Interview: Bernhard Bohnenberger

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Is the trade important to you?
Tour operator and agent relationships have always been important and still are vital. But our direct bookings are increasing. The booking window has reduced so much and people are buying at the last minute more and more.

Do shorter lead-in times make life harder for you?
Planning is harder for us but the patterns are still there. There is still a clear high season and low season. Different markets are very different but we have always been global with our marketing with no focus on one place. So we have a very international crowd and, alongside our local team, we have a multicultural group of hosts.

Is the UK an important market?
The UK is our biggest market and always has been. The UK is followed by other European countries as the fun and quirky concept seems to really appeal. We broke the mould that said luxury had to be stuffy and the guests we attract don’t want that. They have it every day and the last thing they want is to dress up while on holiday.

What do these luxury guests want?
The approach of not taking luxury seriously has always appealed in the UK. In more sophisticated markets with people who have travelled a lot and seen it all, they really appreciate being taken out of the day to day and ordinary. Everybody wants a bit of an adventure and a lot of people want to behave like a bit of a child on holiday. And they don’t want dress codes. Our guest also don’t want imported food as they can get it in London, New York or wherever they live so very early on we put vegetable gardens in all our resorts. Now have a chicken farm in Yao Noi, Thailand. It’s a happy chicken farm because they are not for meat but for the eggs. We built a compound with 300 chickens next to the resort and we are trying to build it up. One-third of it is covered with nice straw boxes and outside is a large garden and jungle gym with ladders and swings and they do use it.
We also play music to them during the day and they seem to enjoy it.

Do guests like the chickens?
They really do, especially the kids but also the adults love them too. There is a basket in every villa and guests can meet the chickens and find the eggs. There they see that eggs come in different shapes and sizes, unlike in the supermarket. That kind of twist and humour appeals to the British and Europeans.

Half a percent of revenue goes on sustainability projects. What does the money get spent on?
Initially it went to things such as equipment for a local hospital and schools. Now it has developed to include scholarships, which anyone local can apply for. And this year, we are going to be giving grants to anybody who has an amazing idea; we will choose the best, give them the money and monitor how it is spent. We want it to be something sustainable and long term that brings in income. These initiatives make the hosts passionate and bonds them with the local community, and guests love them. We also create our own bottled water and bottles, and have banned imported water and plastic bottles. It is the same price as local water and half the revenue goes to water charities.

I hear you do something unusual with the water?|
Yes, we play music to the water. We treat the water well, based on the teachings of a Japanese professor, who has proven that the way in which you treat water impacts upon it. If you treat water badly, by hitting the bottle for example, the crystals are ugly and disjointed when you freeze it. But water that has heard Mozart looks beautiful and ordered when frozen.

Do you have any new projects on the horizon?
We are talking seriously about projects in the Alps. We are very interested and pursuing it but it’s not confirmed yet. But the response from Portugal was fabulous and the opening [of Six Senses Douro Valley] really encouraged us to do more in Europe and we have been in discussions in Italy, Austria and Switzerland. It has to be an amazing site and it has to be the right owner. We like to be heavily involved in the concept from the very beginning and guide the design. We have our own design team but want to be involved even if third-party designers are used because our marketing starts there. The design, the sustainability, the materials and creating fun quirky concepts are crucial. We are opening [new hotels] in the Seychelles and Bhutan soon.

What advice would you give to agents?
Don’t sell rooms, sell experiences. We can work with agents on making sure that the content is there. A room can be booked online, people don’t need help to do that. If agents put together a meaningful itinerary then it becomes very relevant that you have professionals. If you sell a really memorable experience, they will come back raving about it and that will create loyal customers.