John Spence, Chairman and Founder, Karma Group is a renowned name and an inspirational story in the hospitality sector and why not? He deserves it to the last word. Karma Group is no less than a hit album where each and every property curated by John is a massive success.
- Your transition from a music agent to one of the most successful hoteliers is nothing short of a motivation story. It is certainly rare; we definitely want to know what drove you towards the hospitality sector? Was it your passion or the commercialized opportunity that you saw coming in 1993?
My early life was quite interesting; I thought I was the best guitarist in the world. I swiftly learned, I was the worst guitarist in the world. This was back in 1980 in London when you had to be pretty bad to be deemed a bad guitarist. So, I drifted onto the business side and became a tour manager. A total twist of fate was when I came to Goa in the 90s, it was like a light switch that went on and I fell in love with it. I thought it was an amazing place with great beaches, people and food. I noticed the emerging Indian middle class, that wanted to holiday in Goa and in a western way. And I saw international tourists wanting to come to India and specifically Goa for the winter sun, which is a lot cheaper than them going to Seychelles on Christmas or the Caribbean. So I did a bit of a gamble and got my first piece of land. I tried to persuade the company I was working for to back me and they refused. They thought I was crazy and that India was just poor. And so, I gambled everything and sold the flat and car in London, persuaded a few brave colleagues to come with me. And in 1993, we opened our first resort, which was vastly underfunded on the beach of Goa.
- Selling all your assets to start a venture in the sector you hardly had any experience of, to celebrating the 28th anniversary of Karma Group. Think of the old times, what do you feel in your gut about the life-changing decisions that you’ve made?
It’s a bit of ‘nothing ventured – nothing gained’ and no matter what you do, you need to be passionate about it, any new project, any venture and give it your full attention and energy. There are no shortcuts really, and hard work combined with some vision and of course good luck, are very important ingredients for anything one reaches out to accomplish in life.
And yes, whilst I started out in the music and entertainment industry, I look at the resorts and the Karma Group and the work we do, with similar eyes. People look for entertainment. Travelling, providing a good time, comfort, good food, a lifestyle and a great atmosphere is another form of entertainment. We really address all age groups to provide entertainment and see members also enjoying our facilities, maybe early on with more kids-friendly facilities and later upgrade into a higher category of membership for larger rooms, suites, or villas.
And back to your question, I think I have been very lucky, it has worked out really well and ups and downs, unexpected challenges and amazing opportunities go hand in hand and shape us as a company, the team and of course myself. And there is much more to come, with a long list of intriguing destinations and great places to develop and add to our portfolio. With a growing number of members, we as a group also need to provide more options and resorts.
I love what I do and despite long hours and much travelling, I am really lucky and it doesn’t feel like hard work.
- How do you describe your connection with India since you started here?
We started life in Goa, I began twenty-seven years ago, we were ship-wrecked on the beach. And we opened up in Goa and it’s been an amazing location for us. And we see huge further potential there, absolutely huge. I have a new piece of land that we recently got planning approval on and we’ll be developing that as a resort when the pandemic storm passes. It’ll be another sixty-unit resort in South Goa. We’re currently looking at other assets in Goa. And I think Goa has tremendous potential. It combines a very strong appeal to the Indian consumer who wants to go there and it also has a huge appeal for the international consumer. And I sometimes say it’s slightly India lite for the first person to come to India, who hasn’t been there before. It’s a place to experience India without maybe the crowds and the hustle and bustle. For a European, it has obviously a strong European feel because of the Portuguese heritage and influence. And I think that also rebounds and works for the Indian consumer that can get a feel of Europe and the international market without leaving India. So, Goa’s great and Goa will continue to be a strong place for us.But, we’re very focused on developing outside Goa. You must have noticed, over the last few years, we’ve consistently opened resorts outside. During the pandemic alone, we developed in the Nandi Hills, near Bangalore; in Udaipur, our newest resort; and we’ll soon be leasing down in Coorg. You combine that with our resorts in Corbett and Dharamshala and Kerala and Jaipur. So, we certainly have a view to open up all over India. Strategy is quite clear though: we want to open up in destinations which are both attractive to the Indian market as in our Indian owners and Indian consumers want to go there, but we also want to be in places which have an international appeal, so that we can promote this to our Australian owners or British owners or Indonesian. And we’re calling our point of view that people can come from outside. One of the great things about India is that it has a multitude of great locations and opportunities. So, our plan is to grow, we are looking at 4-5 new resorts a year. We hope at the end of the day to have a minimum of 30 resorts in India and all over the subcontinent. Interestingly, we have a piece of land in the south of Sri Lanka, we are very keen and looking at place that are near the Himalayas and elsewhere in that region. And I think, in the next few years, Indians will travel a lot more and from an international perspective, it becomes immensely popular and exciting. “
4.Tell us your personal favourite Karma property in India and outside India?
