Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas

Q&A with CEO Neil Jacobs

Neil Jacobs Six Senses
Neil Jacobs. Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas

Ask any travel advisor specializing in high-end travel to name their favorite global hospitality brands. Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas will likely come to mind.

The Bangkok-based hotel and spa management company consists of 11 resorts and 31 spas under the Six Senses, Evason and Six Senses Spas names.

Six Senses Spas are known for their range of holistic wellness, rejuvenation and beauty treatments. Six Senses Spas operates 20 standalone spas in prestigious hotels and resorts as well as aboard a ship and the premier class lounges of two major airports.

About.com had the chance to speak with Neil B. Jacobs, CEO about the company.

Q:  The Six Senses Douro Valley, Portugal has generated lots of attention since opening in 2015. Tell us about it.

A:  We’re very clear. We bought the company only 3.5 years ago, it took six months to get started, and so we’ve only been at it for three years. A goal was to take us out of just being an Asian based and Middle East brand and become more global. Certain parts of the world were very high on our list and Europe was clearly one of them. We also see a lot of upside in the Americas and Africa.

Q:  Douro Valley is your first hotel in Europe. What made you decide on that location?

A:  We’ve had spas in Europe over the years. Four of five spas in Europe actually. We found this old country house that was an existing hotel in the Douro. The Douro is one of the most beautiful environments that exist in Europe. It’s really hilly. You have the river running through that goes all the way to Spain. The wines are of the best in Europe. Unsung. Only really now are they beginning to get the recognition they deserve.

From New York you have a nonstop into Porto, which is the most gorgeous little town. From Lisbon you can fly to Porto or drive there in three hours. I usually drive. It’s quicker than going to the airport.

Q:  What did you have to do to transform the existing hotel?

A:  The hotel had a large spa as part of it. It was a 20,000 square foot spa. The design of it was terrible. The house was beautiful but it had been designed to look like a Bali hotel. We saw the potential. We closed on the deal, we shut it down. We brought in a designer from NY actually, a lady called Clodagh to fix it. She redid the complete interior in about nine months. When we reopened in June of 2015 it is now very contextual. It celebrates the wine region of the valley. The materials and everything used in the interior is very natural.

We have some local, wonderful tile. Portugal is such a cultured country with great materials.

Q:  Portugal in general is very hot with North American travelers.

A:  It’s the right place at the right time. Portugal is really a good value. We are probably the most expensive hotel in the country. But our rates are half of what we would charge in Oman or Thailand.

We’re very experiential. We have incredible wine programs going on. We have a fantastic wellness program that goes way beyond spa.

We’ve opened to great success. The winter is obviously low season but our first December and January we did double what we had projected to do and people responded very well

Q:  Are you thinking about other locations in Portugal?

A:  We’re super excited about the future and also consequently are now looking at opportunities in Lisbon and elsewhere in Portugal to kind of cluster. Other places are completely different from the Douro. And certainly, an American who does the Douro and Porto will do Lisbon. So we want to be able to cluster it all together.

Q:  What about other European cities?

A:  We just opened Six Senses Residences Courchevel, one of the nicest ski destinations in France. It’s not a hotel, but residences. It’s rentable. We don’t have all the hotel services but we have a concierge. We don’t have a restaurant, but we can do breakfast.

We’re putting in huge spa and pool. The spa will open in 2016. But they’re bookable now. It’s on our website.

Q:  What other expansion plans can you tell us about?

A:  Italy of course. I’d also like to be in London. We’re focusing on a number of places where we can bring the values of the brand into the city in a meaningful way. Not necessarily to do just business hotels. But cities where there’s a leisure component, such as New York, London, Shanghai Hong Kong, Tokyo.

Q:  Six Senses really distinguishes itself as a wellness brand. How important is that?

A:  We’re all about wellness. No one else does that. I don’t know why other than it’s hard work. It’s not a huge profit contributor. It’s profitable. But a lot of hotel companies think this is too much to focus on. We kind of think they’re missing the point.  You have the right program, you will drive occupancy, you will drive average rate and you will drive length of stay.  We see wellness is a huge catalyst to the fundamentals of the business.

