in touch with how the business is faring through daily conference calls and e-mails and seems able to remain on top of things even when he is diving in the Maldives.

Where he will go next is anybody’s guess – the hotel business is a high-risk enterprise especially at this exalted level. But he seems confident and secure that his expansion is on track.

His success so far has been based less on the bricks and mortar business of building hotels but on a more cerebral attitude to an old business. As he says, he believes in intelligent luxury. The old ideas about what luxury should be (huge villas, fancy bathroom fittings, non-stop champagne on ice, etc.) are dying as a consequence of the global affluence of the last decades. People have had enough of excess and opulence. They are looking for something different and special.

The basis of Six Senses, Evason and Soneva is his belief that hoteliers must challenge the old ways, must go against the grain and must find ways of redefining luxury. For a rich man who lives in London or New York, he says, luxury does not consist merely of more food and wine. When such a person comes to a resort he wants an experience that is entirely unlike the life he has left behind.

To be able to get away from a New York winter and walk around barefoot in the Maldivian sun is luxury. To be able to choose the leaves you want so that they can be plucked for your salad is luxury. To eat dinner on a sandbank with only ocean around for miles is luxury.

It is a philosophy that has worked because it has turned many conventional conceptions of luxury on their head. When the rich already have everything the only way you can get their attention is through intelligence.

First Published: Mar 26, 2010 20:35 IST