A True Karma Chameleon

Karma Group's founder and owner, band manager turned hotelier John Spence on his unique brand.


JOHN SPENCE was happily managing various music bands in the 80s until he visited India for a conference and fell in love with the place. “I saw vast potential in Goa and started our first resort in 1993. A number of factors propelled our vision – like the emerging middle class that had started taking holidays, and the cost effective in-bound flights from Europe; even the land at that point was very cheap and good to buy,” says the British-born hotelier, resort owner and founder of Karma Group.

“I made a decision within 24 hours, decided to leave the company I was working for, sold my flat in London and that’s how we began. With very humble beginnings and limited cash flow, we were a bunch of young guys from Europe with big dreams. We took the leap and got involved in many different markets, and as of today the company has gone from a small seed to something that’s quite large,” he adds.

Karma Group comprises – Karma Resorts, Karma Retreats, Karma Royal, Karma Estates, Karma Beach, as well as Karma Spa which was launched in 2003 to create a holistic, connected community of unique five-star destinations, linking like-minded individuals on every continent. With 27 resorts around the world, and six in pipeline in the Caribbean, Spence has offices in three continents, three and half thousand employees, and 80,000 members in our various clubs and a big growth potential.

So what makes Karma a favourite place for travellers? He explains, “We always say that we never compare ourselves with other hoteliers or real estate developers, as we are not in the lodging business but in the entertainment business and that runs through our entire corporate ethos. It comes from the days when I was in the music industry. I believe that when people are on holiday they want to be entertained. It’s not just about the cheapest place to stay, or the best location, they want to have entertainment surrounding them all the time.”

No wonder, the group focuses very heavily on beach luxury vacations in the world, bringing the top DJs, curating a fantastic music offering, promoting unique concerts, alongside amazing in-house spa with state-of-the-art treatments ranging from normal to exquisite, kids club offering all sorts of activities, and events like wine tasting, rugby clubs and charity dinners. “We take pride in having relationships with our clients on a long term basis and giving them a lifestyle

rather than simply a holiday to stay. With that we can provide satisfaction to the client and make a good profit over the duration of that relationship,” he adds.

While in India, Sterling Holidays and Mahindra are the ones who operate within the membership plan space but Spence relates to the key difference between his brand and the others. “We heavily focus on India in not only the customers we cater to but also the destinations. Indian customer has access to our domestic and foreign properties, and with expansion plans, we wish to do more in international market. There is a rising trend to visit outside India, be it Europe, Australia, Vietnam or any other place. So yes, they are our closest competitors but there are several differences including the international focus,” he feels.

While location is obviously key to Karma Group, Spence has always believed in ‘brand destinations’. “It is important to build a hotel in a location that people know about. We are not a pioneer destination resort nor are we trying to educate people about a destination. Hence we choose to develop resorts in locations like Goa, Bali, London, Bavaria and the Greek islands. In future, we are looking to buy new properties in Tuscany, Australia, Vietnam (Hoyang), and we have invested in a chateau in the South of France too. So we choose destinations which an Indian consumer would relate to and at the same time try to be quirky with places that are beyond just brand tourist destinations. For example, Princeton in London, we chose to develop a property in SoHo, another one in Ubud, Bali surrounded by paddy fields, reflecting Balinese food and culture. Also most consumers don’t have the time to discover new areas or have a sense of security that guarantees experience.”

Spence, himself, enjoys travelling and has also invested heavily in technology with a brand new Karma app and revamped website. At the same time he likes to support sustainable tourism in a big way by designing resorts that are eco-friendly. Having recently developed in Bali, Spence has made a conscious decision to maintain the design – foliage, trees and natural vegetation. “So we designed the resort not by terracing but by working around the existing trees and meandering parts keeping in mind the natural contours, which led to zero impact on the greenery,” he tells. Currently, Haathi Mahal in Goa has been redeveloped to zero impact development.

That’s why the world is fast changing and becoming a better place to travel. “More and more direct flights starting from smaller cities are acting as a catalyst, matched with the growing affordability, leading to the emergence of more people who have the time and money to travel. Airlines are making travel cheaper allowing easy access of destinations like India and various Scandinavian countries, which have money to invest. If we look at India as a specific market we see tourists travelling to key markets in the world like Europe, America. What

we observe is the reason behind us buying a new property, for example the Cyprus, Green Islands. When I started in business 25 years ago I came to Goa with the dream of building resorts. That time we thought of marketing it to the Europeans because they have grown up with the picture of India on their wall, and as aspiration to go there. You fast forward 25 years and the world has changed. India no longer translates to cheap development. We can travel and develop properties, buy castles and chateaus in Europe for the Indian customers. Today, they have the financial and travel capabilities, and thus we see the Indian travel business flourish,” he feels.

Spence is aiming high to take the company up to 40 resorts and double the turnover in the next 5 years and redeveloping ‘Pay as you go Karma Club’, which means that by paying 499, members, can utilize assets and get discounts at the resorts. “We currently have 60 thousand members and are growing that critically in several markets around the world including UK and US. I am looking to diversify bilaterally, outside the hospitality club membership space by looking at city center clubs. The idea is to expand our product offering to include other products in different demographics. We are looking at a ‘backpack product’ which means we will be selling our membership plans to people between the ages of 18 to 25,” says Spence who is also planning to build a ski resort called Hakata in Japan, as the Alps have declined because of global warming and deforestation.

From Vietnam, Japan, Philippines to Australia, the company is looking to promote eco-tourism, especially packaged with wine and food getting more popular. “Additionally, we are also developing in the Caribbean that was recently hit by a number of hurricanes. But apart from that short duration, we are very positive of it. We are looking at doing a land and sea based offering in the Virgin Islands down in Anguilla.”

Having built a brand and observed a resonance leading to brand loyalty now, Spence seems to build a boutique brand that is different from the brands corporate in nature.

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