Can you share with us how you first established Karma Group in Asia?
Karma started 27 years ago it seems like only yesterday washed up on the shores of Goa, India. Prior to that, I have been working in Europe for a European company. And I ended up going to a conference in India in 1993 and fell in love with the place. Saw a huge potential as I saw a new emerging middle-class market that wanted a holiday in Goa. I saw fantastic beaches, beautiful architecture, amazing opportunities to buy land and develop resorts. From an international point of view, people were discovering India, they were coming over for awfully cheap winter holidays and the chartered holiday companies were flying in direct from territories like England and Germany into Goa. So, I went back to the existing firm that I was working with and said look here’s an opportunity in India. They laughed and said no, it will never work. So, I gambled everything and left the company. I sold my house in London, mortgaged my possessions, and persuaded some of my friends and managers to come with me. We then opened the underfunded way in 1993 in Goa and it all grew from there. And after developing in Goa, we ventured more into Asia and Bali was our second destination.
Why did you choose to name it “Karma” and how many resorts are now currently operating under Karma Group?
It’s called Karma because of the fact I very much believe the Universe gives back what you very much give to it. There is a certain amount of fate and good fortune out there depending on what you do. Our first resort was in Candidasa in Bali. And after developing in Bali, we went on to Thailand and various other territories. So, it was a bit of an accident, I hadn’t really planned on coming to Asia. We started off with 1 resort now we have developed 40 resorts and have 33 which are operational. We have 6 in the pipeline in places like the Philippines, Japan, Margaret River, Sri Lanka, and developments that we are sort of contemplating. And during this pandemic, we have been acquiring some newer properties in various territories which we will launch quite soon.
What are the key highlights that are being offered by all the properties under Karma Group?
We don’t believe in all our resorts looking and feeling the same. I very much believe in designing resorts and developing them in a way that is “sympathetic” to their local environment. Not like some brands that are pretty much the same whether it’s in Waikiki, or Costa del Sol, or Bali. Ours are relevant to the local area but they are linked together by this sense of “Karma”. We call it the “the five-star hippie sense” or “barefoot luxury” – very much linking together with the people that are there. In all our resorts we have libraries of books, vinyl rooms where people can pick up a record and put it on a turntable, great spas offering bespoke funky treatments, wine lists, kids clubs, amazing beach clubs with DJs and events, and a lot of things which link them all together in the spirit in ‘Joie de Vivre. It’s also important to understand that we are much closer to a private member’s club. We have over 50,000 members that belong to our club and holiday with us every single year. We always say we are not in the lodging business; but instead, the entertainment business and our job is to entertain members and clients. More like Walt Disney, we are trying to create “magic” so that when people come on holiday or stay with us, they have a “memorable experience” that will be joyous and very positive for them.
“We are trying to create “magic” so that when people come on holiday or stay with us, they have a “memorable experience” which will be joyous and very positive for them.” quoted by John Spence.
Most hotels or resorts’ businesses have had a tough year in 2020, how has Karma Group dealt with the pandemic situation?
Yes, it’s been tough for us of course and anyone in hospitality that says the last 14 months hasn’t been challenging or difficult is of course fibbing. Our turnover plummeted it went through a scary week from having 33 resorts, 70 restaurants and 30 spas opened to everything being shut down in 7 days. Most of the territories we operate in, we don’t get grants or support for the fact that our resorts are not operating. And more importantly, our members of staff do not get state support for not being able to work. So not only were our resorts shut but we had to support several thousand members of staff and their families. We didn’t lay anyone off. We made a strong commitment we wouldn’t do redundancies. We went to stage further both in Bali and Goa. In Bali in particular, we provided food parcels to the local community, we helped families which weren’t working. I do think it helped a lot of people and put us in good stead for the future.
Despite the challenging times, Karma Group has shown significant growth. Can you share with us the secret of this constant success and the new acquisitions of Karma Group?
The secret to our success would be when we entered the pandemic, we were very well placed in comparison to our competitors. We had no debt; we don’t borrow from banks or individuals or institutions. We are privately owned. I own a 100% and 20% is held on trust for my Management which gives us flexibility and freedom to move quickly. And what I have seen over the years is we have taken advantage of some amazing opportunities to acquire resorts and companies. I am a passionate believer that the best way to sail through a storm is not to worry too much about the storm. If your ship is sound, your crew is good you are going to get through it and the sun will come out. So that’s been a key focus of mine to acquire assets and companies which will be important after this Covid storm passes. I believe the Covid storm will be followed with a boom period. I think people are desperate to travel, they want to get out. As soon as people can, they are going travel and are going to enjoy themselves. We have acquired assets in that belief. We are also acquiring close to major cities in Indonesia, we acquired Karma Salak which is an hour and a half from Jakarta and several other sites. What we are seeing in the short-term future, domestic tourism or staycations are booming as people are traveling close to their homes instead of flying. I think the concept of staycation will thrive as we go forward and we are going to continue to buy assets which are quite close to where our owners and our future owners want to holiday.