Karma Kandara is hard to look past. It’s one of the most magnificent pieces of land in the south of Bali, near Uluwatu. I bought the land when everyone said I was mad to. Since then it has become like a billionaire’s row as a lot of hotel companies are in that strip. We got a beach club, Karma Beach which is fantastic with fantastic DJs. We’ve got this cable car lift, and we have a spa perched on the side of the cliff with it’s spa pool where you have this infrared sonar and you sit in this beautiful bubbly jacuzzi pool with Himalayan pink salt whilst you look at the sun setting over the sea and the DJ sounds drifting up from the beach. Kandara is an amazing resort which won ‘The best resort in Asia’ many times. Elsewhere, I’d have to say Preverger, in the south of France. I was very lucky to buy the chateau. It used to belong to Jeanne Moreau, the famous film actress in France and then, Laura Ashley, the famous interior designer. And through a twist of fate, I ended up buying it by a very strange set of coincidence. We’ve renovated it with Nicky Haslem, who is a world famous interior designer, used to work with a royal family and we brought it to amazing standard. It’s eighteen bedrooms, it sits on 200 acres of land. It’s got a thousand olive trees, it’s got a vineyard. It’s very self-sustainable. The furniture is magnificent. Over the years, Princess Diana stayed there. Many years ago, we had other members of the Royal family. Many celebrities have had events there. And it really is one in a million. I believe this Patek Philippe was used before by Jeanne Moreau and she certainly said she did that with a property like this, you don’t own it, you make it cursive for the next generations. So, I do love that. Elsewhere, what do I pick, I mean there are so many. Karma Bavaria is magnificent, in the Alps, in the south of Munich. I love Mykonos, and the Greek islands; Borgo di Colleoli, in Tuscany, which is a beautiful city, near the Tuscan hills, near Pisa, near Florence.”
- In your opinion, how influencing is the regional factor, giving a local feel based on the region’s taste, preference and culture?
I think that it is very important to provide a strong sense of place in each resort. We are taking that very seriously and manage everywhere to connect well with the environment we are in. After all, that is part or all the reason why people are travelling, getting to know the area, authentic food, meeting people. We source local vegetables and food in general, and of course wine, if available. Of course, to experience fascinating cultural aspects and learn a bit about its people is so enlightening. The world is so rich and cultural and history is weaved into so many aspects of life. At Karma Resorts and our smaller hotel operations, it is certainly much easier to enhance a strong local flavour. We also respect local elements in our architecture and interior design when we renovate or expand resorts.
- What according to you are the identified factors that shape up your brand’s appeal in terms of Indian market?
I think what people in general really enjoy about the Karma Group is our membership concept, which makes us different from a normal hotel operation. People buy short or longer memberships with us, from one to 15 years or more, to experience Karma Resorts – we have ten resorts in India and a total of 33 resorts around the world. They happily return to a known and familiar level of comfort, they are recognised by the Karma team, they have visited other resorts, sometimes mingle and exchange notes of other stays with members who they meet. This all forms a high level of comfort and adds to the ease of discovering the world. Basically, guests know that they will be well looked after. A guest isn’t an unknown first time guest at Karma but we know and cater to preferences and requirementsof our members, and their children. Who most often also become members in their own right and return with nostalgia to Karma Resorts with their partner or young family.
