Life On The Edge: How John Spence Of Karma Group Built A Hospitality Empire
Slightly over a month ago, I had the incredible privilege of hiding out amongst the breathtaking cliffside settings of Karma Kandara in Uluwata, Bali. Despite the time lag, all it took was a mere glance at a photo of violets and blues painted dramatically across Mother Nature’s canvas to jolt my memories. I spent 3 days at the luxury beach resort, perched high above Bali’s Bukit Peninsula, known globally as ‘Billionaire’s Row’. Although I arrived, adverse to the charm and allure of Bali’s clichés, I departed with a shift in my step—a newfound rhythm. Picture this, palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze, winding pathways leading through spacious courtyards and white sandy beaches that fringe the narrow shoreline beneath a precariously sharp cliff drop. It’s blindingly beautiful.
The first things you’ll experience upon reaching the deep recesses of Southern Bali island is the overwhelming sense of achievement. ‘You made it’, a self-congratulatory message you heave under your breathe after a 2-hour winding car ride from the International airport. Slightly lightheaded, you press the frigid citronella infused towels to your temple and that instantly calms the nerves. The staff senses your unnerving fatigue and are quick to escort you to your private villa, which to my elation was rather near the entrance, (further exploration in the later evening revealed the capaciousness and undulating terrain of the compound).
Photo Courtesy of Karma Kandara
Any jet lag will be salved the moment you step through the tall wooden entrance to your private villa. A mirage of opulence greets the eye and it’s accepted to adopt hermit behaviour later. Three Balinese-inspired bedrooms, outdoor rain shower, personal pool deck, fully functional kitchen and a 24-hour room service menu at your beck and call—I elected to babysit the villa for the remainder of the afternoon.
This is a luxury resort which you will fall in love with, and will want to linger around endlessly. On the topic of power (or in the case of the height averse—fear), one, singlehandedly will experience that pulsating through your veins as you descend from the cliff-hanging premises to the exclusive beach club down below, via a modest looking inclinator. Sunset is a splendid affair of vivacious colours, sand between your toes and melodious beats filling in the pauses between splashes of waves against rocky outcrops. Wash it down with happy hour beverages and then succumb to a romantic meal of Mediterranean flavours. On my last visit, the kitchen experienced several shortages of seafood, but that was contested with a clever solution of ‘Karma Smoking Meats’ buffet promotion on Sundays, strategically put in place before supplies get in for the fresh week. Think unlimited grilled pork sausages, choripan, grilled baby chicken and sides such as baked beetroot and goats cheese with an immaculate number of sauces from béarnaise to chimichurri. To not wound up in a sated, slightly overstuffed state would be antithetical. Belts and tight trousers are best left in your villa—I for one was very thankful for my wardrobe sensibilities of a flowy maxi dress.
In Karma Kandara, there’s nothing short of things to do. Spend days flitting between your open-air veranda, contemplate plunging into the deep cooling waters of your pool from the second storey, and nurse a spotty tan and a good read on the pool deck. It’s a private patch of paradise, guarded by walls just high enough to provide enough privacy from the nosy neighbours (I had the children’s daycare centre just a stone’s throw away and that made tanning nude unnervingly challenging). My favourite part of the stay was the cliff spa experience at Karma spa, the nimble knuckled therapists kneading worrisome knots out of your back from the glass windowed private rooms overlooking the ragged limestone cliffs. The melodic crashing of waves slowly easing the body into a state of deep healing.
Where food is concerned, as do any private beach resort, choices are minimal but the 2 restaurants and connecting wine bar ensures that you’re well fed. Dinner at Di Mare restaurant was sublime. The dedication to pleasures are front and centre on the plate, service was impeccable and menu suggestions from the cordial staff were concise and tailored to our preferences. The Mediterranean themed cuisine spills into the aesthetics of the restaurant—whitewashed and open verandas offering sweeping panoramic views of the ocean and skies. Despite what it professes to be, the local dishes are riveting, bringing out the personalities of the powerhouses running the establishment.
