Neil Jacobs

[dropcap size=small]M[/dropcap]r Neil Jacobs looks surprisingly well-rested for a man who spends most of his time on the road.

The chief executive of the luxury Six Senses chain of resort hotels spends 70 per cent of his time travelling for work, going between different properties and cities for meetings and site visits. But the remainder of his time is spent relaxing and invested in wellness, which, he says, is what keeps him grounded and gives his life balance.

The affable 67-year-old quips that his relaxed demeanour is thanks to a week spent at a wellness retreat in Austria before heading back to Singapore last Monday. He spent days eating healthily, omitting alcohol and getting in 10km walks around the scenic countryside.

“When I get time off, I try and go on a wellness retreat or focus my energy on alternative and traditional medicine such as Indian ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine.”

It is evident that he is a man who walks the talk.

“How we interact with the community is important when it comes to building a business with sustainability in mind. Our commitment is towards developing our people – we hire local where possible and we allocate half a per cent of our revenue to at-large community projects. We call this our Social Responsibility Fund and commit to that money remaining local.”

– Mr Neil Jacobs on the importance of respecting and engaging with the communities in which the Six Senses brand operates.

Known for its eco-friendly sensibilities and properties in far-flung destinations, Six Senses was started more than 20 years ago by Indian-British hotelier Sonu Shivdasani, but was bought over by private equity firm Pegasus Capital in 2012.

Mr Jacobs, who has more than 30 years of experience in the hospitality industry and also owns a small stake in the company, came on board as chief executive as part of the acquisition.

When he took over the business in 2012, the brand was known for its organic and rustic resorts and had 11 properties in mainly secluded areas such as Con Dao island in Vietnam.

Since then, it has revamped and now has 15 properties, with more than 50 projects in the pipeline. This year alone, hotels will be opening in Bhutan, Bali and Cambodia.

The company is based in Bangkok and also has an office in London, but Mr Jacobs works out of Singapore, where he lives with Sandra, his Singaporean partner of 12 years.

He first moved to Singapore in 1998 when he took on a role with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts as senior vice-president of operations for Asia Pacific and ended up staying for 14 years.

And though he did leave for New York for a short stint after, he says he was happy to move back to Singapore when he got the opportunity to head Six Senses.

The brand’s Singapore hotel, which opened last month with another Six Senses Maxwell opening in the third quarter of this year, marks its first foray into a city hotel – a move it plans to continue by opening in cities such as New York, where its hotel is slated to open by the end of next year.

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“When we acquired the brand in 2012, we knew we had to make changes moving forward, including taking it from being a South-east Asian brand onto a more global platform. Part of that move was to have more urban executions for the Six Senses brand, which gave us presence in key cities that offered a leisure component,” says Mr Jacobs.

Besides venturing into cosmopolitan areas, he also saw the importance of evolving the look of the hotels to become more design-centric.

Compared with the rustic vibe of the brand before the acquisition, the new properties are much more design-focused to cater to the expectations of customers who pay more than US$1,000 (S$1,340) a night at some of them.

In Singapore, the brand brought on board renowned British interior designer Anouska Hempel to design the Duxton property. Alongside their Maxwell property, the two will collectively operate as Six Senses Singapore. Both properties are located in heritage shophouses owned by local real-estate developer Satinder Garcha.

“Opting to operate within conservation properties ties back to our commitment to sustainability,” Mr Jacobs says. “Instead of building a brand-new hotel in a built-up city like Singapore, we saw potential to re-engineer an existing space and re-imagine how it can be used.”

For him, the Six Senses brand’s drive towards sustainable practices is something he is very invested in.

“For many hotels, trying to be sustainable means putting up a card to remind you not to put your towels on the floor if you want to use them again the next day. But we need to do more,” he says. “It’s not easy. You often need to sacrifice some of your revenue to do things with the distant future in mind. But it is important and the consumer is also becoming more aware. Today, sustainability and wellness go hand-in-hand.”

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For the father of two, it is his experience in the hospitality industry that has clued him in to the demands and desires of the luxury travel consumer. His son Kieran heads development for the Hilton chain in Southeast Asia and his daughter Talana recently left a job doing marketing, sales and operations for boutique luxury hotel Chiltern Firehouse Hotel in London to start her own media and marketing agency.

While Mr Jacobs was with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, he was responsible for the operations of 16 hotels in the Asia-Pacific region.

Besides managing hotels in places such as London, Rome, Sardinia, Paris, Sri Lanka, Bali, Barbados and Los Angeles over his long career, he has also dabbled in hotel property development as well as private equity, where he helped broker deals within the industry.

Having this 360-degree understanding of the hospitality world is what has helped him home in on the needs of today’s traveller.

“Luxury, to me, is all about subtlety and experience – offering our guests a chance to interact with the community around them in a way that feels genuine and authentic,” he says.

“Our role is to make a difference in people’s lives where they feel rested and rejuvenated and leave with an expanded world view.”

It was this same passion to learn more and see the world that inspired his own foray into the world of hotels. He says growing up in London in the vibrant 1950s fuelled his youthful curiosity, sparking a desire to learn new languages and shun the trappings of a “conventional” life. He is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian and Bahasa Indonesia.

The hotel industry became his avenue to see the world and expand his love of language.

Today, he counts people like Mr Adrian Zecha – the Indonesian founder of Aman Resorts – as both inspiration and competition.

“There are few hotel lines that trade in our kind of world. I consider brands like Aman, Rosewood and Auberge both inspiration and competition to us. But I’m very proud that Six Senses has really created a niche for itself and pushed forward in the areas of wellness and sustainability, which is part of our DNA today.”

Mr Murray Aitken, 48, general manager of Six Senses Singapore, says it is sometimes easy to forget that Mr Jacobs is their boss.

“He is so inclusive and down to earth that he never comes across as a boss per say – someone who we would hesitate to approach,” he says. “He’s more like our guide, really someone who includes us in discussions and is an example to follow because he truly lives and breathes the ethos of the brand.”

And, indeed, for Mr Jacobs, it is the innovation of growing a brand that continues to inspire his work, three decades on.

He is quick to dismiss any notions of retirement. “When you work in this industry, you work with people and experience a slice of their life. That adrenaline of not knowing what is going to happen that day is what keeps me going.

“Plus, there is so much more we can do and so much more opportunity for us to grow and get better – so why stop now?”

This story was originally published in The Straits Times.

Photo: ST / SPH