It takes about 90 minutes for an eight-seater plane departing Suvarnabhumi International Airport to reach an airport on a small island in Trat province in eastern Thailand. Then all the guests of Soneva Kiri, a luxury resort operated by an award-winning sustainable resort operator, board a speedboat for the five-minute trip to their destination on the unspoiled island of Koh Kood.
On arrival, Jamie Waring accompanies his colleagues to greet all the guests. Dressed in white and in bare feet, he encourages the newcomers to do the same to simply relax while switching off the noise and stress of the world.
“Taking shoes off symbolises a simplicity and natural experience that for most brings back memories of childhood and more innocent times,” says the 52-year-old managing director of wellness development at Soneva Soul. “There are also tangible health benefits by allowing the energy through the nerve endings in the feet to flow by reconnecting with the earth.
“The act of walking barefoot is a key part of grounding or earthing that is physically connecting your body with the Earth. By being barefoot, the theory goes, you’re able to pick up and benefit from electrons from the ground. These benefits include improved sleep, reduced pain, and inflammation reduction,” he tells Asia Focus.
With nearly three decades of experience in the wellness and hospitality business in Asia and Europe, Mr Waring has taken a leading role in expanding the business of Soneva Soul, a new wellness brand that builds on Soneva’s experience at the forefront of the luxury hospitality and wellbeing industry over the last 27 years.
Combining thousands of years of ancient healing with modern science and medicine to reconnect mind, body and soul, Soneva Soul offers unique services in the ultimate healing environment, providing balance, innovative healing and health optimisation.
“At Soneva Soul we integrate health concepts, so much more than a spa,” he says. “At the moment, we have Soneva Soul in our own properties in the Maldives and Thailand. We also take this concept to very specific third-party hotels with just one or two a year. That’s the intention.”
Offering guests a personalised pathway to health, happiness and fulfilment, Soneva Soul is intended to encompass resort spas; movement, sleep, yoga and meditation programmes; wellness and lifestyle products; a global network of acclaimed wellness specialists; and innovative, regenerative and medical services.
“One of the few positive things about Covid is that people are thinking more and more about their health, rather immunity or strength,” Mr Waring observes. “Now they understand that you have to be responsible for your health. You can’t make it the doctor’s or the hospital’s responsibility.”
For example, something as basic as reducing reliance on mobile phones or social media can yield benefits to health, he notes. “This is a big problem now,” he notes, citing social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. “This is constant and it is everywhere. I have grown-up children who are kind of born into this. This is kind of dangerous, right?”
To make the adjustment, people have to understand what they can do to bring real benefits into their life, and that is how wellness comes into play.
“What things in my life can I change here, here or here that give me the biggest benefits? We want to live the best life. We want to contribute to family, friends and communities, but you can’t do that if you are sick. You can’t do that if you are stressed. And the wellness industry has all these things to help people make adjustments.”
Mr Waring says Soneva is now in the process of concluding agreements to establish Soneva Soul in iconic locations in Austria and India, with more details to emerge soon.
“The potential of the wellness industry in Asia is really huge,” he adds. “After Covid, everybody is looking at this. All the big hotel operators want to get into wellness.”
Wellness is already a US$4.3-trillion business globally, he says. “Asia is quite a big region and you have big markets like China and India. Certainly, Western countries like the US and Europe spend more on wellness than in Asia but Asia is populous with a growing middle class.
“China, for example … where there’s a growing middle class, growing wealth, people want to live the best life possible. This is hard to ignore. We have no immediate plan but I think we have a few ideas, maybe one of the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai in the future.”
A Sunset Ocean View pool suite at Soneva Kiri in Trat, and a “floating breakfast” viewed from on high. SUPPLIED
Originally from the northwest of England, Mr Waring started his career as a broker trading currencies in London’s financial district. “I became a broker by chance. It wasn’t really my intention. It was big money but wasn’t a happy experience for me,” he recalls.
“At the time, the whole dealing floor was very aggressive. It is mostly an unhappy life because it is basically high pressure with lots of drinking and other things. After about a year, I realised that it was not good for me. One morning, I had a moment of asking myself. ‘What am I doing here?’ So, I literally walked out of that job.”
Later he picked up a newspaper and saw an advertisement for a trainee for a luxury health club. “That’s always been my passion — exercise or movement. Then I went into a role as a trainee gym instructor and I loved it. I realised this is for me.”
The company he joined was small at the time but it developed very quickly. “I went from a gym instructor to manager of the company with a hundred clubs within five years. This whole thing took me to a different life,” he says.
The next step brought him to wellness when he joined a brand called Holmes Place. “They were a luxury health club with a broad holistic concept comprising gyms, spas, food and beverage.
“Straight away, I saw that my career was really into, without realising it, wellness. And it was right for me. That was what I supposed to do.”
Around the same time, Mr Waring realised that his family, with three children, wanted to travel and work abroad. “I was also keen to leave London. London is a great place to visit as a tourist. I lived there and it was enough,” he says.
