Stephanie Mee meets the five-star hippy behind The Karma Group name.
Many moons ago when the Bukit was little more than a hangout for intrepid surfers and far from what many now call the ‘billionaire’s row’, one trailblazing entrepreneur had a vision of building a cliff-side resort that would cater to sophisticated leisure travellers looking for what he called a ‘five-star hippy’ experience.
He envisioned a collection of boutique villas with private pools and access to world-class amenities like a fine dining restaurant, spectacular spa and exclusive beach club. Yet at the same time, he wanted to create a space where people could slip off their shoes, dip their toes in the sand and restore their souls.
That visionary was John Spence and the resort was Karma Kandara; two names that have since become synonymous with luxury living here in Bali and abroad.
John Spence got his start as a music agent in London in the early ’80s representing bands that at that time were up-and-coming stars like Bananarama, the Eurythmics, and Culture Club. He later found his true calling in property sales and marketing, which set him on a path that would take him around the world.
A business conference in 1993 landed John in Goa, where he would go on to open his first resort. He says, “At the time I was thinking about developing a resort in the French Caribbean, so it was kind of an accident that I ended up in Goa. But I fell in love with it right away, and I saw a real opportunity there because Goa was just starting to take off.”
Never one to follow the masses, John decided to create a resort where people could buy or rent their own vacation property, a concept that was still relatively new in India and Southeast Asia. Using his life savings, he founded Royal Resorts and built The Royal Goan Beach Club, which was a huge success and a pioneering property in vacation ownership in the region.
In the years that followed, John opened more resorts in Bali and Lombok in Indonesia, Chiang Mai and Phuket in Thailand, and the Gold Coast in Australia. He had a real knack for recognising opportunities in spots that were somewhat undiscovered at the time, but that would go on to become thriving global hotspots.
In the early 2000s John decided to diversify and so he founded Karma Resorts, which introduced the concept of boutique villa resorts in Asia. Karma Kandara became the flagship property of Karma Resorts and would set the trend of the private pool villa experience that so many would follow.
John says, “A feng shui expert actually found the land that Karma Kandara now sits on, and he determined that it was perfectly aligned for healing and good fortune. At first I thought I would build a house here because I had this vision of retiring and working less (stupidly), but then I thought that you really can’t beat this location for a resort. If you’ve got the right land, everything falls into place.”
John’s vision for Karma Kandara was not just to provide clients with a luxurious villa in a spectacular setting, but also to offer them unique experiences that they wouldn’t find anywhere else. He says, “The Karma experience is more of a lifestyle than anything else. I’m much more interested in engaging people and giving them something new and memorable.”
Experiences at Karma Kandara include holistic healing rituals at the Karma Spa Kandara, which won the Luxury Spa Awards 2015; hedonistic wine tastings high atop the cliff in the amply stocked cellar at VERITAS Wine Bar; and fun family activities and excursions with the Three Monkeys Kids Club. In every aspect of the resort, John aims to set the bar high so guests walk away with an unforgettable experience.
He says, “Take for example the Karma Beach Club. We’re not trying to be a trendy beach club that can pack in the crowds. Instead we want to offer more quality and less density. We only allow a certain amount of people in each day, so our guests know they’re going to get a sun lounger and great service, great food, and great events with DJs who offer more than just banging house music.”
After achieving his dream of bringing Karma Kandara to life and the huge success of the resort, plus the others that came before it, one might think that John would sit back and actually get down to working less. However, that just wouldn’t be John.
Over the past few years John has been significantly expanding the global network of the Karma Group, which is comprised of Royal Resorts, Karma Resorts, Karma Estates, Beach Clubs International, Karma Spa, and the upcoming Karma Ski. Properties now include Karma Bavaria in Germany, Le Preverger in France, Karma Rottnest in Western Australia, and Karma Reef in Gili Meno to name just a few.
He says, “We strive as a company to embody the celebration of life, inspired by beauty and style, fitness and health, in the world’s most beautiful locations. This, in turn, inspires our loyal, alpha lifestyle-driven guests from all over the world who, much like our team at Karma Royal Group, relish challenging themselves by working hard and playing even harder.”
The Karma Group also recently introduced the Karma Club, an exclusive member’s club that offers enticing perks like generous discounts on accommodation, food, drinks and spa treatments, automatic upgrades, and VIP access to parties and events around the globe like skiing trips, music festivals, and grand prix motor racing weekends.
And John has no plans to stop any time soon. He is currently planning projects in Hakuba, Japan, Little Harbour Island in the Bahamas, Margaret River, Australia, Karangasem, Bali, Palawan in the Philippines, and on one of the world’s most remote islands – Saint Helena in the South Atlantic.
So how does he do it all? John says, “Your work has got to be taken seriously and earn you money, but it’s also got to be like sport — fun, challenging and something you do for enjoyment. If it becomes just about feeding the family then you’re not going to enjoy it. And if it’s not enough of a job, then really it’s not going to be fulfilling. It’s a balance. I genuinely feel that my work is an adventure, every day.”