John Spence explains his business mantra to Carol Wright
“My mantra is that it is more fun to be a pirate than to be in the navy,” says John Spence, Chairman and CEO of the Karma Resorts Group. In another nautical reference, Spence compares his company to a speedboat rather than a cruise liner: quicker and more flexible in its movements. The Karma Group now has over 30 resorts in ten countries with the majority in India. There are four in Goa, plus Bangalore, Kerala, a Jaipur Haveli, Udaipur, Dharamshala and a Corbett national park retreat.
“We are in the entertainment business,” Spence declares, “offering a memorable adventure to guests” in what he terms “hippy luxury”. Spence’s early career was spent in the music industry, looking after groups like Culture Club and Eurythmics. In 1993 while working for an American hotel group, he attended a conference in India and fell in love with the country which he says “remains close to my heart”.
Goa, particularly, won him over for its relaxed partying. He made a quick decision; sold his London home, car and assets and bought a property in Goa. He still feels quick decisions are usually best and weaves this belief into lectures he gives at Yale, bringing a breath of business reality into their academic world.
The company started out as Royal Resorts and was rebranded as Karma in 2003, now embracing properties in England, Provence, Normandy, Tuscany, Crete, Germany, four resorts in Bali, Lombok, Java, Thailand and Margaret River in Australia. Coming up are Hoi An in Vietnam, Spain in the hills behind Marbella and Laos on the Mekong river banks. In December 2020 he acquired Salford Hall near Stratford on Avon that dates back to 1487. This is being refurnished and will have a spa, pool and extra rooms in the grounds.
Spence says he is not in the pioneer resort business but finds undervalued, ugly ducking properties and turns them into swans; “that is half the fun”. He falls in love with properties, and sees their potential, as with Salford Hall. “It has a magic about it and is an ideal location for us near Stratford and, with its old beams, panelling and priest’s hole, a historical time warp that will appeal to Indian guests.”
Guests are encouraged to become Karma members. “We rely on long term loyalty. We are not selling rooms but relationships,” he says. The name Karma was dreamed up by Spence while on a beach. He feels it resonates with both Asian and European properties.
“I believe in the concept of giving and doing good and getting good back.” Karma supports a school for 900 orphans in Bangalore and another in Indonesia, and simple ideas give help. For example, a school is given chickens to look after. Karma buys back the eggs at a good price so the school earns money for books and other needs. In the UK, Spence recently donated 500 free holidays to National Health employees.
Food, with varied restaurant choice and room service, are key to Karma stays. Spence tries to reflect the international aspects of the group through food and drink. Curries from Goa, for example, appear on menus in England and his own-label gin is flavoured with botanicals from each of the regions in which Karma has resorts. The chef at Salford Hall uses it to flavour cheesecake and seafood dishes.
“Wine has always fascinated me since my mother gave me an 18th birthday present of membership of The Wine Society, a UK based non-profit-making wine supplier whose wines I still buy.” Spence has his own collection of some 4,500 wines and cellars in his properties in Australia, France and the UK. He collects and sells; “it is a passion”. Recent birthday presents included a decanter shaped like an octopus.
He sources the wines for the resorts himself and says, “If the guests don’t like the wines on the list, they can blame only me.” The lists feature wines “with a sense of place and restraint” and Spence aims to offer good wines at a reasonable price. The Salford Hall list includes organic wines from young Australian winemakers like Some Young Punks with their Sandy Fist Sangiovese and Shiraz.
Spence says he is ‘attracted to vineyards’ and looked at buying in India’s Nashik area but couldn’t find the right property. He believes Indian wine has great potential and has improved so much since he first visited India when Grover was the only known producer. Spence has produced a small range of Karma label wines, working with local winemakers and blending in his own vineyard grapes with the best local specialists.
His French château, Le Preverger, was once owned by French actress Jeanne Moreau and then by Laura Ashley who planted some Grenache vines. Their grapes are now blended into the Karma rosé. A Chianti is produced from the Tuscany property, Borgo di Colleoli, and in England he works with a vineyard to produce a Karma sparkling wine.
Karma labels for red, white and rosé can be found at Spence’s European properties. The Karma Bordeaux 2017 has a striking label designed by Karma’s in-house artist, Rajesh Chari, depicting competitors in the 26-mile Medoc Marathon in which runners wear fancy dress and partake from 20 wine tasting stations en route. Spence completed this run in 2018 and says, on the back label, “so toast my pain with this savage red and spot a clue to our mystery winemaker”. Spence is depicted wearing a Chateau Lynch Bages vest for the race. At Le Preverger Spence hosts an annual grape harvest black tie dinner.
Guests are encouraged to enjoy wine around the resorts – whether at meals, with picnics on the beach or in the ‘vinyl rooms’ listening to selections from hundreds of records. In some resorts there are wine bars separate from the main bar where guests can go at leisure and choose wines from enomatic machines or by the glass from Coravin outlets. Wine tasting take place at the resorts and, where possible, vineyard associates come and conduct tastings. “I always look for a wine association at all my resorts,” says Spence.
At Spence’s new 50-acre resort on West Australia’s Margaret River, local wine possibilities will be boundless. The site is near the state forest and glamping opportunities will be offered as well as camper vans to explore local wine trails. His own wine production, Spence says, “will be more modest” and will be blended with local winemakers, including those who are making biodynamic wines.