Wellness Warriors: Six SensesAlia Akkam and Stacy Shoemaker Rauen • Photography courtesy of Six Senses • November 28, 2017
In 2012, Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas, the pioneering back-to-nature company founded more than 20 years ago, was bought by U.S. private equity firm Pegasus Capital Advisors. Initially, Six Senses and its Evason Resorts brand had a presence confined to Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Since the acquisition however, it has diversified considerably from these regional roots, with 13 hotels (and 20 additional spas) open in locations spanning Turkey, Portugal, China, and the Seychelles. With eight new properties planned for next year in the likes of Bhutan, India, Fiji, and Israel, and two dozen or so properties under development including New York, which, when it opens in 2019, will mark Six Senses’ North American debut, the company pipeline is robust and global. Along with this accelerated growth is a concerted intensity in the brand’s vision toward wellness and sustainability, merging the two platforms to connect with guests on deeper levels.
“The whole world of luxury hotels was becoming homogenous,” recounts Six Senses CEO Neil Jacobs, a veteran of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and Starwood Capital, on why he joined Six Senses five years ago. “My own passion was wellness, and here was a group that was small and had the potential to become global with a DNA that resonated with me on a personal level.” When Jacobs took the helm, he felt that the aesthetic of rustic, barefoot luxury it conjured needed a modern, more sophisticated edge: “It’s still organic, tactile, and features beautiful shapes and materials, but it’s more ‘designed’ than it was during the early years of its life.”
This design approach mirrors the brand’s devotion to wellness and how Jacobs wants the mandate to provide programming and initiatives that resonate with guests and that genuinely provide content that is meaningful for individual health and wellbeing. “This is not just about spas, and we were clear we didn’t want to be a destination spa,” he says. “We wanted the narrative to be wider and more meaningful than that, mixed with the unusual and fascinating and a dose of quirkiness.” Blending the modalities Six Senses has nurtured from the beginning, including traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, with science-based, result-driven ones is a brand hallmark that integrates East and West practices for a holistic experience.
Building on this, sustainability is also at the forefront of the Six Senses mission, placing a premium on engaging the community. “Particularly at some of the locations where we operate, there are a lot of disadvantaged people around us, so we play a role in the betterment of those environments by participating in them and helping people develop their full potential,” he explains.
Often, Jacobs is met with skeptical comments like, “Oh, you can’t make money out of it,” when they take stock of Six Senses’ wellness programs and sustainable operations. But when “we look at the wellness and sustainability and how it impacts occupancy, average rate, and length of stay, then, yes, you can make money,” he notes. “But it’s more than that. It’s about having the right purpose and the right intention, bringing like-minded people into the properties that care about these values and having them leave in a better place than when they arrived.”
A half-built project in Israel about 37 miles north of Eilat in the Negev Desert was just signed to Six Senses, which they took on this far into the process “because it is one of the most stunning landscapes we’ve ever seen,” says Jacobs, explaining that the villas are built into the desert, with very little sitting on top of the land. “We have goats and chickens elsewhere but here, at Six Senses Shaharut, will be our first camel farm.”
Translating Six Senses into urban environments, particularly gateway cities with a healthy leisure travel component like the forthcoming property in Manhattan’s West Chelsea neighborhood, was also important to Jacobs. Designed by New York, Copenhagen, and London-based BIG, the building stands out in a city pervaded with adventurous design. “Bjarke [Ingels] has managed to create two towers that actually read as super simple and not overly designed, and yet the way they almost reach out and touch each other, it’s like they’re embracing, which is so elegant,” he says.
Besides BIG, the creative team works with a spectrum of designers, from on-the-rise talent to bigwigs like Graft, Kengo Kuma and Associates (KKAA), and Gilles & Boissier, while some interiors, like the recent Zil Pasyon in the Seychelles and the soon-to-open Bhutan property, were handled in-house (with an architect), just as they do with all their spa projects. Each project is imbued with their core values: sustainability, wellness, a fun and quirky vibe, unique experiences, localness, and emotional hospitality, says Apiwat Anukularmphai, corporate creative and design director and a nine-year Six Senses veteran. He points to the intriguingly designed Six Senses Bhutan, opening in early 2018, as “an amazing journey” between five different lodges in Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey, Bumthang, and Paro, each with spas highlighting specific treatments. “Bhutan is a magical country. I could not find a location where the gross domestic product is less important than the happiness of the local people who still live their lives as they have been living a 100 years back: pure with an unspoiled nature and culture,” says Anukularmphai. “It is not just one resort but five different locations with five different design approaches and five different experiences.”
