Put aside what you may have read in press releases and previous interviews.
Based on almost every piece written about Neil Jacobs, his persona as a multilingual traveller who’s lived on almost every continent and been in the hospitality industry for more than three decades is well documented.
Been there done that. And Jacobs has.
But what is really behind the man who has run the largest hotel names in the industry?
Who is Mr Jacobs? What makes him function? What makes him not?
Sunday Sessions this week reveals THE Neil Jacobs, CEO of Six Senses.
I grew up in a north London suburb and life followed a normal trajectory until my father passed away when I was 11. We had little money but my free-spirited mother was young, dynamic and creative – more a friend than a parent who instilled in my sister and I a drive and belief that everything was achievable. We learnt to appreciate all things exotic, unusual and unconventional. Till today, this has served us well.
Educated at a progressive British public school with incredible arts programmes, I majored in English and modern languages. This was followed by studying French civilisation in Paris before time spent in Florence learning the Italian language and culture, topped off with history of art classes at the Uffizi Gallery.
Paris, to me, is still the most beautiful city in the world (with the chicest most interesting-looking opposite sex … important at that time in my life), while Florence for its art history and the influence of the Medici’s can’t get any better. The Florentines are unique and still believe Firenze is the capital of Italy. Nothing will ever change that.
Precociously multi-lingual (I speak German too), it didn’t take long to realise that with languages and a love of literature alone, I had no chance of making a living. So, with a growing wanderlust and an ability to communicate, a light turned on and I realised that I ought to be in the hotel business.
There was no yearning for the business or bubbling passion or family influence; just the notion that in the hotel industry, I could travel the world, enrich my life in foreign parts, use my languages and meet very cool people.
The passion came soon after, fuelled by the energy of industry attachments, restaurant and night club gigs to pay the bills, the adrenalin of a busy hotel and restaurant operation and an awakening to the world of “Food and Beverage”.
I remember vividly right at the beginning, several months in the kitchens of the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, the largest banqueting operation in Europe that taught me resilience, how to coexist with screaming, funny and wicked crazy chefs who, when they liked you, would teach and defend you. And if they didn’t, would make life hell on earth.
I learned about volume – afternoon tea sandwiches for 2000, 50kg of hamburger, scaling and trimming 250 Dover sole in an afternoon and making full English breakfasts for the morning chef brigade of 50 on my second day on the job! Not fine food just yet, but kitchen baptism by fire, respect for the complexity of the craft and a growing love for the people with whom I’d spend my career.
Career stints in restaurants and kitchens in London and Paris; some excellent, some shameful. An almost graduation and my first real job on the island of Madeira at the Holiday Inn. After 6 months there, I knew for sure I wanted to be in the high-end sector of the industry, become a great Food and Beverage Director, eventually become a hotel General Manager and that was as far as it went.
The pinnacle. I was on my way.
From Sardinia to Sri Lanka and London to Seychelles, I climbed the hospitality ladder to the top rung, over a span of less than a decade.
Early on, I learned that it was all, and pretty much only, about the people – how to lead, motivate, inspire, care for. How to create teams and culture. How to identify intention and find a clarity of purpose. How to create memories for guests and staff. And finally, how to make the business profitable for all its stakeholders.
The work was, and is, hard but the satisfaction that comes with success – especially in playing a part in developing people to their full potential – is hugely rewarding to this day. And for me personally, the exposure to the different cultures, in a meaningful way, is pure joy.
After living, working and playing in the Mediterranean, South Asia, Europe and Africa, and falling in love with all the cultures, colours and people, I felt it was time for a new continent. I moved west, starting in the Caribbean.
Having already reached the top of the hotel hierarchy, Barbados offered me the opportunity of my first real opening. Creating something from the ground up, and working in the Caribbean for the first time, made me understand the joy and pace of the islands, the lilt of the patois, and the impact of the music.
After two years, I relocated to Caracas for a brief stint at the Sheraton. Brief because I detested it. The timing was all wrong with the peak of the oil boom, a run-down hotel and guests who were brash, arrogant & argumentative. I was falsely accused of attacking a government official and spent a week in a cell, where I became acquainted with a convicted murderer who gave me tips on survival behind bars. Upon release, I stayed for only 4 days more before leaving the country. Needless to say, it’s not top of my list for travel destinations and have only gone back once after 15 years, with trepidation.
Colorado was my next stop and the beginning of my love affair, and ultimate marriage, to the United States of America. The Land of Opportunity offered endless possibilities and a lack of hierarchy and class status – all of which still exists in Europe. Freedom of speech, the energy of its people and the Rockies as a backdrop, Boulder’s environment, landscape, air and community had me infatuated. It was certainly a great introduction to the American Dream.
