The passion to explore the unexplored, enjoy exciting experiences and create memories worth treasuring, are the primary factors for any luxury vacation. And the Karma Group has emerged as one of the frontrunners in experiential travel space, with its diverse and curated offerings. It includes world-class restaurants and bars, beach clubs, fashion shows, spas, and more.
However it was an impromptu visit to Goa in the early 90’s that transformed John Spence, an aspiring guitarist and music band manager, into a property mogul. A strong believer in the Indian philosophy of Karma, you reap what you sow; Spence has set up a unique chain of boutique hotels.
How it all started
“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 a great beaches, great people and great food. I noticed the emerging Indian middle class, that wanted to holiday in Goa and in the 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,” recalled Spence.
Creating a lifestyle brand
According to Spence, he isn’t into the hotel business, but an entertainment business. For him Karma is a lifestyle brand that offers all luxuries. “The idea was to develop very luxurious, but boutique hotels rather than large hotels. We call it five-star hippie; it is based on the scenario that some of your best holidays were when you didn’t have much money. The Karma experience is about recreating that sense of freedom, but with the trappings, of a five-star resort,” says Spence.
Though Karma started in India, it now has 33 resorts in Europe, Australia, South East Asia and India. “I always say to my managers, never think that we are just providing a bed to sleep in. We are providing entertainment. We are like Disneyland, where our clients get entertained. Whether it is from having a beautiful room or the wine we made, or from the art and architecture or from the spa or the DJ. But we always think, has someone been entertained being with us? Because if they have, they will come back,” explained Spence.
Giving back to the community
“I do believe that we must give back and help those who are less fortunate. There is a phrase in England which says ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’ and it’s true. So I believe very strongly in philanthropy. It’s something that we include all our clients in. We have a relationship with an orphanage, and school in Bengaluru that we support very strongly. We have other one in Vietnam, where we look after kids, who’ve been damaged from land mines and unexploded munitions. Our clients get involved and we have an annual event called Camp Royal, where we take one of our resorts in India, and invite the students to stay with us. We give the staff time off and invite our members to come and look after the children and they just love being part of that philanthropic effort,” added Spence.
Pandemic & travel industry
Some might consider opening a resort in the thick of the covid pandemic a daring move, however, John Spence has remained positive despite the travel industry being hit the hardest.
“I was talking to someone the other and he said, you’re either a genius or a madman. And I like to think the former. The one thing I am always very keen on stressing, is that we don’t want to take advantage of any sense of human tragedy by developing resorts in the pandemic. I am aware of the hardship out there, but the reality is that there are some resorts which we can acquire at the moment and we have. Coming into the pandemic, we were ahead of the game. We have no debt and no partners which is why we’re able to move swiftly, so we can take advantage of assets, which may be before, would not have been available. We recently opened a resort in Bengaluru, acquired a property in Udaipur and launching a new resort in Coorg.
In Europe, we acquired a magnificent property called Salford Hall. I have been personally involved in that as it belonged to Henry the VIII. Over Indonesia, we have new resorts in Java and outside Jakarta, we have two properties there and we’re about to acquire in Australia. All of this is geared around to appeal the short-term domestic market, as people are now looking to travel local and the international market coming in later. So, my hope is to have 10 resorts during the pandemic,” says Spence.
We all miss travelling and not having to do so in the past year have lead people to travel domestic. Spence feels that there is light at the end of every tunnel. “It is not going to be an easy path and we are nowhere near the end of this, but it is leveling out and one can see in many any countries around the world that are more positive signs. I do think that we are going to see a boom in tourism. At the end of this, I think people have excess savings in their bank account. People want to travel, it could be called a reward for what they put up with or revenge against covid. For this year, it’s going to be domestic tourism driven. International tourism will begin, but not in a big way and it’s going to be stop start, stop start depending on restrictions and how fast we can get the vaccine out,” explains Spence.
Spence tells me that asking about his favourite properties is like asking to pick a favourite child. He reveals that Karma Royal Hathi Mahal in Goa is one of his favourite properties as he is sentimental and Goa was where it all started. The next would be the uber five-star Karma Kandara in Bali and the third one would be the Karma Le Preverger, near St. Tropez, France. It used to belong to legendary actress Jeanne Moreau who used to be friends with Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and that set, and they had legendary parties there
The bright future
“Our focus is to keep expanding. I think the model that we have, the members-only club is the right model and many people are waiting to get their membership. We have 33 resorts now and we hope to have 40 by the end of the year. We are looking to taking that to 50 in the near future. India is vital for us, and I think there is great opportunity in India. But we’re also keen to develop, not only in Europe and Southeast Asia, but also in the Caribbean and probably down in South America. We’re expanding into new products, new beach, clubs, and spas. So, although obviously at the moment, there are many problems in any hospitality company generally, I remain positive, I remain glass half full and I see a good future for us in India and hospitality in general, says Spence.