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Neil Jacobs

The CEO of Six Senses talks to Jane Kitchen about biohacking, wellness, retreats and dominating the residences market

Jacobs is leading the expansion and extension of the brand Photo: Six Senses
Wellness and nature sit at the heart of the Six Senses global business Photo: Petrina Tinslay
Six Senses is venturing into the retreats and events market to optimise the shoulder seasons Photo: Six Senses
The Alma Festival will take place at Six Senses Ibiza Photo: Six Senses
Six Senses Residences Courcheval – part of a growing portfolio of residences Photo: Six Senses
The new Six Senses Rome will have a 360° rooftop view of the city Photo: John Athimaritis
Spa and wellness innovation is a core purpose of the company Photo: Six Senses
London will open in 2024 and include the first Six Senses Place private members’ club Photo: Six Senses
Six Senses London will be located in the iconic Whiteley building Photo: Six Senses
The Whiteley is being developed by Finchatton Photo: Six Senses
Six Senses developed a circuit of hotels in Bhutan and is considering that approach for Ecuador Photo: Six Senses
The company, started in Asia by Sonu and Eva Shivdasani, is now going global as part of IHG Photo: Kiattipong Panchee
Each Six Senses property has an organic farm Photo: Six Senses
Guests recharge by connecting with nature Photo: John Athimaritis

How are things at Six Senses?
Business is good. We’re mostly back to 2019 levels and considerably ahead of our 2022 budget.

Last year we opened five properties and all of them are super-special. We started with Six Senses Botanique, outside São Paulo, Brazil; then Ibiza in Spain in July; Shaharut in Israel in August; Fort Barwara in India in October; and then we took on the management at Kanuhura in The Maldives, which is currently undergoing renovations. They’re all so different from each other, but the Six Senses values remain intact.

Ibiza in particular has been a huge success in terms of numbers – we’re hitting 80 per cent occupancy. In May we opened 19 residences, ranging from three- to 10-bedrooms. They’ve had 70 per cent occupancy in the first month and added a whole other dimension to the property. The townhouses don’t compete with the hotel rooms and suites, as the product is more an alternative to renting a villa on the island; they’ve been so well-received.

You’re getting into the festivals market too...
We’re getting ready to host the first Alma Festival in Ibiza – it’s a three-day event in November centred around spirituality, celebration and wellness.

Designed as a ‘soul adventure’, Alma will bring together a community to find a meaningful way to connect and breathe new life into modern spirituality via a rich programme of fun and engaging events and workshops, live music, artistic performances, and culinary experiences.

It will include talks with people such as Dave Asprey, who many consider the father of biohacking. Also planned are wellness workshops with Jasmine Hemsley and transformative workouts with The Class founder, Taryn Toomey, Mindvalley CEO Vishen Lakhiani and CEO of meditation app Calm, Michael Smith. Typically few people go to Ibiza in November, but we’ve brought in some big names, so we think it will be a success.

For us, festivals are the way to go, and are a huge piece of our future. Our goal is to have a greater presence in that market – we’ve got owners who are happy to host them at less busy times.

What do spa and wellness mean to Six Senses?
Wellness is in our DNA and not just confined to the walls of our spas. It’s also at the forefront of people’s minds and we see them travelling with different sets of intentions, seeking transformational experiences led by experts that allow them to deepen self-knowledge and awareness and connect with like-minded individuals.

Our expert-led retreats such as Alma provide much-needed space to achieve this, while offering access to spa facilities, wellness activities, and ‘extra’ extras, depending on the daily schedule.

Wellness has been at the core of Six Senses since the brand was born. We see significant interest in room night increases for guests attending wellness retreats since we launched this initiative in 2021, while our virtual platform, At Home with Six Senses, continues to attract broader audiences, with over 10,500 sign-ups for ‘Friends of Six Senses’ and ‘Masterclasses’ in the last one-and-a-half years. That’s very encouraging, given that the world has reopened and people can travel.

What’s special and different about your spas?
At Six Senses we have a Wellness Innovation Team (WIT). It’s a think tank/incubator that researches and creates content and design, keeping us relevant and in tune with new modalities in the context of where and how we operate.

We’re putting cryotherapy into our spas, along with infrared saunas and, where possible, extensive wet circuits. The upcoming Six Senses Rome, for example, will offer a beautiful journey with cold, warm and hot features in a cave-like environment. This has been designed to reflect the history of the city which is home to the original Roman baths.

We’re including biohacking lounges in many locations, while six Senses Crans-Montana will feature a recovery lounge specially designed for avid skiers.

Longevity is also high on our list and the soon-to-open Rose Bar in Six Senses Ibiza will offer a non-invasive take on longevity with both tech and touch.

How is tech underpinning your wellness offerings?
Biohacking sounds futuristic, but it’s simply a way to recover from travel to get the most out of a stay. Guests become more aware of what’s going on inside and out to make improvements in a playful, experiential way.

