Karma Group's owner John Spence on dropping out of school and what it takes to be a successful hotelier
John Spence isn't your average hotelier. Unlike several others who planned and dreamed of running their own travel empire, he made the call in a split second. But years before that happened, the entrepreneur dropped out of university to first pursue a career in music, which he did as a music agent for four years.
Then while on holiday, he was offered a job selling properties in the hospitality business. Without much thought, he took it — and found his true calling. Following the unprecedented career switch, Spence then founded his own company called Karma Group — an international travel and lifestyle brand with its first resort in Goa, India.
Today, the company operates 23 resorts sprawled across four continents, and prides itself on offering unique experiences and exclusive curated entertainment in the world's most stunning locations. Recently, we caught up with the British-born owner to chat about his biggest hotel pet-peeves, travel trends in Asia, and what makes a good hotelier.
What was the moment you decided you wanted to do this for a living?
In my entire life, I've made many split decisions, which can seem a bit strange to most people. I dropped out of university after two terms, because I wanted to become the best guitarist in the world. I soon realised, I was actually the worst guitarist in the world. After being a music agent for four years, I met a guy in a bar and decided to help him sell properties. I did it well, and ended up running the business. Then in 1993, I decided I wanted to set a business of my own.
That definitely doesn't happen everyday. Your first ever resort was built in Goa, India. Tell us more about your relationship with Asia.
My first time travelling to India was in 1993 and I immediately fell in love with the potential because I saw this amazing destination, cheap build, with the local population slowly opening up to the idea of taking holidays and many Europeans constantly coming over.
We started off extremely small and under-funded — I pumped in my own money and over the years, it just grew and grew. It started in India, but then very soon went to other destinations like Thailand, Phuket and Chiang Mai, Bali, Hoi An and the Philippines. While my other directors and I aren't Asian, we've been very much an Asian company. It was in Asia that we had our success.
Being in the business for so long, what differences have you noticed in the travel climate with consumers?
25 years ago, we came to Asia because it was cheap to buy land, cheap to build and also because many Europeans wanted a holiday in Asia. Now the world has done a 180-degree flip — it's very hard to find cheap land or build at a cheap cost. So now, our business is very much about buying relatively cheap and beautiful properties in Tuscany and the Greek Islands and marketing them primarily to Asians that want to go to Europe and the rest of the world. The Asian consumer has become far more sophisticated than the European consumer, and it was the other way around 25 years ago.
What are the things one should expect while checking into a Karma resort?
We always pride ourselves on being an entertainment business rather than a lodging one, so we believe that our role is to entertain our club members in many different ways. Our resorts are very heavily focused on spas and beach clubs where we fly in DJs from Ibiza. We're also very big on kids' clubs — not one with iPads or TVs but curating experiences where the children can understand the local environment and enjoy nature.
If there was a place you wanted to go back, where would it be?
It has to be Mykonos in the Greek Islands. I have been going there since I was 18 years old and I used to sleep on a beach. I still spend the whole of August there, which is just fantastic. That's my idea of a European summer, which is my favourite time.
Where was the most memorable stay you've ever had and why?
I remember years ago going to Villa Feltrinelli at Lake Garda with my wife. You're on your own speedboat on this palace on the lake, with Lake Garda, the mountains and the alps in the background. I remember that being very special.
What are your pet peeves while staying at a hotel?
I hate a prolonged check-in/check-out process. There's really no need for that. I have a huge dislike of hotels that have a policy of no early or late checkouts. Being a hotelier, it is pretty obvious when you're full but many times, you're not. I also have a hatred for hotels who charge a lot for the internet, because these days, your actual internet cost isn't expensive at all.
In your own words, what makes a good hotelier?
Traditionally, the hotelier is very much the front person — to meet clients, talk to clients and deal with problems. The hotelier is the face of the hotel. The good and bad thing is, we're only as good as the person who interacts with the clients. You can have everything else working for you in the hotel but when someone who doesn't quite match up with the standard, interacts with the guest that's staying there, the client has a negative impression. So I think a good hotelier still needs to be able to be confident and comfortable enough to work directly with the people that are staying there.