September 24, 2020

Neil Jacobs Steers Wellness Hotel Brand Six Senses Through the Pandemic and Beyond

To call Neil Jacobs a hospitality veteran is an understatement. He spent 14 years with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. He ended his run there as senior vice president of operations Asia Pacific to join Starwood Capital Group as president of global hotel operations. In his five years at Starwood, he developed the successful Baccarat Hotel and 1 Hotels brands. Clearly, Jacobs is fluent in the language of luxury (as well as in English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Bahasa Indonesia). But in 2012, he made a subtle pivot, joining forces with Pegasus Capital Advisors, which purchased Six Senses Resorts & Spas. Back then, the company was small—mostly beach­front resorts in Southeast Asia. But all along, since its founding in 1995, the Six Senses mission has been to promote personal well-being and the health of our planet. Jacobs’s goal was to fortify that vision while expanding and diversifying locations.

With Jacobs as CEO, Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas has done just that. Properties have been added in Bhutan, Cambodia, Fiji, and the Seychelles. Shifting sights to Europe, in 2015 the company took over a 19th-century manor house turned hotel in Portugal, hired Clodagh, and remade it into Six Senses Douro Valley, which has the country’s highest occupancy rate. Properties have opened in France and Turkey since. In early 2021, the company debuts its North American toehold—and first urban project—with Six Senses New York, a 10-story hotel by Gilles & Boissier and a club/spa by INC Architecture & Design at the XI, the much-anticipated, Hudson River–fronting complex by Bjarke Ingels Group. Six Senses London by AvroKO is slated for 2023, bringing the total to 18 hotels and resorts. COVID-19 has slowed the development of these projects. But with its emphasis on wellness, community, and sustainability, Six Senses, now owned by IHG, may be well positioned to ride out the storm. Jacobs, a London native based in Singapore, who is an American citizen, shares his thoughts.

Interior Design: What’s your strategy ahead?

Neil Jacobs: We’re going to broaden and deepen what we already do. Connection has always been our vision—reconnecting with oneself, others, and the world. Now, there seems to be a greater sense of mindfulness and need for connection. We’re creating new programming that touches on gratefulness, compassion, even love.

ID: What has reopening been like?

NJ: Six Senses Ninh Van Bay in Vietnam reopened in early May. It was shocking. People got off the boat, ripped off their masks and clothes, and ran for the ocean. Social distancing is already built into how we design many of our properties. Our warm-weather resorts have outdoor restaurants, and there are villas instead of big hotel buildings with long corridors.

Aerial view of beachfront villas at Six Senses Fiji by Richard Priest Architect and Space Studio. Photography courtesy of Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas.

ID: What led to launching properties in Europe and cities?

NJ: Some on our team thought we shouldn’t do Douro Valley—it wasn’t us. But we’d wanted to expand into Europe, plus it was a beautiful building. We brought in Clodagh—who really understands sustainability and wellness—to translate our value set into a building that did have corridors and was set up like a hotel. It turned out wonderfully and showed us, and our customers, that we shouldn’t put ourselves in a box. Who we are isn’t necessarily what a building looks like but how it expresses our mission. We knew then that our properties don’t all have to look the same. In fact, we don’t want them to.

ID: BIG’s twisting XI towers still seem like an architectural departure.

NJ: Actually, the connection I mentioned earlier is manifested in Bjarke’s architecture. I look at his two towers as coming together, creating a connection within a community that also includes 236 condominium apartments. Six Senses Place, the club part of our hotel by INC, which I’d worked with on 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, is geared equally to those residents and hotel guests. The project is about bringing buildings, people, and functions together. And the facade is this beautiful natural travertine. Sustainable materials are outside and in.

Native Vesi wood inside a Fiji villa. Photography courtesy of Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas.

ID: Why Gilles & Boissier for the hotel’s 136 guest rooms?

NJ: We didn’t want traditional interior design. The buildings don’t speak to that. I’d done the Baccarat with Dorothée and Patrick. They’re from Paris and sophisticated. But the fact that they’re great designers was not why we hired them. It’s that they embrace sustainable design. They’ve stayed at Six Senses properties. Our values resonate with and are important to them. That’s what sealed it for me.

ID: What are the rooms like?

NJ: Warm, soft, comfortable. A lot of sustainably sourced timber. We have strict guidelines about where wood comes from and how fabrics are treated. Materials here are natural, organic—that’s who we are—yet more finished than in the resorts.

The Six Senses Douro Valley’s dining room designed by Interior Design Hall of Fame member Clodagh. Photography courtesy of Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas.

ID: Have you tweaked anything because of COVID?

NJ: Yes, in Six Senses Place. Its 45,000 square feet include the spa, plus restaurant, bar, and rooftop spaces. It’s all very social. But now we’re looking at how to integrate a work environment, because that’s where I think the pandemic is really going to change things, how people work. We’re all hearing that no one will go to the office anymore. But we don’t believe the choices are only working at an office or working at home. We think it’s going to be a combination of both. So in addition to the wellness, dining, and cultural offerings, there will also be a workplace.

As for the rooftop, the developer assumed we would be installing a pool up there. But we won’t. I don’t want that vibe. It will be cool and energized but driven by nature. We’re planting an
organic garden—a touchpoint of our brand. It will be where people can dine surrounded by
a mini urban farm and restorative river views.

A Douro Valley suite, also designed by Clodagh. Photography courtesy of Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas.
A villa suite at Cambodia’s Six Senses Krabey Island designed by Dimensional Interpretation. Photography courtesy of Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas.
The outdoor cinema at Krabey Island. Photography courtesy of Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas.
The Thimphu Prayer Pavilion at Six Senses Bhutan by Habita Architects. Photography courtesy of Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas.
Bjarke Ingels Group’s XI, where Six Senses New York will be located when it opens in 2021. Photography courtesy of Six Senses New York.
Six Senses Douro Valley in Samodães, Portugal, the brand’s first European property. Photography courtesy of Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas.

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