Travelling domestically and internationally has a growing appeal in India and for a member of our Karma Group, travelling is made so much easier. We are in frequent contact with our members, with personalised updates and news. Many are eagerly waiting to hear from us about our resorts and soon to open new resorts in destinations which are on their ‘bucket-list’, so-to-say.
- What is the next benchmark you’re looking at and in what time frame?
Look, short-term, where we are in the storm, clearly. We are as affected by Covid as everyone, at the moment, with all our Indian resorts shut. We have many members and staff we are supporting. And clearly, it’s not a good time for hospitality. But, as I said, I’m a very positive person and I do believe we’ll get out of this storm in India as we have in Europe. And I’m delighted that yesterday, we opened our new resorts here, in Europe. And I think weall stood the worst of the storm and India would do the same. India is tremendously resilient. It’s clearly a horror, what’s happening at the moment. We started a campaign, “Oxygen for India” to try and get more oxygen in the country and do all we can to support the people of India as India’s been very dear to my heart over the years. But it will get through and we’re very confident that this will be followed by a boom period. We’re currently acquiring new resorts. It might be contrarian. Some people think I’m either a genius or insane. But we think now is a very good time to buy resorts in India. And we’re looking at a new product in Coorg; we recently bought in Udaipur and not long before that, in the Nandi Hills.
But also, internationally – because what’s important to remember is our business model is that no matter where a person buys, they can utilize our resorts all over the world. And one of the reasons why our Indian consumer does buy a membership is because they like to go to Goa or Udaipur and maybe every other year, they want to go to Europe or Australia. So that’s the key part of our club to have an international portfolio. And, of course, the same is true for an English person who buys in England – they may want to travel in England but they may also want to go to Goa or Australia. And that’s the same around the world because our club appeals to people with wanderlust – people who want to travel the world in Karma products. We opened Salford Hall in the Cotswolds. And I go tomorrow to Scotland to look at a very exciting looking resort up in the highlands and some of the lochs. I think it’s a loch ness, I hope it has, just like Scooby-doo, the loch ness monsterland. It’s got a burry attached to it, it’s going have bagpipers and hagasses and all sorts of stuff- so that’s exciting. We are buying in Spain, in Algeciras, just behind Marbella. We recently agreed to buy two resorts in Vietnam in Hoang, we have a small resort there now but we got two fabulous new resorts because I’ve got great hopes for Vietnam, I think it’s going do very well in the coming years.
And as you know, in Indonesia, we are growing rapidly. We are mirroring the success of our Indian operations, to be honest and we acquired a new resort just outside the town of Bandung, which is about two hours from Jakarta. We recently opened Karma Salak, which is outside Jakarta and it’s been superbly successful.
In the medium term, we are going to develop some of our land banks, like in the Philippines, on the island of Palawan; Sri Lanka; or Japan, our ski resort of Hakuba, just outside Tokyo. And in Margaret river in Western Australia. So we are going to move ahead and use the time we have now wisely to develop plans for these products, and to begin to roll them out in the next few years.
So, it’s exciting times, I mean, it’s scary times, anyone that says they didn’t have sleepless nights at the moment and they’re in the hospitality is lying. I tend to get up at 4:30 in the morning. But, I find that if we’re positive, it does give us the opportunity to focus on the future. And sometimes, if you are busy running around like headless chickens, trying to make things work in the short term, when times are good, you don’t have that time. So, if I look at one positive, it’s enabling us to look at the medium term growth and indeed, the long term.
The long term is to continue to do exactly what we do. We have 33 resorts now. We will have 40 when we emerge from the pandemic. Our land banks will take us up to 50. I love what I do. I’m deeply suspicious of entrepreneurs that have a master plan for the long term and they say this is exactly what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m just going to continue doing what I love, which is picking up assets, developing them, making them beautiful, selling memberships for our club so more and more members can join us, and continue to grow our footprint around the world. It’s worked so far for 27 years and I’m confident it’ll work for another 27 years. I’ve recently turned 60, and I’ve declared myself middle-aged, so now I’ve got another sixty years to really pick up the speed and do other things.