An Interview with Neil Jacobs, CEO of Six Senses Hotels, Resorts & Spas

I met with the exuberant visionary CEO of Six Senses Hotels, Resorts and Spas Neil Jacobs during the International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) in Cannes, France for an interview about the philosophy of the brand and how they differentiate themselves in the luxury marketplace.

Neil has been at the helm of the admittedly quirky brand since 2012, having previously worked in the luxury hotel business for decades. Empathy is at their core philosophy where wellness and community are emphasized.  Locations are chosen for their beauty and serenity. The brand’s commitment to delivering unexpected surprises for guests extended to the press covering ILTM. Six Senses sponsored the Media Center and flew one of their specialists in massage therapy to Cannes to give journalists short aromatherapy chair massages in between press briefings.

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Known as an eco-friendly but upscale concept, how does Six Senses combine the two seemingly competitive philosophies?

Although our hotels are not inexpensive, we never talk about being exclusive. It’s not in our vocabulary.  We are inclusive and want our guests to experience the local community. We feel we have an obligation to build a product that embraces our environment. Don’t get me wrong, luxury is an important part of puzzle and although I sound very earthy, I don’t own Birkenstocks. When you wake up in one of our properties relaxed and well cared for, it is luxury indeed.

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Do your guests mainly stay at the hotels or do they venture into the communities?

Our guests go into the local villages and, like in the case of Ziggy Bay, they are among herds of goats. They can milk them and learn to make cheese. We plant gardens where we grown our own food. There is a crossover of community and property with a seamless experience because we believe the richness of our guests’ experience will only be enhanced by the local community.

Seychelles ariel view

What makes your brand an eco-friendly brand?

We feel we have an obligation to build a product that embraces our environment. We are very careful how we use water resources. When choosing the materials we build with we won’t do it unless it fits with the surroundings and try to source as much locally as we can. For us, the sustainability issue is as much about community outreach as it is about the built in environment.

kids activities coconut bowling

Tell me more about Six Senses commitment to the local communities.

How we interact with the community is about how we leave it behind for them and how we are able to improve their lives. Of paramount importance to us is the development of people. We attempt to hire local as much as possible. We train and advance people to become the best they possible can become.

In addition to the professional development of our staff, we allocate half a percent of revenue to at-large community projects. We call this our Social Responsibility Fund and commit to that money remaining local.

Qing Cheng main entrance

Tell me about the cuisine at your properties. Are you on the hunt for Michelin stars?

I attended the food and beverage conference in Bangkok last week. There was a big emphasis on bringing in Michelin star chefs to cook. That was amazing, but for us it’s not about a concept of a Michelin food restaurant as much as it is showing a love for fresh local products. I want another kind of experience.

What’s the end game? For too many chefs, they want the star. I look at it a different way; do something we believe in and if the star is the byproduct, then fantastic. It should not be the ultimate goal. 

In order to satisfy guests sometimes we are trying to be too much – too much with 100 items on the menu because we have international customers with many demands that cannot always be fulfilled. We need concepts that stick to the theme – Italian needs to be authentic Italian. We have enough options for diners that we can offer smaller menus and stay true to what we are describing as the best cuisine we can serve in the hotel.

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What’s new for the brand?

We are excited about putting more time into kid’s clubs and experiences. Kids will have their own spas as well in some locations.

We are rolling out some doctor relationships. The famous American cardiologist Dr. Oz is with us. He is helping us develop some interesting integrated wellness programs. Nutritionist Dr. Stephen Gundry from California is doing a set of nutritional guidelines. Yoga sleep and aerial yoga are new concepts in several locations. Our plan encompasses food and wellness. We can provide guidance to guests with total immersion or they can choose a more laid back approach.

At Six Senses, we have a roster of 250 people who are advisers and practitioners worldwide. We track them as they move around the properties. They are vetted and we perform system wide checks to track their effectiveness.

Douro Valley in Portugal

What new properties are you rolling out soon?

Douro Valley in Portugal is a special property for us. Douro is considered the Napa Valley of Portugal. Wine Spectator named four of the top ten wines from this region. We took over the old country house designed by New York City design firm Clodagh – 71 guest rooms and suites with organic interiors. Of course we will emphasize wine, food and wellness at this property. We plan to open in May, 2015.

In July, 2015 our Seychelles location on a private island called Felicité will open. It is a home-style atmosphere with 30 villas and 17 private residences for sale. Truly secluded, it’s an easy helicopter ride from Mahé. Our goal is to be as organic an island as possible. The resort has huge boulders and we placed the villas around them. It is a lovely sanctuary for gigantic tortoises. We have a climate that suits water sports year round, an environment with a lot of sailors – the wind and beauty are so attractive for the sailing community.

Qing Cheng is our property in China in the Qing Cheng Mountains near the UNESCO World Heritage site near the city of Dujiangyan. Dujiangyan is becoming an important city in western China. It is a spiritual area, home of Taoism.  People will love that it is only 15 minutes from a significant panda reserve. Our design is like a contemporary Chinese village with architecture elements that fit in naturally with the surroundings. Our spa, naturally will feature treatments with holistic approaches.

Rahim B. Kanani
Over the years, Rahim Kanani has published hundreds of interviews with the world’s leading innovators, executives and philanthropists. His writing has been featured in a number of national and international publications including Forbes, CNN, the Ottawa Citizen, San Francisco Chronicle, International Herald Tribune/New York Times, Stanford Social Innovation Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, Huffington Post, Al Arabiya, Reuters, and many others.

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An Interview with Neil Jacobs, CEO of Six Senses Hotels, Resorts & Spas