“I found Six Senses and was fortunate enough that I was offered a job as managing director of Six Senses Spas. So, I came to Bangkok in 2004.”
Thailand is where Mr Waring started his career abroad. Six Senses Resorts & Spas was founded by the Indian-British hotelier Sonu Shivdasani, who is also the founder and CEO of Soneva. With locations throughout Southeast Asia and Europe, Six Senses was sold in 2012, as part of the philosophy of Mr Shivdasani and his wife Eva — “One Owner, One Operator, One Philosophy”.
Mr Waring worked at Six Senses for five years. After that he went to Bali and joined a consultancy that has projects all over the world focusing on spas and wellness. Later, he returned to Europe as CEO of Holmes Place Eastern Europe for another five years. Then he went on to Octave Institute, based in Suzhou, China, which has multiple businesses including Sangha Retreat, a $500-million integrated health retreat project.
In May 2021, he moved to Koh Kood after joining Soneva as managing director for wellness development. “I think in the future I will be based in Bangkok, spending my time here and in the Maldives, and then globally looking at other projects Soneva is doing.”
A Sunset Ocean View pool suite at Soneva Kiri in Trat, and a “floating breakfast” viewed from on high. SUPPLIED
When he looks back, Mr Waring finds that making a major shift in his personal life to discover a better way to live has inspired him to help people along the way.
As people take a step back, they realise what is truly important in their lives, and that is to spend quality time with friends, family and loved ones, he says.
These days everyone talks about work-life balance but Mr Waring believes many people have the wrong perspective of what it really means.
“I think people have a misconception about work-life balance,” he stresses. “For some people, work-life balance means I work eight hours a day. I eat my dinner at 5.30 or 6pm. That is like a very structured, calendar-like event. But I think it’s incorrect. That’s unrealistic.
“For me, work-life balance means one day I have all this work and time pressure. I may work 16 hours on a big day. Balance is that you redress it. The next day or the next week, I take some time for myself. I find it’s more like dynamic balance. It’s not a fixed balance,” he explains.
He elaborates that the way people live now is dynamic and it flows, making it very difficult to have a very regimented, fixed balance. “Another thing is that life is more integrated. When people work from home because of Covid, nobody has a boundary between my work life, my home life, my relationships and my hobbies. Now they’re all mixed together.”
Nonetheless, he says it’s fine if people can find what they need for their balance, regardless of where or how they find it.
“You can be at home. But then you have to find a way, maybe you take calls for two to three hours. Then you need to jump out and have some relaxation, meditate, have some nice food, go to the gym, come back. That’s a kind of balance, fine. You are not going to sit behind your computer all the time.
“The problem is when you work at home — I do it as well,” he says, smiling. “You wake up, take a shower, go to the computer, and then — Oh my God, it’s been eight hours, and I’m so hungry.”
What is happening highlights the importance of wellness, says Mr Waring. “Nobody will do it for you. … You have to find the way. Wellness is how you find the balance for what you need and make sure that within your day, you touch things that you need to touch for your own personal basis.”
Away from work, Mr Waring dedicates his time to exercise, which he calls his hobby, and reading.
“My meditation is mostly exercise in the morning,” he acknowledges. “My routine is that I usually wake up at six to exercise between 6.30 and 7am most days. To me, this has been one of the most powerful things for my sense of wellbeing. It’s discipline.
“I find that when I have difficult times at work or am stressed, if I’m exercising, I’m balanced. Of course, there are physical benefits to exercise but for me, it’s more. That’s why I said it’s my meditation because it calms my mind.”
He also enjoys watching all kinds of sports, including football — Liverpool is his favourite team.
When asked about the books he reads, Mr Waring says he likes deep subjects. “I don’t really read fiction. I normally read harder books or western philosophy. That’s what I like to read.”
In recent years, he discovered that audio books really suit his busy schedule. “Of course, when you read a book, you need to find time to read. With audio books, you can listen to when you walk around or exercise, meaning you get a lot more material.
His favourite book is Perfect Brilliant Stillness, an intimate account of spontaneous spiritual enlightenment by David Carse. “If I could pick one book, and you’re stuck on a desert island and you have one book it would be Perfect Brilliant Stillness.
“I’ve read it four times already. It is a very profound, insightful spiritual book. When it comes to spirituality, this is a very clear book. It’s quite a big book but so meaningful to me.”
Mr Waring also loves travelling and most of his trips are with his family which includes his Australian wife, three grown children and a five-year-old daughter.
“Living this life, we are very fortunate that I can take my family to amazing locations — sometimes when I’m working. For example, when I go to the Maldives for meetings, I take my family with me.
“We are very privileged and spoiled,” he says, laughing, because “we do travel a lot”.
When Mr Waring sat down for a casual interview with Asia Focus, he had just returned from a one-week ski holiday at Chamonix in France.
Now that he’s based at Soneva Kiri, which is nestled in the jungle on the hillside with some nearby beaches, he finds himself really fitting into the surrounding environment. “Are you a beach or a mountain person?” we ask. “Both,” he replies with a glimpse of happiness. “Here is really the place for me.”