Located on a private island, the star of the Seychelles property is the spa, nestled into a staggering array of rocks. “One of the owner’s representatives had scouted out that location and he took a group of us up there. We had to beat our way through the bushes and climb down through crags and over the rocks, helping each other, holding hands to pull each other up,” remembers Andrew Best, vice president of architecture and technical services for Six Senses, who worked with Jacobs at Four Seasons and then joined him at Starwood Capital to help launch the Baccarat and 1 Hotels brands before following him here. “It was a difficult site, but when you find a magical place, it’s something that you really work hard to respect. You make it shine.”
Working in tandem with Amber Beard, Six Senses’ vice president of sustainability, Best implemented a set of standards centered around materiality, plumbing, and potential solar energy sources. Environmental consultants are often brought on at the onset of a project to explain to designers how buildings should face to get the full impact of the natural breeze and sunlight. “It’s good to remind [designers] right off the bat that sustainability is a big part of our company and thinking about that from the very minute you start putting your pen onto the sketch paper is an important element,” Best explains.
Future properties reflect this synergy between design and Mother Nature as well, such as the Six Senses Zhiben Hot Springs in southeastern Taiwan, set at the base of Medicine Mountain where herbs and medicinal plants are grown. Tokyo-based KKAA is overseeing the design, fashioning a spa building from driftwood found on nearby beaches, presenting greenhouses as children’s play areas, and turning the idea of farm-to-table dining on its head.
In Rajasthan, India, Six Senses Fort Barwara, opening in early 2019, will look onto a 700-year-old fort where a forest used to be before it was cut down. “The first thing we said is: Why can’t our sustainability manager find a way to replant this forest? And why do we have to wait until we open the hotel? Why don’t we find a sustainability manager who can help connect us to the government agencies that would help support that?” Best explains. “It’s interesting that the sustainability manager becomes almost the first person [hired] before the GM.”
Anna Bjurstam was leading a 20 gym-strong chain in Sweden when she started meditating, investigating alternative healing practices, and realizing “that physical fitness was not everything when it comes to wellness.” So she looked into the mushrooming spa industry and started working with Raison d’Etre consultancy services, helping create the spa at Soneva Fushi in the Maldives, which at the time boldly brought together kinesiology, in-depth treatments, and special products they whipped up in the kitchen themselves before taking them to a chemist “to make professional.” Bjurstam continued developing other hotel spas, and now, coming full circle, is head of wellness for Six Senses.
When she first joined the team almost five years ago, she thought Six Senses “was an ultra-cool brand, but it had not progressed that much from what it was almost 20 years ago when we first did the framework for Soneva Fushi. Therefore, I wanted to look at it from a much bigger wellness perspective.” She did this through introducing a technology-based integrated wellness program, something that could be scaled and present in all locations while measuring a number of biomarkers like blood pressure, heart rate, and skin moisture levels through non-invasive methods. It only takes five minutes to understand a person’s wellness status and “then we have an algorithm, which goes into a point system that a guest can easily understand.” A well-vetted physiotherapist, Chinese doctor, or naturopath then assesses the information and guides guests to positive changes. One of the biggest draws of this integrated wellness program is the advanced and scientific Sleep Experience—“not just a pillow menu and chamomile tea”—developed by clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Dr. Michael Breus.
“This is one of the first times in a resort and spa environment where I was given a clean slate and told, ‘Do whatever will work best for our guests,’” recalls Breus. One way of accomplishing this was exploring guestrooms through the lens of the five senses: opting for bulbs that filter out blue light; providing ear plugs; outfitting special mattresses with comfortable, breathable linens; showcasing sleep-friendly food items; and promoting aromatherapy. Guests can also have their sleep evaluated using monitored equipment, which is assessed by a sleep ambassador trained by Breus. Individualized feedback for sleep improvement might include a relaxing massage before bed, eating specific foods, or partaking in other resort experiences. “Our goal is to help educate and influence the guest’s health for the rest of their lives, not only when they come to Six Senses,” says Breus. “Our environment is one of rejuvenation, relaxation, and education. When they do not have all the daily distractions of their lives, they may be able to open up and learn and become healthier. This will allow them to enjoy their stay but also take something with them.”
