Starting May 13, the first-ever Maldives iteration of the iconic Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) will bring a global line-up of critically acclaimed authors, thinkers, and cultural leaders to Soneva Fushi. A first for any Maldivian island, this 10-day literary festival is actually a reflection of the quest for reinventing their customer journey and experience on the property by going above and beyond the usual art of hoteliering.
“We are looking forward to this first edition of JLF Soneva Fushi, the first of a series of three festivals,” shares Sonu Shivdasani, CEO, and Co- Founder of Soneva. “Together with Teamwork Arts, we are bringing authors and artists from all over the world to celebrate literature, music, and art,” he says.
According to him, the themes of the festival are in alignment with its core brand philosophy. ”A bespoke experience, JLF Soneva Fushi will be a study in Slow Life, with morning yoga sessions, stimulating workshops, world-class international cuisine, and stunning sunsets all set against our languorous blue sea. Environment, travel, wellness, history, sustainability, poetry, astronomy, and many more themes will also be part of the panel discussions, events, and workshops,” he shares.
In an exclusive interaction with ETTravelWorld, Shivdasani shares his impressions on the changes in market dynamics in the past couple of years and the efforts being put in by Soneva to retain the guest flow in keeping with the same.
Changing market dynamics & tourism growth in the past two years
Throughout the pandemic, the Maldives had very few travel restrictions in place, so we were still able to welcome a high number of international guests over the past two years. Our revenues at Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani multiplied by a factor of six from Indian guests in 2021/22 compared with 2019 figures. So, India has become one of our top four source markets. With the good news about the air travel bubble a few months ago, we look forward to welcoming more Indian guests to the Maldives and to Soneva. We’ve recently relaxed our arrival protocols across our resorts, with no more mandatory PCR testing for guests at Soneva Fushi or Soneva Jani.
As a result, our growth in markets such as India has been exponential due to the high proximity of the source region aided by the incredible guest safety and care implemented by our hosts. Usually, our guests from India have stayed for longer durations and often come back more than once a year. In addition, we have also witnessed a dynamic shift towards family travel to the Maldives versus only honeymoons that were symbolic of the destination in the past.
Emerging post-pandemic tourism parameters
Following the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have found that travellers are becoming more health-focused, more aware of nature, and more sensitive to the challenges of the planet. Reunions with family and friends have also become very popular, and we are already witnessing this emerging trend at our resorts through an increase in multi-generational travellers coming to stay at Soneva, especially our Indian guests.
Additionally, we are finding that there is huge pent-up demand being released as the pandemic comes to an end hopefully. The opening of borders has been very well received worldwide, but affluent travellers are still being careful in their travel decisions regarding their health and safety, experiences along with the ease of making travel decisions are all key factors.
Short-haul destinations are likely to continue doing better this year. And now that Thailand recently opened its doors to the world, we are already seeing great traction for our resort Soneva Kiri.
Response to the festival in terms of bookings
To date, we have undertaken an extensive marketing campaign with both our trade and media partners to generate awareness of the festival focussing on our key markets of India, GCC, UK, USA, and Europe. In addition, we are also working with our valued guests and repeaters, who have all been invited to join the festival, as well as the JLF existing audience. As a result, to date, we have seen bookings from India, GCC region, UK, USA, and Europe come to fruition.
Since we are now only a few weeks out now, preparations are fully underway with regards to logistics and confirming all of the guests as well as the authors’ and speakers’ details.
In the long term, we hope that this event will attract guests not only from India but all around the world to experience Soneva Fushi and at the same time partake in some thought-provoking sessions.
Festival tourism and footfalls
We have a lot of repeat guests, so it is also about offering them a reason to return to our resorts year after year. Throughout the year, we offer a rich array of guest activities and experiences to ensure that every stay is unique, whether it is gazing at the stars through one of the largest telescopes in the Indian Ocean at our observatory, learning to free dive, or snorkelling with our Marine Biologist. There are also learning opportunities from inspiring visitors through our Soneva Stars programme, from world-renowned astronomers, glass artists and world champion free divers to famous authors, Michelin-starred chefs, winemakers, and even Grand Slam tennis champions like Jonas Björkman.
Later this year we will also be hosting a wellness festival – Soul at Soneva Fushi, to complement our new Soneva Soul wellness offering that we launched in late 2021. Our goal is to continue to look for opportunities that will enhance our rare experiences for our guests.
Agent versus online bookings, mapping the travel trend in Covid-ridden scenario
We have seen growth across both segments especially from the Indian market – at the moment they are equally split. Having said that, the travel trade has become even more significant in playing a role to educate our customers about our properties and helping to facilitate a smooth travel process for them to come to our resorts.
Festival tourism and sustainable tourism
At Soneva, sustainability is at the heart of everything we do, and this will not change when we host any festivals or events. Of course, there can be no doubt that we, as an industry, consume far more than our fair share of resources. But I believe that all companies, hotel and events businesses included, must have a purpose beyond profit. They must play a greater role in the world beyond just enriching their shareholders. I don’t believe that this has to run counter to a successful business model, in fact, it can be central to it. We can find opportunities to make small positive changes that do not impact negatively on our profitability or our guests’ perception of our products, yet which can generate considerable good for both the environment and society by hosting arts, music, literature and cultural events. In fact, they can often enhance our guests’ experience.
At Soneva, we recycle what we can onsite by composting organic food waste and garden waste; and make our own charcoal from wood waste. Glass waste is sent to Soneva Fushi’s Art and Glass Studio where it is crushed and melted down to be made into one of a kind works of art by world-renowned visiting glass artists or turned into functional glassware by our glass team – during the JLF Soneva Fushi event guests can experience glass blowing classes as part of the programme.
Operating in remote locations also requires our guests to travel long distances. On average, a guest’s round trip will result in emissions of around 1 ton of CO2. Our guests have little choice but to fly to reach our remote locations. In 2008, we also realised that our approach towards measuring carbon emissions was limited as we were only measuring scopes 1 and 2, not scope 3, which covered the externalities i.e., guests flying in, supplies coming into our resorts, etc. We thus decided to measure scope 3.
To our great surprise, we discovered that 85 per cent, yes, 85 per cent of the CO2 emissions from Soneva Fushi come from scope 3, which the industry, in general, does not measure. So, we took the simple step of adding a mandatory 2 per cent Environmental Levy to our guests’ bills, to offset all our emissions. It was a small change, and a relatively small charge, which we found our guests more than happy to accept. And the rewards have been great.