When we talk about biohacks, we look at lifestyle, diet and the little changes that can make a big difference to how guests think and feel. There are no invasive treatments such as gene editing or inserting microchips under the skin.

For us, biohacking is a shortcut that can help change our bodies and brains, enabling a smarter, fitter, and longer health span. We’ve always believed in the principle, but refocusing around this term has helped us to reach more guests and see some great results.

Many of our locations now offer biohacking, and the tech is constantly developing. When it opens, we’ll have 15+ biohacking options available at Six Senses Rome, and Six Senses Crans-Montana will have a Recovery Lounge focused on biohacking.

In addition to offering biohacking, we also integrate science into our programme through our wellness screening, a collaboration with the Timeshifter jet lag app and through our Friends of Six Senses who are experts in their field.

Tell us about Vana
We’ve recently taken over our first destination spa. We always said it wasn’t our model, but then Vana came along.

What the owners have created is amazing, and we’re very respectful of that, so we didn’t want to come in and change too much; it will be called Six Senses Vana. We’ll bring in Six Senses touchpoints such as the Alchemy Bar and the Grow With Six Senses programme for kids, and we’ll make it easier for guests to come for shorter periods of time, such as three nights. We also want to introduce more activities and take guests out into the surrounding area rather than just having them be in their bathrobes for a week – we want to broaden the offer without diluting what’s already been created.

Deep, immersive wellness experiences will be available, with a blend of Eastern and Western therapies. Guests will journey into self-discovery and transformation, where everything is personalised. Traditional practices such as Ayurveda, yoga, and Tibetan Medicine will be integrated into a daily routine, alongside complementary therapies, nudging guests gently along their path to vitality. An Ayurvedic Panchakarma retreat will welcome guests for up to a month to completely detoxify body and mind.

Can you share any other notable plans?
I’m excited about what’s happening with Six Senses generally – where we’re going and the types of properties we’re doing. We bought Six Senses just over 10 years ago, and when I look at where it was then and where we are today, we have become a global company.

It was always a goal to connect the dots between our resort and wellness experiences and regular life and for guests to be able to continue their journey in a meaningful way when they get home.

Our urban properties are about being able to bring the value proposition into the city – particularly around wellness and sustainability – so they’re as much for the local guest as they are for hotel guests.

We’re on the edge of launching the club concept we’ve been talking about for a couple of years. It’s called Six Senses Place, and the first one will be in London, opening at the end of next year.

We’re looking at other brand stretches too – we’re certainly not the biggest when it comes to branded residential, but we’re the fastest-growing hospitality residential company out there.

So we have all these products that are converging, which influence our strategy and our focus around development, because a key goal is to be able to create that community and a whole Six Senses lifestyle.

Tell us more about Six Senses Place
At a high level, Six Senses Place will be a social club concept with a membership model. It will have food and beverage, a great bar, restaurant, lounge and some casual shared workspaces.

The ideal scale will be about 3,000 members, and hotel guests will have temporary membership during their stays, as well as access to the spa. The underlying difference is that it will be based on a platform of wellness: we’ll have practitioners and doctors guests can talk to, and we’ll partner with a medical concierge, so there’ll be a lot available; food will follow the Eat With Six Senses programme and we’ll have talks on wellness topics.

In London, the Six Senses Place will have a biohacking lounge, and a focus on longevity.
Although wellness will be a huge part of Six Senses Place, it won’t be a clinic – it needs to be a fun, social club that has a great story around wellbeing in all its aspects. All of this will play well in a post-pandemic world, where wellness will be much more relevant. So much is about how you live your life every day and we can influence that.

The main goal is to be able to create a community and that Six Senses lifestyle. We want to be in select urban destinations, but only in cities that have a level of leisure business to them – such as New York, Bangkok or London – where 60-70 per cent of business could be leisure. And we also want to be in cities with populations that connect the dots to our resorts.

What happened with your New York property?
The new owners decided to put in another operator.
There’s a lot that’s already been written about it, and I don’t want to comment too much more, as I spent five years of my life planning that location, and it was very personal to me – I have a home about three blocks away and consider myself a naturalised New Yorker.

I went into mourning for a couple of weeks when I heard the news, but now we’re continuing to look at key strategic locations throughout the Americas.

How are plans going more generally for the US?
We’re looking at projects in the US where we could offer branded offices too; we think we can add value to a post-COVID office environment by bringing what we do into the office space and creating healthy environments through programming and wellness amenities in the building.

Once this is in place, we’ll have hotels, clubs, residential, offices and resorts. It’s all connected – all these functions are converging – we’re seeing the opportunity to bring all this together, and that in turn reinforces our Six Senses community.

That’s actually what I’m the most excited about – after ten years, we’re approaching the realisation of a Six Senses ecosystem.

How’s the development pipeline looking?
We’ve got 23 hotels. In three to four years, we’ll be at 50, so there are exciting projects in the works.

We hope to open Crans-Montana in Switzerland by Christmas, Rome in early 2023 and London by the end of 2023. Lisbon is under construction and we should open in late 2024, and we also have locations in Iceland as well as Kitzbuhel, Austria, and of course Svart in Norway.