Q:  Wellness has become a big catch phrase in the hospitality industry. What does the concept mean to you?

A:  We go much further. Its biometrics, yogi programs, mind, body, spirit, lifestyle, behavioral stuff. I can talk about this for hours. We have certain programs that are bespoke to us that we’ve created. We work with a number of doctors on our advisory community. We have nutritionists. One is from Palm Springs, a former heart transplant surgeon. He got tired of cutting people up and came up with his own approach to nutrition. He has helped us do our own nutritional guidelines.

We have sleep doctors. One of them runs the sleep program at Harvard. Another sleep doctor is from California. We put people on sleep programs.

You can talk to 100 people and get 100 different views about what wellness means. But only a few will talk about sleep. And sleep is the mainstay.

The program we have started begins with a bed. It’s taken us two and a half years to get the right bed. We have a guy in England hand-making beds in Devon with natural sleep hair. Good sleep has a few factors. One very important factor is body temperature. The problem with most bedding is that it doesn’t allow the moisture to move. We have beds with box springs made in such a way that the moisture can leave the bed. The same goes with bedding. We use moisture-wicking sheets that are a combination of cotton and eucalyptus that allow the body to breathe.

Q:  Isn’t wellness an evolving concept?

A:  Yes, and I don’t say we have all the answers. But the fact is, we spend a lot of time, money and energy on this. This is the stuff we care about. We agonize about it. We use a piece of equipment that is a sleep sound environment. It puts out white noise at levels that will help people sleep better. We have another piece of equipment that does the same thing with light. There are a lot of elements around our sleep programs.

Q:  Tell us about the jet lag program.

A:  Our guy at Harvard is doing the jet lag program for us. If you book and you’re going far, we can hook you up with a program that you start four or five days before leaving. Jet lag is predominately about control of light. Not totally but predominately.

Q:  You’ve been in the upscale hotel industry for much of your career. Is it more import than ever to stand out from the competition?

A: I think so. I was 15 years with Four Seasons. I love those guys. But I’m really bored with traditional luxury. Ritz, St. Regis and Four Seasons are all great. They  provide a superior experience. But they’re all kind of become the same thing. Hence the growth of these smaller, more boutiquey companies that have ben chipping away at market share.

Today’s customer is less concerned about perceived security of a big brand name. They want excitement, they want lifestyle, and they definitely want experience. The takeaway is different. I think that’s what gives companies such as mine an opportunity today that they haven’t had in the past.

With technology and distribution channels, you don’t have to be big company to make an impact. As long as you understand the distribution channel. If you do, you’re ok.

So, I think the future is the smaller companies because it’s no longer so much about a demographic. It’s about psychographic. Like-minded attitude. It doesn’t mater if you’re 20 years old or 70.

Q:  For travel advisors interested in getting to know your brand, what advice can you give them?

A:  The best way to get to know us is for us to have a hotel here. So, we are currently looking at projects in Manhattan, Palm Springs, South Carolina, Utah, The Bahamas, and Barbados. We have a deal in Nicaragua, we’re under construction there. That’s gong to be one of the next hot places.

Q:  Any other places in Latin America you’re considering?

A:  Panama and the islands of Panama. The Old Town of Casco Viejo is to die for. That’s the focus. Colombia, certainly Ecuador. Argentina, Brazil. Brazil is a huge opportunity. These are all very much in conversation. My head of development is half Spanish, half Mexican. He lives in Bangkok with us, but he’s obviously very keen.

If you were to ask me where is our area of focus, I would say the Americas. We have a real focus on Central and South America. They’re really under hoteled.

Q:  Since you’re based in Bangkok, will you increase your visits here to the states?

A: We have to be here more often. We need to be here. Our U.S. business is 12-15 percent of our total. Americans are traveling to Vietnam, Thailand and the Maldives. It’s not that we’re unknown. It’s just that we’re not overly well known.

The more time we spend here, the more effective we will be. The former owners of the company were really focused much more on Europe. England, France and Germany are our three top markets, but that needn’t be the case.

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