Los Angeles was my next stop – perfect weather, creativity, spirituality. Oozing art, fun and style, the City of Angels isn’t all superficial. Especially when you don’t involve yourself in it. I was loving life. And it was the first time I was working for myself – which was extremely liberating. I fell in love, got my heartbroken, met my wife and gained two children (from her first marriage), enjoyed the scene for five years and survived the 90s recession.
Four Seasons came along just when I needed it most. The family uprooted and we flew over eight thousand miles to find ourselves in Bali, Indonesia. Needless to say, the two are worlds apart and it took some adjusting on the family’s part.
Regardless of its “modernization” Bali remains one of the most unique destinations in the world. There is no culture like it. It started in California I guess, but it was in Bali that I became fascinated with other worldly pursuits.
I started to find my own kind of Buddhist belief set stirred up with the Balinese version of Hinduism, a study of karmic energy, compassion and the belief that if I did some good this time on earth I may avoid returning as a cockroach next time around. It was also in Bali that I started to dabble in the world of spa and wellness, studying voraciously Asian modalities and the healing arts, immersing myself in Indonesian healing rituals, Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine and more and knowing intuitively that this was not just about body treatments and a great facial but an industry that was in its infancy but building huge momentum. It was more than 20 years ago but I was really right about that.
I moved to Singapore under duress.
I didn’t want to be there, didn’t love the politics, didn’t want to wear a suit, didn’t want to drive the company Mercedes, just didn’t, didn’t, didn’t.
But I did. And although the parts I didn’t like were real, there was so much that was and is great about Singapore – a place that today I enjoy, contribute to and consider home.
Arriving in the late 90’s, the region was on fire. At Four Seasons, we only had a handful of hotels and it was the right time to drive the brand forward. We opened up China, built in Hong Kong, expanded in Thailand, Malaysia and further in Indonesia.
We went to the Indian Ocean with Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles properties, and perhaps the most difficult assignment of my career to date …we opened in Mumbai!!!! With so many years in the industry your think you’ve seen it all and nothing can throw you for a loop. Well …….. then there’s India. I thought China was difficult but no contest.
You’re disarmed by the fact that everyone speaks English and that it’s a “democracy” and think it must be straight forward. Think again. Actually I love India – the colour, the people, the craziness of every day there, the food and ingenuity that exists around survival for many, the extraordinary depth and complexity of the country. How can you not love it? Just don’t want to build hotels there.
And it was in Singapore that I went down the road of increased self-awareness. A type of group coaching if you like, that’s all about increased consciousness and through that, providing technique for behavioural change that will in turn liberate and improve life quality. It’s worthy of its own Sunday conversation but it works.
And I met an amazing Singaporean lady there who was my teacher and guide and who later through sheer persistence became my life partner and behaviour monitor. I’m so grateful for her presence in my life.
And then we sold Four Seasons to Bill Gates and Prince Al Waleed from Saudi and a year later decided that if I was going to do something else in my life it was the time. I’d always wanted to live in New York and try my hand at private equity so that’s what I did.
New York has so much energy, drive and wonderful expressive bold people! Creating two new hotel brands – Baccarat Hotel (the crystal company) and 1 Hotels, a cool and fun eco brand. And then Lehman brothers imploded and financially the world went pear shaped. Fascinating times of great learning for me.
And then there was Six Senses.
The opportunity presented itself to be part of a group that wanted to acquire Six Senses, a Bangkok-based hotel, resort and spa company. We closed on the transaction mid 2012 and I moved back to Asia the end of that year as CEO of the company. Here was a vehicle that resonated.
We saw the potential to acquire an existing operating group and reengineer it into a hotel company that could do some good. It was born on a platform of real sustainability but could do more. Not only around the built environment but in its community outreach. It had a robust spa business and we saw the potential to escalate that meaningfully into the world of wellness and health.
It was known for special locations and we had many more in the pipeline. It had good people and many more wanted to join, fed up with corporate life, wanting to be more creative and entrepreneurial and aligned with our values.
In short, Six Senses had the potential to represent the new kind of upscale experience, with learning attached, respect for environment and local communities, providing honest and deeply researched wellness, interesting content in remarkable places and the ability to have people leave us in a better place than when they arrived.
We’ve had great success in 4.5 years with openings in China, Portugal, France and Seychelles and in the next 12 months, Cambodia, Fiji, Bhutan and Bali. New York is under construction and deals are signed in Central and South America, the Caribbean and various other spots in Europe and China.
This is not about hotel after hotel or growth for growth. For sure we need to be profitable otherwise it’s not sustainable. But that’s not the sole motivation.
It is about creating something that has great purpose, that is enriching for those who work at Six Senses and those who visit as our guests. Put simply our Mission is to “reconnect people to themselves, others and the world around them”.
And without sounding manic or religious or anything, our goal is to change people’s lives for the better – however we can. Our product resonates. People want something different. And I’m just blessed to work with incredibly aligned people who want the same thing.