The fastest-growing area in the world right now for us is Europe, but although Europe has the largest pipeline, our focus is very much on growing in the Americas. We don’t have a physical presence there other than a small location in Brazil, and we lost the New York property, as I said. We’re actively pursuing opportunities.

Six Senses Galapagos is already in development, and the fact we can get permission to go there is a great tribute to our values. It takes us not only to a great place, but also gives us more of a presence in South America. Ecuador is a place where we see potential to do a circuit – as we did in Bhutan – there’s so much there besides the Galapagos: beaches, mountains, volcanos, and cities.

We’ve also got several projects in development in Saudi, with the first due to open early next year at The Red Sea development. We also have Six Senses Kyoto in the works, which will be our first Japanese property, and we’re looking at locations in sub-Saharan Africa.

What are the main challenges of operating in wild, remote, places?
We’ve always done wild and remote – it’s part of what we’re known for, but it’s not without its challenges.

The creation of Shaharut in Israel, which opened last year, has been complicated, partly because of the remoteness of the location.

It’s difficult to get people to go and work in the desert 50 kilometres from the nearest large city, so we’re trying to build our own culture – the key is to create an environment that’s very special where you build an employee community. We took over a kibbutz 20 minutes off-property and restored it for the employees to stay in – the food is good, the social spaces are good, and we run shuttles to the resort so they can get to work. You have to go that extra mile to make people feel amazing, and communicate that our mission is wellness and that philosophy extends to the way we care for employees.

Residences are increasingly a part of your eco-system. What do they bring to the mix?
Although not the largest, we’re the fastest growing company in the branded residences business, with 50 per cent of our new projects featuring a ‘for sale’ residential element.

They’ll sell at the high end of the market. In London, for example, prices are between £3,000-£4,000/sq ft, so they’re very luxurious properties.

Residential is important to our world, as it supports our goal of creating community and reinforcing a Six Senses way of living. We’re excited about the future and the demand for this element of our brand extension work.

Residences at Six Senses Dubai – on the Palm – started moving robustly immediately after we commenced sales, for example.

Clearly if residential pre-sales are strong, these revenues support the entire development financially. That said, we want to ensure the hotel will get built independently of the pace of residential sales.

How do you approach architecture and design?
The design of our properties is very purposeful. We’ve never ever wanted Six Senses to be cookie-cutter.

Because we go into such diverse places and each is so different, we look at them as a blank canvas when it comes to what should go where, whether it’s a new-build or the repurposing of an old building.

It’s very important there’s context when it comes to design and that we celebrate where we are, but that doesn’t mean it has to be traditional – I’m okay with reimagining in a more contemporary sense.

Even at Six Senses Fort Barwara in Rajasthan some of the touches are contemporary. We left much of the historic architecture and detail without trying to pretty it up, so it’s a mixture of restoration rather than renovation, but we wanted to leave the scars on it – to leave the distress on the walls and celebrate that this was and is an extraordinary place.

It’s a ‘less is more’ approach, but we make sure the materials we use are as local as possible and that the design can be interpreted in a sophisticated and beautiful way.

In Six Senses Rome, the location is a very old palazzo right in the centre of the city, but we purposely chose a very contemporary interior designer, Patricia Urquiola. It won’t look as you’d expect a hotel in Rome to look, but it will feel Roman – the building is extraordinary, and it has a rooftop with a 360-degree view of the city.

That’s how we address design – it can be modern, but it must be contextual and take on the spirit of where we are in the world, and it needs to have a degree of playfulness. We talk a lot about being fun and quirky; this may be seen in a detail such as a door handle or a little surprise that makes the design extraordinary and memorable.

How are things going now you’re part of IHG?
We’re three and a half years in and I only have hugely positive things to say. We maintain a certain degree of independence. They’re very respectful of who we are and what we believe in, and the power of the IHG infrastructure makes us a better, more effective company without us losing the essence of who we are.

How far will you take Six Senses?
Ten years ago, we had eight hotels; today it’s 23, with 35 in the pipeline. In seven years, we could be at 70 or 80.

How many is too many? It can never be about how many – it’s not a numbers game, it’s about one at a time, and as long as each property is accretive to what we do and represents who we are and what we believe in, then we’re okay. Of course we have to be able to execute, but that’s the subject of people and systems.

We have to be even more diligent today than we were in the early days, because not that many people knew about us when we had eight hotels – today people know about us, and they can be critical.

As an operator, if you have problem hotels that are not up to standard, it will impact the entire company and this is something we guard against.

Consequently, the design piece is fundamental to our ability to grow – and grow with credibility. Fifty hotels is not big for most hotel companies, but for us, it’s a big number, and we’ve got to keep that texture and that originality and that specialness in every single one to remain in the position we’re in.

Photo: Six Senses

Dave Asprey, father of biohacking

Photo: Six Senses

Calm’s Michael Smith

Originally published in Spa Business 2022 issue 3
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