Hotelier John Spence, founder and chairman of Karma Group, spills his secrets to living a good life on the road.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Hotelier John Spence, founder and chairman of Karma Group, spills his secrets to living a good life on the road.


Spence admits he is “allergic to offices” and prefers to work out of bars and restaurants.

Some people have preferred airlines; hotelier John Spence has preferred flight routes. “My favourite 13 hours in the world are the ones spent on the Singapore-London flight in the Singapore Airlines Suites,” says the founder and chairman of Karma Group. “And Emirates is unashamedly biased with their wine allocation. On the London-Dubai route in particular, you’ll find unbelievably good picks – I’ve seen them pour Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.”

Spence, who founded the hospitality group in 2002 and won the Entrepreneur of the Year award in Australia in 2010, owns 37 properties across Asia, Australia and Europe. Recent launches include the Borgo di Colleoli estate in Tuscany, Italy; Karma Apsara in Koh Samui; and Karma Sitabani, located within a national park in Uttarakhand, northern India, known for its wild tigers. Constantly on the lookout for unique destinations – he’s considering a resort in Luang Prabang near an elephant sanctuary – the ebullient Spence has a novel way of keeping track of his business deals. “I always do something interesting to remember it by.” 

With a gleeful glint in his eyes, he says: “We will be signing a deal at midnight under the full moon in a cemetery that is part of Dracula’s castle, dressed as characters from the Rocky Horror Show!”

What do you always travel with? 

My headphones, because I try to go to the gym daily. I use Bang & Olufsen’s wireless sports earphones and listen to Armin Van Buren – I love trance music. Sleeping pills because I can’t sleep on planes and always a hard copy book. I’m reading Clash of Empires, a historical novel about the war between Rome and Macedonia. 

Where do you go to pamper yourself?

Once a year I go to Lanserhof in Tegernsee, Germany on a detox retreat. It is a combination of pain and pleasure – on the first day, I would give $50,000 for someone to airlift me out and on the seventh day, I would give $100,000 to not leave. They give you these strange salts to flush yourself, lots of medical treatments and you meditate.

What matters to you when you stay at a luxury hotel?

It is the small touchpoints. I’ve been staying at the Four Seasons Singapore for 24 years. They know me better than my wife. They keep trainers in my half-size and a T-shirt. That saves me from having to pack a gym kit, which is the difference between carry on and check in luggage. They also have a four-hour turnover for laundry.

What’s your next vacation destination?

My father and I go on annual archaeology trips. In the past two years, we’ve been to Sicily and Thessaloniki. This year, it is not strictly archaeological but we are going to the castles of Transylvania. I’m willing to bet that I might just buy a castle. How cool would that be?