Do you mind sharing with us the accolades and awards that you and Karma Group have achieved?
I have won many accolades over the years and am very proud of them. I won the Entrepreneur of the Year, Philanthropist Award of the Year which is very pleasing for me as I strongly believe in Philanthropy. We have an orphanage in Bali, a school in Bangalore, and we work with a few charities around the world. We recently did a big campaign to provide oxygen for hospitals in India. We have given away 500 free holidays to front-line workers in the UK working long hours protecting us from Covid. And over the last few years, I have been very proud to have been given the honorary fellowship to teach at Yale University. Yale has some of the smartest students in the world and best professors but lacks a bit of reality as to how it really works. So, they have an annual fellowship called “Honorary Fellowship” where they give it to someone who has been successful not necessarily academic but made it work in the real world. Their job is to come on board for a semester and help teach students how it works in the real world. We have won many awards as best resorts in Asia, awards for Karma Kandara in Bali, and recently won an award for our Green Eco Efforts.
With regards to challenges, John Spence shared “I am a passionate believer that the best way to sail through a storm is not to worry too much about the storm around you. If your ship is sound, your crew is good you are going to get through it and the sun will come out.”
You have travelled around the world and own a big company; do you have a favourite holiday destination and why is it your favourite?
Absolutely, I have quite a few favourite places. I think the Greek Islands are one of my favourites and we have a resort in Mykonos. I have been going there since I was 18 as a backpacker and love the Greek Islands as there is something beautiful and raw about them. I love the Maldives as it’s a real getaway place which really forces you to relax and switch off. I love Florence one of my favourite cities in Italy and am fortunate to have a resort near Florence – Karma Borgo di Colleoli in Tuscany. Florence has amazing history and arts. It’s got beautiful restaurants and is very authentic unlike many spoilt tourist cities. You still have the little artisan shops that make leather, paper, fantastic perfumiers making unique perfumes and jewellers in small ateliers. Margaret River in West Australia and of course Bali. I lived in Bali for many years and had a house in Jimbaran way before it was developed. But Bali is a very special magic for me and I feel very strongly about the Island so I love it.
As a high engaged businessman, what do you do in your spare time?
A lot of what I do is my work. I love holidays, flying, travel, hotels, restaurants, and eating out. So, I am very blessed that what I love to do is what I do for a living. An author called Malcolm Gladwell whom I also speak about when I teach at Yale wrote some time ago about successful people. He gave an analogy about 10,000 hours whether you are a successful businessman, or a tennis player or a violinist its all about 10,000 hours. What he means by that is if you love something you will do it repeatedly. So, if you are a tennis player you love it so much that for 10,000 hours you hit a ball against a wall. It’s that repetition, it’s that passion which not only gives you the experience to succeed but means you are always thinking about it. When you are asleep your brain is pondering about it and this gives you the edge, the ability to be the top businessman or top tennis player in the world. I also do other things; I love wine, collecting wine and drinking wine. I like archaeology and ancient history. I read a lot of books which is mostly fiction or about ancient history. So, I’d say my spare time is often spent in a beautiful hotel on a day off enjoying reading, wine, and ancient history.
The growth of Karma Group is very impressive, do you have a life philosophy that you also implement at work?
The first thing I’d say is “carpe diem” – seize the day. I believe that you must grab opportunities. Yes, I have been lucky but often luck is given to everyone and one of the secrets is grabbing it rather than pondering it too much. In business schools even at Yale, these incredibly intelligent students are taught risk aversion. They are taught to consider everything, to look at an opportunity and analyze it, look at the downside or at what could go wrong, or what are the likelihoods of a positive outcome. And I say this is nonsense. To succeed, you have got to take a risk in life. Whether in a personal relationship, in business, in crossing a road, you have to embrace that risk and make quick decisions, “seize the day”. Going back to the 10,000-hour rule, the more experienced you are at something, the easier it is to do because you have the knowledge, confidence and can work things out swiftly. Often, I say failure is good because it is one step towards success. So, make quick decisions, carpe diem – seize the day, accept the fact that sometimes things will be wrong. Embrace that, learn from that and that will educate you to make better decisions next time. Another philosophy would be is really treating everyone the way you would want to be treated. I think it’s very important as one grows up in life has successful businesses and companies it’s very easy to have an element of detachment or arrogance. It’s vital to keep your feet on the ground and embrace humility. When I am visiting the resort, I say hello to the person making tea in Bali or the maid or the waiter because you often learn more from talking to them than the Manager. I think if you get all that then people do respect and understand you.
“Accept, make quick decisions, carpe diem – seize the day, accept the fact that sometimes things will be wrong. Learn from everyone, be open to new ideas, be as humble as you possibly can be and be easily approachable.” close John Spence.
We appreciate John’s time in sharing his journey with us and hopefully it inspired you too.
Written by: Simran I. Nanwani