Luxury hotel chain Karma Group took root when its founder, John Spence, fell in love with Goa in 1993. His unusual stairway to success—a great story in itself—keeps him coming back to explore new facets of India
Pankti Mehta Kadakia
John Spence has a curious story to success, peppered with quirks and narrow escapes. Now the CEO and Chairman of luxury hotel company Karma Group, his entrepreneurial journey began unusually—buying bags of wine gums, rewrapping them and selling them at almost 120 per cent profit!
Soon found out, Spence enrolled at university, but dropped out of college early on to pursue a career in music. Moving up from a tea boy designation, he ended up representing bands such as Bananarama and Culture Club in the 1980s. As fate would have it, he toured India in 1993, fell in love with Goa’s sprawling beaches, and the idea of luxury hospitality in India. Goa is where Spence set up his first luxury resort. Years later, India still remains on top of Karma Group’s agenda. Spence tells BlackBook about what keeps pulling him back to the country.
Tell us a little about your beginnings—were you business-minded as a teenager?
As a teenager I was certainly attracted to the idea of making profits and earning money. I initially went to university to study English, but dropped out after two terms because I thought I was the greatest guitarist in the world. Reality soon proved me wrong.
How did you go from a career in music to one in hospitality?
The music industry was not an easy business. My job was to sign on bands from all around the world, which often meant travelling alone to various resorts. It was this life of constant travel that developed my current passion for hotels. After four years in the music business, I took a break and went to stay with my mother. During that hiatus, I met a gentleman from America involved in the hospitality space, who suggested that I come and work for him. Despite thinking it was a crazy idea that would change my life considerably, I took him up on his offer, and I’ve never looked back.
In 1984, I started off as a junior salesman, but upon developing my skills through hard work and learning, I ended up as a managing director at his company. I eventually left his organisation and winded up on the shores of Goa in 1993, which, like many things in my life, was a bit of an accident. I drifted from the music business into hotels primarily because I liked hotels, and ended up starting my own hospitality business nine years later.
You identified the potential of India’s west coast early on. What was it that attracted you to it, and how has it evolved today?
When I went to India in 1993, I was actually planning to develop properties in the Caribbean. While on a conference in Hyderabad, I was given a tour of the country and loved what I saw. I’d been to India before, I loved Indian food, had Indian friends back home in London, and was always quite fascinated by the culture. Which is why I decided to take a week off to travel around the country; and I was amazed by what I saw. I instantly fell in love with the place, which was unbelievably beautiful and a very cheap alternative to destinations like the Caribbean, where people could enjoy the winter sun. It was also very cheap to buy and develop land at that point. Our vision was that the Indian middle class would soon grow, and they would like holidaying internationally just as how international tourists would like vacationing in India. We worked in non-air conditioned shacks on the beach, much to the laughter of my financiers who were supposed to fund my venture in the Caribbean but eventually backed out. In order to fund this project, I had to put down my own personal fortune, which involved selling my home in London, my car, and taking out mortgages on all my possessions.
What new destinations in India are you eyeing?
We recently opened a property at Dharamshala in the Himalayas. In North India, we currently operate a property in Jaipur, while in Kerala we have a resort in the backwaters. We are very keen on these assets and are looking at various destinations in India. What we ideally want is a destination that really caters to the current market. Indians are now increasingly taking secondary holidays over weekends and mid-week breaks, so we want to plan our next property based on this unique insight.
What makes the Dharamshala property unique?
There are many things that I love about the property at Dharmashala, particularly its spirituality and the Tibetan-Buddhist base. It’s at the foothills of the Himalayas, which make its scenic natural beauty and the quality of the air truly unparalleled. Our clients enjoy new destinations and experiences, and Dhramashala is to the international community exactly that. Very few foreigners have ever heard about it and even fewer have ever been there. We chose this destination because it is beautiful and exotic, while remaining easily accessible.
What do you think India needs to do to encourage more luxury tourism?
Infrastructure is the key to developing luxury tourism in India. But I strongly believe it has improved enormously in the last 25 years. The reality is that there are a lot of destinations in India which are scenically or culturally beautiful and very attractive to international consumers, but extremely difficult to get to, making for a wasted opportunity. So I think the infrastructure today needs to improve. I also believe that while the Indian bureaucratic way of doing business has improved considerably in last 25 years, in order to bring international clients it still has some ways to go. From an infrastructure and demographics point of view any improvement made will go a long way to aid the expansion of five-star hotels and luxury tourism.
What is your favorite holiday destination?
If I look at the holiday destinations where I don’t own a resort myself, then given my wife and children’s love for beach sports like scuba diving, I would have to say the Maldives, especially given its relative remoteness. I also love the Greek Islands. We have several resorts in the region and are in the process of developing a new one that will open up in about three weeks’ time. We’re also just acquiring more resorts on the island of Cyprus. The Greek islands are very special to me; I first went there when I was 18, used to sleep on the beach and lived pretty rough. Today, I don’t have to do that because I have hotels and assets there—how things change.
I like luxury. I enjoy the exact same style of hospitality which I try my level best to provide to my guests. I like simplicity, sea, food and a relaxing environment with good friends, good conversations, and lots of sunshine.
What do you think luxury travel trends are likely to be in the next two years?
I think more and more people want something that is boutique and non-commercial in the sense of the ‘mega-brands’. There is growing consolidation going on in the hospitality industry, where large brands are acquiring smaller ones. People are always looking for new destinations, something organic, sympathetic to nature and to the local environment itself.
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