Once you’re seated, buckle in for the bubblies and giggles. As Chairman John Spence professes, “for one thing, I’m very good at drinking” and his passion for wines reflect in comprehensive wine list which features glasses from the Enomatic wine dispenser—Bali’s first. The crisp brut-like nature of the Karma private collection’s sparkling sets the Baked crab in shell with coconut curry and bread crumbs up for success. Ominously blackened crisp balls of beef croquettes invite you to smother it in sambal ijo. I did so with precaution after witnessing my partner breathe an imaginary ball of fire, one bite in. For mains, we had the ‘Bebek Goreng’ crispy duck teased with Balinese spices and the braised lamb shank. The duck is a winner, with tender oleaginous flesh imbued with earthy spices guarded by the heavenly brittle crispness of skin. Complement your mound of fluffy white rice with flavoursome sayer urab—the crumble of grated coconut overhead elevating the humble mixed vegetable dish. Di Mare offers up something totally different from the fusion concepts overworked in tourist-driven Bali. Overall, there’s something old, something new, something borrowed—and it works.
Karma Kandara dishes out romantic vibes with aplomb. So much so that even cynics might buy into the lull. Unfortunately, its charm is only available to members of the private club Karma Group. For what it’s worth, barring that chimerical experience, I might even consider signing on. Besides, what’s living if it isn’t on the edge?
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Currently in its 25th year of operation, I’ve had the opportunity to meet Chairman and Founder of Karma Group, Mr John Spence, and congratulate him on his new acquisitions in Scotland, Cyprus and Cambodia. After which I acquired a deeper sense of respect for this business-savvy entrepreneur who is currently running a group operating 31 resorts in more than 10 countries over 4 continents.
HNW: How did you get into the hospitality trade?
John Spence: I was previously in the music business. Managing bands for a good 4 years in the early 80s. That changed when I went down to the Canary islands to try my hand in the hotel business. I paved my way from Junior salesman and then in 1993, decided to start my own company. It was almost like doing a ‘Christopher Colombus’ in reverse, I left the Canaries and fell in love with Goa. It was the year 1993 and I saw big opportunities. You could sense that the middle class were beginning to acquire fortune and they were eager to spend it on better holidays. At the same time in Goa, International flights from Europe were coming in more frequently as it was a cheap destination. Subsequently, I purchased a piece of land and persuaded my colleagues to start off as a basic resort. The company grew to what it is today and we have under our hire, 4000 employees in 31 resorts over 4 continents.
Is there a thought process behind the chosen destinations that you acquire?
I would have to say it’s partly strategic and partly opportunistic. Obviously we develop at prime locations, for example, Bali and the Greek Island. But my choices are governed largely by opportunity. Since I own 100% of the company—we have no debt, no partners—so we can come to a decision in 2 seconds. In fact, I was in Cambodia, 3 days ago viewing a property. I didn’t quite like the man who was selling it and was not a huge fan of the location. On our way to the airport, we stopped off at a resort in the town and 15 minutes into touring it, I decided to buy it. Papers were just signed this morning.
We aren’t like a hotel business. We are a private members club after all and most of them live in our hotels, drink our wines, and visit our spas. For our 85,000 members, finding new destinations that they would like is most crucial. If there is feedback that they want something in Cambodia, it would be logical to make a purchase there.
What motivates you on a day to day basis? How do you separate your time between establishments?
I am ideally suited for my business. I was born at the end of Gatwick airport, so I always had jet fuel in my nose. I love flying and travelling. It’s all I’ve done. I’m very lucky that my pleasure is also my business. I spend 180 days a year on flights. In fact, Seat 1A on Singapore Airlines is my home. I confess that my favourite 12 hours in the world is departing from Heathrow airport, putting on PJs, uncorking a bottle of wine and watching a film. I also spend a lot of my time helping to develop new resorts, and working on architecture design. As a matter of fact, I teach architecture at Yale and I enjoy that. At the end of the day, I’m not motivated by the day-to-day since I’m the chairman, and I’ve got excellent and very qualified representatives to handle the ins and outs. I enjoy the helicopter view and find it in my best interest to motivate my workers whilst taking the time to understand the core of the business in the various markets.
