Hotels

“Hygiene is the baseline now”: Soneva’s founder and CEO talks recovery, sustainability and wellness travel

Huntley Mitchell

Huntley Mitchell

We caught up with Sonu Shivdasani, founder and CEO of Soneva, to find out how the luxe resort chain is picking up the pieces from COVID-19 and putting them back together.

Travel Weekly: What are the occupancy rates across Soneva’s properties at present?

Sonu Shivdasani: In August, we were at around 30 to 35 per cent, which is much lower than normal. However, October should be a stellar month. Soneva Fushi has double on the books than what it had at the same time last year. Soneva Kiri is also well over double same time last year.

Provided that travel is not restricted to the extent that it was in August from our main markets, we will have an amazing October.

TW: Has Soneva been forced to lay off or furlough any staff as a result of COVID-19, or close any of its properties?

SS: We have only had to make a handful of redundancies, thankfully. We have reduced our host salaries on a sliding scale depending on how senior they are in the organisation, with the senior hosts taking a higher pay cut.

We closed Soneva Kiri in May 2020 and will reopen again in October 2020. This period was the low season for Koh Kood anyway. We have thankfully had some guests at Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani for most of the year, so we didn’t have to make furloughs or redundancies.

We have a solid business model with strong financial backing, so we are in a good position to ride out one of the worst years for our industry.

TW: How has Soneva adapted its marketing strategy since the COVID-19 pandemic began?

SS: We focused on content for our different stakeholder groups. We are lucky to have a team of ‘digital storytellers’ at each of our properties who have been able to create inspiring, visually beautiful content on an almost daily basis for our social media feeds and our travel partners.

We have retained our contracts with all our PR agencies and our sales representatives, as we believe that now, more than ever, we need to be in contact with our guests and partners.

Our culture at Soneva is very innovative and dynamic, so we were quickly able to move everything (and everyone) online and create virtual FAM trips, weekly live yoga sessions, webinars with guests, press and travel partners and much more. We even hosted some virtual wine tasting events for our repeater guests around the world so they could connect over a glass of wine, albeit remotely.

TW: What’s the take-up been like for Soneva’s ‘island buyout’ offer so far?

SS: We have had interest in island buyouts. Unfortunately, a lot of that interest were damaged by countries restricting travel even after the Maldives borders were open. This is slowly improving with air bridges being set up.

Image source: Soneva/Alicia Warner

TW: Will luxury travel be the first or last sector to come back, and what shape will it take?

SS: Luxury travel will be the first to bounce back for a couple of reasons.

In these uncertain post-COVID times, it is the brave and independent thinkers that are more likely to take a risk and travel first. It is these qualities that successful wealthy entrepreneurs have used in their past to be successful in the first place.

The wealthy might be poorer, but they are still well off, and it is unlikely that they will have to compromise on travel expenditure. Those less well-off might be concerned about job losses, and other forms of insecurity as a result of this financially devastating pandemic. Also, at a maximum, only 50 per cent of the pre-COVID flights have resumed, so those that have private jets have an advantage.

I think we are in a good position because we offer guests a COVID-19 test on arrival and departure, so guests can feel totally reassured when they stay with us. We also offer a lot of healthy food and wellness activities, and plenty of fresh air and vitamin D.

Luxury travel will remain important and guests might choose to stay a little longer, or also stay at properties who are more active when it comes to protecting the environment and their communities. In both aspects, we are well placed.

TW: Will the wellness travel sector thrive even more as a result of the pandemic? Will ‘hygiene’ become the new ‘wellness’?

SS: I think wellness will just take on more importance – hygiene is the baseline now. The high standards that have been implemented for COVID will need to stay, but hotels need to get better at offering wellness – whether that’s in the choice of menu options, the spa, health club or experiences.

As always, sustainability is key. This is now the opportunity to overhaul old thinking and practices when it comes to sustainability and the way our industry looks at it. It is possible to be sustainable and luxurious, and sustainability can be a profit centre if done in the right way.


Featured image source: Soneva

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