Resort developer talks luxury travel

John Spence, who addressed a packed auditorium at the School of Architecture Thursday, oversees the operations of 22 luxury resorts on four continents.
John Spence, who addressed a packed auditorium at the School of Architecture Thursday, oversees the operations of 22 luxury resorts on four continents. Photo by Alexandra Schmelling.

Globe-trotting luxury resort tycoon, entrepreneur extraordinaire, wine-lover and self-described “worst guitarist in the world,” John Spence, spoke to a full house at the School of Architecture Thursday night.

This semester’s Bass Fellow, who participates in one of the school’s advanced design studio classes, drew a crowd that spilled beyond Hastings Hall into two overflow rooms, where attendees watched a live feed. As the owner and chair of Karma Royal Group, Spence oversees the operations of 22 luxury resorts on four continents and is currently considering his first purchase in the United States.

The college-dropout-turned-developer considers himself to be in “the entertainment business,” saying his target guests are people whose best vacation came when they were 21 years old and drinking too much. Spence’s resorts cater to fun-loving tourists — now older and with a bit more money — in a manner that might be unrecognizable to most resort-goers. While Spence’s resorts are quite expensive, he said they are not targeted for those seeking to rise early and play a few rounds of golf. Karma is the place to be “if you’re trying to have fun,” he explained, citing the resorts’ luxurious spas, activities and child-occupying diversions.

“Our job is to entertain people,” Spence said.

With hair down to his shoulders and dressed modestly in an open-collared button-down shirt, blazer and blue jeans, Spence delivered a widely praised — if rather unconventional — performance Thursday night.

“This was like a sales pitch,” Jason Roberts ARC ’14 said. “[The lecture was] way over the top, which was great.”

Filled with photographs of his resorts and of the breathtaking landscapes he said he hopes to develop into high-class tourist destinations, Spence’s presentation was lighthearted and different from the academic lectures that attendees usually find at School of Architecture events, Roberts said. Spence had the entire audience, from tenured architecture faculty to students and visitors, laughing throughout.

But not all attendees found Spence’s talk as heavy on content as on style. School of Architecture professor Tom Zook ARC ’95 said that while he found the lecture “very entertaining,” it did not focus heavily on the architecture of the resorts. Zook added that the “potential of [each resort’s] site is what is attractive,” rather than the fully-developed resorts themselves.

Four audience members interviewed said that as architecture students and alumni, they enjoy listening to developers’ and business leaders’ perspective on the field they will be entering.

Spence, who will be taking a group of students to Spain as part of the studio design class, said in an interview after the lecture that his work as a developer has fostered his deep appreciation for architects and their “key role” in his business. He added that he wished he had spoken more about the architectural aspects of development during his lecture.

Spence’s lecture concluded with a list of pithy slogans by which he lives, including “It’s more fun being a pirate than being in the navy.” He closed with his favorite saying of all: “Now is the time to drink.” He was the most popular guest of all at the cocktail party following the event.

Spence is a native of Great Britain.

Comments