Mention the Bangkok-based hotel brand Six Senses, and anyone familiar with it will probably think of a resort on a tropical beach, with luxurious villas, an expansive spa and a much-vaunted commitment to sustainability. Laudably, for instance, it has no truck with imported water or single-use plastic packaging. Design tends to be low-key, at one with nature; furnishings use organic textiles and, where possible, recycled wood.
So it’s a surprise to find that its latest hotel, the 14th, is not on a sandy beach but in central Singapore, and has been designed by Anouska Hempel, not notably a doyenne of understatement, as a glamorous essay in black lacquer, golden silk, yellow ceramics and a staggering abundance of cushions. It has no massage therapists, no treatment rooms, no pool, not even a gym. Instead there are suggested jogging routes (though pavements hereabouts are narrow and crowded); twice-weekly yoga classes; and an on-site practitioner of Chinese traditional medicine.
Its location on Duxton Road, directly south of Chinatown in Tanjong Pagar (“once a veritable sewer of brothels and opium dens,” warns the current Rough Guide, but fast regenerating), is uncompromisingly urban. Directly opposite stands a 7-Eleven and the JJ Atlante pub and music venue (if you’re a light sleeper, ask for a room at the back). But like Aman Resorts, which since 2014 has opened in Tokyo and Shanghai, Six Senses has been looking to diversify into major cities. Two years ago it announced Six Senses New York, due for completion next year in The XI, the twisting towers under construction on 11th Avenue, would be its first urban hotel. But then at an elephant polo match in Thailand last year, Omar Romero, the group’s vice-president in charge of development, happened to meet Satinder Garcha, owner of the building that would become the new Six Senses Duxton. “Omar gave me the whole spiel,” Garcha tells me. “And I liked him.” Last winter a management deal was struck.
In many ways this kind of impulsiveness defines Garcha’s remarkable career to date. Born in India and educated in Texas, where he graduated in computer science, he set up People.com when he was 24, to help companies in Silicon Valley recruit engineering staff from India. Five years later, in 2000, he sold it for what he will quantify only as “decent money. I mean really decent money. But it wasn’t Facebook.” (Forbes reported the figure as “twice its $55 million top line”.) “It was kind of a scary thing,” he continues. “I was 29, and it’s hard to retire at 30.”
While he figured out his next move, he decided to learn to play polo. “So I went to Argentina and started from scratch and just trained, trained, trained.” Meanwhile he had also become a citizen of Singapore (and by 2007, captain of its national polo team), where he set up a residential property company, Elevation Development.
Six Senses Duxton is a terrace of eight former shophouses built around 1900 in the distinctively Singaporean style known as Chinese Baroque (though their decorative elements have been subdued, at Hempel’s insistence, by a coat of black paint). Turned into a hotel in the 1990s, it had opened as L’Aigle d’Or and later been called the Berjaya, named after the Malaysian conglomerate that owned it. “And then one day [in 2013] I was playing polo,” Garcha continues, “when I got a call from a real-estate agent . . . ” He told Garcha the hotel building had come up for sale and been sold the same day, but that the buyer was prepared to “flip it for S$2m in cash. I said: ‘I don’t know anything about hotels. And S$2m over and above what he paid?’ But I went to the damn bank to get my name put on the option.” It was an impulse buy, then. “Most things in life are,” he shrugs.
Three months later he took possession. The hotel was full, but only four members of staff remained. “So [my wife] Harpreet and I were literally checking people in and carrying their suitcases. I had to learn the whole business from scratch. It was a deep dive.”
This may explain why, having spent five years and “a lot” of money — “I don’t want to share that number, but it is more than it will ever pay me back”, not to mention, he claims, the most per sq foot ever spent on a hotel in Singapore — he has signed a management contract with Six Senses.
Initially he had an agreement with Starwood, under which the hotel would have been marketed as part of its Luxury Collection. But Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood in 2016, creating what is now the world’s largest hotel company, with 6,400 properties and more than 1.2m rooms under management, troubled him. “Marriott is a mega-company. I felt it was becoming almost industrialised. There was a clause that allowed me to get out if a merger happened, and I chose to.” It occurred to him “to do it ourselves”. And then, by chance, he met Romero. So which Six Senses had he stayed at, I ask. “None,” he replies. “My due diligence sucks. I’ve got the worst due diligence in history.” And which since the deal was sealed? “I’ve still never been to a Six Senses. But I know what the brand is about.”
His confidence in it is such that “I’ve signed my life away”, he laughs. “Seriously. You put in all this effort, do all this work. And then the day you sign, it’s over. They run the show. I’m just a guest. The way management contracts work, they put zero in, no cash, but they take a cut of the revenue.” So what is the split? “I cannot disclose it. I’m under very strict confidentiality. But that’s how it works. These companies are insulated if things are bad.”
But he has the asset, the bricks and mortar. “Yes,” he concurs. “But it’s been super-expensive. To renovate heritage buildings is 10 times more complicated than just to build a new-build,” he continues. “Though I can safely say there’ll never be another heritage-building hotel in the central district.” A subsequent change in planning legislation means that a second Garcha-owned, Six Senses-managed hotel, 300 metres away on Maxwell Road, will be the last historic structure to be granted change of use. Previously used as offices, Six Senses Maxwell is due to open in the autumn, after which the two hotels will be marketed as a single property, Six Senses Singapore (with guests at Duxton Road able to use the spa and pool at the newer property).
I hope they succeed. Tanjong Pagar is a lively, fast-developing part of town, full of independent shops and restaurants, and the atmosphere within the hotel is clubbable and informal, the staff friendly and infinitely helpful. I loved the inexpensive, unpretentious Chinese cooking in its Yellow Pot restaurant, especially the thickened yet translucent hot and sour chicken soup, filled with enoki and wood ear mushrooms.
I stayed in two room categories, a Pearl Suite, essentially a rerun of the myriad-shades-of-white decor the designer perfected in the late 1990s at the now-closed Hempel hotel in London; and a cosier though rather dark and over-furnished Opium Suite, more redolent of Blakes, the hotel with which she made her name in 1978, stylish, certainly, but with nowhere comfortable to sit and a ceiling barely, I’d estimate, 1.8 metres high as you enter the sleeping alcove.
I found its name perplexing both in the light of Singapore’s hardline attitude to narcotics (when you arrive in the country, your landing card is printed with “Death for Drug Traffickers”), and its grim history of opium addiction. It’s no more shorthand for chic than crack. It’s especially odd in light of Six Senses’ otherwise holier-than-thou, if clearly admirable, attitude to wholesomeness and the environment. Garcha had wanted a cigar lounge, but Six Senses takes a dim view of smoking, so that room is now a library. The Nespresso machines he’d bought for each of its 49 rooms will soon, I was assured, be replaced with a less environmentally hostile means of making coffee. (They also pointedly don’t provide sugar.) And the London taxi it uses for airport transfers will be retrofitted with a greener engine as soon as practicable.
On their first night, guests will find an organic cotton tote laid on their bed along with a reminder “to refuse the use of plastics”. Inside, among other gifts, is a “therapeutic” colouring card and pencils, medicated nutmeg oil “to soothe pains” and a copy of Six Senses Little Book of Wellness, a platitudinous volume for use as an “exercise log” and “worry journal” full of rhyming health advice like “halt if you taste salt”.
Six Senses seems keen to remind you of your faults and frailties, a slightly jarring note. For the fantastical decor, the extravagantly stocked minibars, the buzzy restaurant and bar, the sheer opulence all suggest its owner has conceived this as a place of fun, of temptations to revel in and enjoy.
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