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‘I owe a lot to Goa, in fact, everything for our growth’

Monday, October 23, 2017, 15:51 Hrs  [IST]

It was an impromptu visit to Goa in the early 90’s that transformed John Spence, an aspiring guitarist and music band operator, into a resort operator. A strong believer in the Indian philosophy of Karma, you reap what you sow, Spence went on to set up unique chain of hotels under the Karma brand in 14 countries in the world. Although he left the entertainment business long ago, the differentiating factor at Karma is built around wholesome enter tainment. In an email interview to Hospitality Biz, Spence shares the key milestones in the journey of Karma Hospitality.

Q You have said in one of your interviews that your travel to Goa to participate in a conference in the 90’s was a turning point in your career? Can you explain briefly how that visit turned John Spence the musician into a hotelier?
My career began in the music business; which traced back to the fact that I wanted to be a guitarist. I bizarrely thought I was the best guitarist in the world, but as it turns out I wasn’t. Once the realisation struck, I started managing music bands in London and became an agent. My job revolved around looking after a lot of music bands in the early 80s, some famous ones like Eurythmics and the Culture Club, while some not so well known. It was a fun experience altogether when one thinks of it now.

I then moved to the Canary Islands, and started working for an American firm developing tourism and real estate. It was in 1993 that I got the chance to come to India, to speak at a conference in Hyderabad about the emergence of Private Member Clubs in tourism where I was invited. Whilst I was there, I thought of exploring more as I had never visited before and was already inclined towards the cuisine there.

I took the chance, and really fell in love with the country. Goa was the first place I went to and saw a huge potential there. It was the beginning of the British coming in for holidays there as it was cheap, and direct chartered flights were starting at the same time. I saw this magnificent state with great beaches and realised that the Indian middle class was not the way I had gauged and they liked the complete experience of a holiday, Goa with its beaches, and having a beer. So I took the plunge and made a decision. I initially tried to persuade the company I worked for to come but they didn’t see the opportunity I did, so I resigned. I cashed in all my money; mortgaged my flat in London and managed to recruit some of the top people. Then we came out here and bought our first resort in Goa. It was an incredible; packed in an envelope opportunity despite us having little money and very little cash flow. We lived in non-air conditioned units on the beach and really struggled, but it took off from those humble beginnings. The company grew and we went truly international.

As of today, we are in 14 countries in the world and we are growing rapidly. It all began in Goa, so I owe a lot to Goa, in fact, everything for our growth.

Q How did you derive on the name ‘Karma’ for your global venture?
The original operation was called Royal Resorts, it was a royal Goan beach club and a few other resorts. Sometime later in our expansion curve, in about 2000 we decided to develop some real estate projects and we wanted to distance them from Royal Resorts which were very luxurious, so we settled on the name Karma. I like the concept of Karma, you reap what you sow, and you do positive things and it will rebound in the Universe. We truly love and believe in the philosophy, and we knew it would resonate with a lot of cultures in the west. The idea of Karma is very strong, and it was the name that spoke of our Asian exposure and passion and yet was a strong brand globally. Over the years, we’ve rolled it out and it’s become the Karma brand.

Q What is Karma’s concept? How do you distinguish from other uber luxury resort chains in the world?

Well, we are extremely different from other Hotel chains, primarily because we don’t see our main responsibility as providing beds. We are not in lodging business; we are in the entertainment business.
We very strongly believe that we provide our clients with a wholesome entertainment experience, be it by virtue of our kids’ clubs, beach clubs, spas, restaurants, top DJs, wine making events, fashion shows or any other touch point which caters to such recreational needs. Our primary business is the development and sales of private members clubs, so most of the people who stay with us are members. We run a lot of events in the city and globally like art; fashion; races; sports at several locations to keep them engaged as well.

So unlike most companies that see themselves as providing lodging, we don’t. Karma is more of a lifestyle.

Q How a membership based resort concepts works on a global level?
Well, it works very well because we have managed to create 27 unique properties in this segment. Our members come from a wide range of countries across the globe with their own set of requirements. We started in India, and we are going to continue to concentrate on it as even now we see a huge opportunity there. Apart from that though, our presence has been established in other South East Asian regions as well like Singapore, Bali, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan. Globally, we are also present in Australia, England, Germany, France and we are just developing in the Caribbean. People tend to travel around our resorts a lot, and some people like to go to one geographical area repeatedly. But the people that our product appeals to the most are avid travellers who are globetrotters. Since our membership is a global one, this segment which likes to travel to diverse locations, ties to our offering beautifully.

Q How Karma evolved into a global entity with clear segmentation and sub-brands?
It was always our strategy. As I say we started in India, and we saw opportunity in the nearing areas as well which made us move to Thailand and Taiwan, and then to Australia. So we’ve been a bit like a band of wandering gypsies that keep going to different parts of the world. We’ve realised in many ways that the world is a village and it is easier to travel around it now when it is also cost effective. As a global developer company, we look at opportunities at a global basis in their own merit.

Currently I am looking at potential properties at Bali, South America, Caribbean, St. Martin, England and three more in India. So we look at opportunities from a global perspective and then take it ahead basis their due merit. Our goal and passion is to expand at a global level and increase our overall footprint.

Q You have announced your plans to grow your footprint in India and South East Asia. How do you plan to go about it and what is the size of Karma portfolio that you have in mind in the next three to five years?
At the moment of India we have 6 resorts – 4 in Goa, 1 in Jaipur and 1 in Kerala. We’ve discussed this at our board that we want to focus on India and we are putting aside funds from our group treasury for the same. Our plan is to add two properties a year translating to 10 by the end of five years. The group will be present in Goa because there is certainly a soft corner for it but we also want to move outside Goa. The vision is to be across the country since it is such a huge one with so many interesting places to discover. Currently we have a resort in the south where we want to expand more, and then move towards the eastern side or the northern part of the country.

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