Bjurstam wants guests to find themselves immersed in wellness before even entering the spa, so when they walk through the door, “they know they are going into a hotel that’s healthy, where they are going to have a great night’s sleep and eat good food that’s not bad for them. It’s about a full life and having fun because a lot of people think that wellness and health is about taking things away from you instead of adding.” This mindset—and working with other Wellness Board members nutritionist Dr. Steven Gundry and Dr. Mehmet Oz—has spawned personalized yoga sessions, wholesome cooking through the nascent Eat with Six Senses program, and soothing design touches from non-toxic paints to, soon, circadian lighting. A wellness club that will first launch in New York is also in the works.
Ultimately, she wants to encourage guests to take micro steps into wellness as a “self-directed, self-conscious choice,” so they always feel 100 percent. Highlighting the union between planetary and personal health is something Bjurstam deems essential. For instance, discussing plastic and the polluting of oceans can seem like a distant concept for some, “but when we talk about the micro-plastic that’s in our blood because of this and how it’s poisoning our bodies, then it suddenly becomes more important.” Bjurstam says guests no longer only want to relax on their vacation, but want to progress as well. Six Senses, she says, has put itself out there as “the stage for transformational experience.”
Chickens, goats, beehives, and still and sparkling water served exclusively in glass bottles sourced from reverse osmosis plants are signatures of the brand. “We aren’t 100 percent self-sustainable yet, but we have more than just little herb gardens. We allocate acres of land to food and have permaculturists in most of the hotels,” says Jacobs. “People are more aware, conscious, and mindful of what they’re doing and how they’re behaving than they were five or 10 years ago. We’re perhaps a little bit ahead of the curve, doing things that most hotel companies would not consider part of their core business, whereas for us, it is who we are.”
Besides a “robust framework in place that we use to measure sustainability,” says Jeff Smith, director of sustainability at Six Senses, one of the biggest strides in this realm is Earth Lab, which he describes as “almost a philosophy, and a physical space at all our resorts dedicated to engagement and education.” Here, guests can wander in and learn, in a DIY fashion, how to make oil from coconuts that are “literally falling from trees on the property,” or even their own toothpaste. “Those little tubes, they’re not recyclable. There’s nowhere for them to go, and it’s not necessary. You can make your own toothpaste, store it in a glass jar, and then wash and reuse it. You’ve eliminated that piece of waste from your life.”
Earth Lab, on one hand, teaches guests life hacks they can bring home, but it also empowers them along with community members and staff. Smith says it’s advantageous that Six Senses doesn’t abide by a one-size-fits-all ethos, allowing for freedom within each property “because when you’re operating a hotel in Portugal compared to a hotel on a tropical island in Southeast Asia, there are different challenges for sustainability, and there are different opportunities for it.”
Local communities are among the greatest resources to get around using a piece of plastic or polluting technology, he says. He often recommends that the team visit a remote community’s elders and ask them what they used to do because nine times out of 10, there is a healthy replacement that simply fell out of fashion. In the Maldives, for example, the hotel’s staff, based on research, began tapping coconut palms for syrup. Immediately, Maldivian hosts recognized it, remembering their grandmothers presiding over this lost art.
Sustainability funds are also in place at all properties, with a percentage of revenue directed toward programs supporting local issues such as disadvantaged youth in Portugal and anti-turtle egg poaching in Vietnam. “When our own hosts see the hotel investing in the local community, and our hosts are from that local community, then they’re going to invest back into the hotel. It’s no longer just a cold business relationship and all three of those areas prosper from that. It’s special,” he says. “Let’s be well and let’s make sure the planet is well, and then we can all be well. It’s a no-brainer, but sometimes the connection isn’t made.” Adds Jacobs: “As we look to the future and how we can make a difference, our focus on improving lives and caring for the earth will remain critical to our mission and values as a company. There is no alternative.”