It's virtually impossible to find a room in the coming weeks in the Six Senses Shaharut Hotel in Israel, which opened last week, even though the few rooms available in the Negev Desert hotel in August start at NIS 7,550 a night ($2,360). In October, after the holidays, prices will drop to 'just' NIS 4,400 per night ($1,375). The hotel is part of the exclusive Six Senses chain and the Shaharut is its first foothold in Israel. The opening of the hotel and its 60 desert suites, 60 kilometers north of the Red Sea resort of Eilat, took place two years after the originally planned date.
"The brand started out in Asia and we set ourselves a target to expand from the resorts there to a global platform that would not exclude the urban environment and have a presence in cities popular for vacationers like New York, London, Paris and Tel Aviv, for which we have plans," Six Senses CEO Neil Jacobs told "Globes." Jacobs has led Six Senses since Pegasus Capital acquired it in 2012.
By the time you get it done, the Four Seasons luxury chain would have got there before you.
"I've got no problems with them getting there before us because nobody does what we do. We seek location and it doesn't have to be a big hotel but a hotel that is little and good. I look at the success of the Norman Hotel, which in my eyes is the best in Tel Aviv. People want personal hotels and not huge hotels."
One of the things that makes Jacobs most proud is the investment that the chain has made in wellness and sustainability. "We even have a sustainability manager in each of our properties, including in Israel," he said.
"To my mind to ask the guests not to wash the towels, as happens in many hotels around the world, is fine, but it's a long way from providing a genuine environmental solution. Sustainability is part of the decision making at every step in the hotel, and in the Shaharut it includes the camel farm where we will produce milk, or food that we will grow near the hotel and we will use. Every hotel has environmental endeavors suitable for it and these are the things that are ultimately recalled and photographed."
How expensive is it to maintain sustainability?
"A decade ago I would have said that it was very expensive, but today it puts up routine costs by 5%and is expressed in savings. As soon as hotel managers operate an environmentally friendly business, they understand the financial importance and the importance of talking about it in order to encourage more businesses to operate in this way. We are committed to being plastic-free by the end of 2022. We are headed in the right direction."
So in Six Senses hotels you won't find the small plastic toiletries that guests love to take home. "We haven't had them for 30 years. We have been criticized that this is less hygienic, but we have found the right way. Hotels throw away millions of plastic bottles every year. It's stupid.
"We've reduced by 65% of the amount of plastic that we had four years ago. For example, we have a hotel in Thailand in which the fishermen would bring their goods in plastic baskets, so we provided them with perishable containers. Our chefs like to cook in bags (sous vide cooking) but we instructed them to stop this because we were talking about 50,000 bags a week. The chefs looks at us as if we're mad but we told them to look for other methods of cooking.
"When we examined what else we could get rid of, we found the plastic capsules of Nespresso and the sticks on the buds for cleaning ears. We'll find a solution for this by the end of 2022. In our new hotels, we have set ourselves a target of at least 60% of energy being renewable, and there are more things planned. In our head office we have a team dedicated to this."
To mix business and leisure
Over the past 18 months, the hotel industry has been going through a tough time and Six Senses, which was founded in 1995, is yet to recover. "We have 2,000 rooms around the world and not all of them are open. Just keeping up with the regulations in each country, which change every day, is a hard job. Israel is no different from other countries, with instructions frequently changing everywhere."
At the end of 2019, just before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, Pegasus Capital sold Six Senses to the IHG (Intercontinental) chain for $300 million. Thus the small and exclusive chain became part of a hotel corporation with more than 100,000 rooms worldwide. "The timing was ideal for us," Jacobs said, "because a small company belonging to a huge corporation enjoys advantages in infrastructure and finance."
It's possible that before Six Senses Tel Aviv is launched, the chain will bring to Israel the concept that it is set to launch in New York: a private members club. "This is an enhanced version of the Soho Club House. A private club not in the old-fashioned sense of older European or American men, but members who can be 20 or 70 and will come for social encounters. The clubs will be set up in cities for both residents and our guests."
In any event, most of Six Senses' guests are vacationers. "In the post-Covid world, the two segments, leisure and business, will be mixed. We see a situation in which guests will check in for a month or two months in a resort where they will also work. If people aren't going into the office then what difference if I'm sitting in London or the Douro Valley in Portugal?
"I don't believe that things will go back to being the way that they were. Today, when we design rooms, we take this into account. Our members clubs will also respond to this need. People living in New York, for example, will go into the office for one or two days a week and will work one or two days from home and another day from the club, which will serve as a social work environment, not on the WeWork model but something that has a multi-functional use."
Jacobs thinks that vacation behavior won't be the same. "People care more about health and they won't travel to Thailand and pass through four destinations, but they will focus on good amenities with a spa and fitness room, and yoga lessons in nature."
Will we eventually have a short memory and return to huge hotels and cruises?
"I'm not convinced that that is right. People are more aware than in the past about their health when on vacation, and not because of Covid. Do you really want to lie on the beach all day and eat and drink, and not move? At the end of the vacation, guests also want to feel good physically."
Hotels have absorbed enormous damage. How will that impact on prices?
"Prices have to be in line with what you get in exchange. We have put up prices in a controlled way but we have added services, like an extra meal, spa treatment, or a shuttle from the airport. What is important is value for money, what we describe as price integrity. It's hard to make prices more expensive without alienating customers, but on the other hand the reality is that hotels need to survive and pay their employees. Many of them have seen their salaries cut recently. In the US, the government paid $800-900 to those whose salaries were previously $1,300-1,400. They deserve to earn what they had in the past."
Just like the Shaharut, most of the hotels are not owned by the chain (in Israel the owners are Ronny Douek and a group of partners). "We are not a real estate company but a company specializing in the hospitality sector and companies mixing between the two areas find it difficult to specialize," explained Jacobs. The chain has 4,900 employees worldwide, including 185 in Israel.
In Israel hoteliers talk about a huge shortage of workers.
"This is a global problem that we are experiencing, mainly in developed countries. Many have left the industry and found other work. Shaharut, which is in a remote location, struggled to find hospitality staff, so we offered incentives. There are kibbutzim in the area, and we are not a large hotel and we do not employ hundreds, so we looked for those who best fit our set of values."
With no incoming tourism to Israel, Shaharut will have to rely on domestic tourism. What do you know about the Israeli tourist?
"Israelis are not embarrassed to say what they think and that's wonderful. You have to find a balance between foreign and domestic tourism, and mainly to keep your promises in terms of value. We will also find the way to connect to the local market in terms of prices. The owner of the property has spent a lot of money on the hotel and expects a return on the investment. I can tell you that guests will pay an high price, as you put it, but they will get something that they have not experienced before.
"The attention paid by the owners to every detail comes from a desire to create something that does not exist in Israel and something that will encourage tourism from abroad. To earn money is also legitimate, of course, but it is not the main motive, because there is also Zionism. Shaharut has the potential to be considered one of the best resorts in the world. It will take time, but this recognition will come. The hotel will also be an international destination for holding weddings and barmitzvahs."
Jacobs visited Israel for the opening of Shaharut. "This was my first overseas trip for 18 months, and this was an opening that I had to attend. My father fought in 1947 and my personal history is tied up with Israel. I recommend Israel as a tourist destination because it is a special country, and that is something that cannot be said about many places. Israeli chefs are a hot commodity in the culinary sector worldwide."
Jacobs will himself soon open a restaurant in Singapore together with Israeli chef Eyal Shani. At this stage it looks as though Shani will perhaps manage the members club that will be established in Tel Aviv. The sky's the limit. All that remains is for the country to reopen for tourists.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 11, 2021
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