You’re not supposed to be biased, but out of all your properties, which is your favourite?
It’s a little bit like choosing your favourite child. Number one, you’re not supposed to and number two, it gets you into trouble. Karma Kandara Bali is very special to me. As a product, it’s very hard to beat. Magnificent location perched high above the cliffs, there’s Karma beach club and we’ve got a great spa. It regularly wins top accolades in Bali and in Asia. It’s also got a special place in my heart as many years ago when I was considering half-retiring, I consulted a Feng Shui master to find me the most powerful piece of land in Bali to build a house. Eventually, I built a resort. A lot of confidence went into it and I’m very vindicated now.
What are your two favourite holiday destinations?
The Greek Islands, I’ve been travelling there since I was 17. And also, the Maldives.
What are some under-the-radar destinations that you foresee will become trendy in the next 5 years?
Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. We are looking to invest there. Crete is going to experience a major upsweep and another would be South America, which we are currently looking into.
Are there any other luxury hospitality groups that you admire?
I was unashamedly inspired by Aman Resorts. They were way ahead of their time though I must say that I’m not very sure if Adrian Zecha is the best businessman in the world. As a guru and visionary, and someone with an eye for style and design, it’s all very respectable. He made a huge impact on our industry.
How have your clients changed over your tenure in Karma Group?
In Asia, they have become a lot more affluent. If we go back 25 years ago and you look at the consumers we were selling our luxury hospitality services to—they were streets apart. At the start, a lot of our customers were buying into it as they were intrigued, and they had little or no travelling experience. Now, the profiles are a lot more different. Our members are very experienced in travelling. With that, the level of affordability and expectations are a lot higher. People want more and more and it’s a blessing that what we have to offer is beyond the normal hotels. Because we are a private members club with a foot in the entertainment business, our customers appreciate that and it establishes a point of difference.
I’ve discussed this point in a conference earlier—for most companies as they develop, if they are lucky enough to be successful, are populated by consumers that are the same age as they are. When I started my business, I was 33. The clients we had were all around the same age. We as a company, have taken it upon ourselves to employ younger managers who can speak the correct language to the millennial generation. In that aspect, we are also heavily involved in designing new products, products around our DJs, clubs, and even introducing glamping which you can enjoy in England and West Coast America.
What is your drink of choice?
I am very passionate about my wine and we make a Karma red every year. Sure I’m not involved in the financial matters all the time, but I’m involved in flying once a year to Bordeaux and selecting the correct grapes to make our wines. I recall when I was younger, I used to hang around a friend’s place and his father had a penchant for wines. It didn’t take him long to notice that I liked red wine and he told me: “If you make it in life, everything you drink will be Grand Cru Burgundy and all else will just be grape juice.” I took his advice and it’s true. I collect wines and now have a cellar at home storing over 3000 bottles.
Describe a typical day in London for you.
Since I don’t have an office. I would get my chauffeur to drop me off at Mount Street. Meeting number one happens at George, a private members club. If I’m sensible, it would be a coffee. If not, there will be a heavy chance of a bloody mary. Then you walk down the road to the trendiest restaurant in town—Scotts—where they keep a table for me every day. I would do a long savage lunch, smoked salmon or dover sole with a Grand Cru Chablis. Meeting number three will be at Connaught hotel, a swanky hotel where I’ll nurse a white wine and perhaps move on to a red. Then it’s a short walk past my tailor, the Huntsman where I get all my shirts done. Last stop is 67 Pall Mall, a private wine club where I’m a founding member of. This place has the biggest selection of wines and since they use the corvin system, they have an astounding 5000 different wines by the glass. Here, I’ll really get into some proper red wines. There you have it—4 meetings and a fair bit of wine. Oh, if I’ve been naughty, I’ll swing by and get my wife a pair of Louboutins on the way home.
Feature Image: Karma Kandara