KarmaRoyal Group’s chairman John Spence, credited with pioneering the holiday ownership concept in Asia, tells Catharine Nicol why what  he does is not the kind of the thing you can learn at hotel management school

You may have heard of Karma Resorts. The Ibiza cool meets Balinese charm of über-luxurious Karma Kandara on the cliffs of Uluwatu gets much of the attention. However, Karma Royal Group’s portfolio includes 22 resorts across Asia, Europe, Australia and the Caribbean and employs more than 3,000 people within brand names Chakra Resorts, Karma Beach International, Karma Spa and Royal Resorts.

The captain at the helm of this fast-growing fleet is John Spence, university dropout, ex music agent and philanthropist.

Of course when you drop out of university and wind up managing 80s greats such as Eurythmics, Bananarama and Culture Club you’re more high-flyer than failure.

“Every night of the week you were on a guest list of 20 bars and clubs. You could pick a band up at midnight and lose them by seven in the morning,” he remembers. “It was huge fun though. And it taught me how to sell. How to be direct and get a decision out on the day.

“People think if you have a band like Culture Club life is easy. In reality every band starts as nothing. When you have a transvestite lead singer playing songs no one has heard of, it’s brutal. Plus the commodity was always moving. They might leave you. They might smash up a hotel room.”

Spence took his sales skills and sold holiday property for Global Group for almost a decade before a life-changing trip to Goa spurred him to create Royal Resorts, a vacation ownership company.

“So I’m not really a hotelier, I’m a sales person. I sell property, real estate and hotel nights. The reason we have developed hotels is to provide and deliver on the promise of what we’re selling. We could have brought in outside brands but I felt we could deliver a better product.

“Beach clubs, music, CDs, wine – whether it’s the Laura Ashley Estate or a fashion show or the kids’ club, we have fun. We do things I think my friends will like. It’s not what you learn at hotel management school!”

Like any good hotelier (and perhaps sales person), he gleans as much as he can from wherever he is and transforms the best ideas into his own properties.

“I spend my life picking up ideas. I have a diary and if I don’t have two or three entries every day it’s a bad day. I’m a plagiarist and I morph ideas into my own products. Without a shadow of a doubt, the gods of boutique hotels were Adrian Zecha and Aman Resorts. I learned a lot and took a lot from Aman.”

But if he takes a lot, he also gives back. “I believe, as I think most people in Asia do, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. There are so many obvious examples of poverty and I feel very motivated to give back. We support a school in Bangalore, an orphanage in Bali, the Karma Foundation … it’s the concept of Karma, the name. It’s a naïve interpretation, give to the universe and you’ll get back and it’s much more than that, but I definitely think there is a karmic quality to the universe.”