Good Karma

Last Updated: 22 Sep 2015
Localista Team

John Spence – founder of the Karma Royal Group, and the man behind the $20 million Rottnest spruce-up – believes the island, and WA as a whole, represents some of the best tourism real estate anywhere on the planet. As told to Anna Warwick.

The very first places I saw in Australia were Perth and Rottnest. Sixteen years ago, I was building my company in Asia and literally living on a plane. I flew down from London and had a suite at the top of the Rendezvous Hotel in Scarborough. I woke up and opened the curtains, and there was this magnificent beach with galahs and lorikeets and all sorts of stuff happening, and there in front of me was Rottnest Island. I had no idea there was this sub-tropical paradise island with white sand and reef, a 20-minute boat ride from Perth.

I was originally going to be in Perth for six months but stayed for 14 years; WA has everything that the rest of Australia has to offer, in one location. A lot of people go to Australia and are disappointed, but WA is a gem (with its) tourism vastly under-promoted. The reality is that WA and Perth could be enormously more recognised around the world.

If you were to draw a poll of people around the world, what would Australia represent to them? If you just took them to Margaret River, it would be that – amazing beaches and surf, mad surfers, kangaroos and emus, great wine, great food, the scenery, the whole environment, and friendliness and big skies. If I had to, for whatever reason, stop working and stop travelling and be anywhere on this planet, it would be Margaret River.

It has long been a dream to create a world-class resort on Rottnest. We took over the lease on the existing 80-room hotel Rottnest Lodge – built by Alan Bond – from Bankwest in 2011, and essentially we're rebuilding. We're spending an enormous amount of time and effort working with some extremely talented international architects. Rottnest is a very special location, so whatever we build needs to be relevant to the heritage, the landscape, the climate and everything that goes with it. We are keen to break the mould, and deliver something which is internationally appealing and impressive and valid, and also addresses sustainability issues; that will make people go 'wow', and garner global media and industry attention to WA.

The master plan for the Rottnest Resort.

I've been teaching architecture and design at UCLA as a visiting fellow, and was awarded the Edward P. Bass architecture fellowship at Yale University, a fellowship for mavericks previously given to Steve Jobs and Donald Trump. (The Karma Royal Group) doesn't develop just any piece of land. I've had amazing opportunities to buy houses and resorts and properties, and I haven't done it because the energy hasn't been good. I just bought in Scotland, and had mixed feelings, so I sent the white witch – a feng shui expert on my payroll – to spend three or four days checking it out and clearing it energetically.

Rottnest is a very powerful piece of land, and clearly its history has been turbulent. I've always thought that one of the problems – both morally and ethically wrong – with Rottnest Lodge is the Quod, which essentially was a jail with a terrible history, being utilised as a tourism facility. You don't have to be psychic to know there are ghosts walking around rattling chains. It's also an unattractive building. It's one of those things that should never have happened, so we want to turn that building over to the Rottnest Island Authority and the Aboriginal community at the end of the old lease in 2018. I believe it should become some kind of heritage memorial or museum, where people can go and experience the good and the bad side of Aboriginal history, like Alcatraz or the former South African jail Robben Island.

If you look at Karma Bali, for example, I bought the land 15 years ago for my own house (after employing) a feng shui expert to scour Bali and find the strongest, most powerful piece of land. The restaurant was going to be my lounge room, with a lift down to the beachclub and private beach. Obviously I didn't retire. Then I bought all the other bits of land around it and we built a resort, entirely in a mad way, really, because we didn't do any levelling, we didn't do any terracing; we built around the natural contours. We kept the natural foliage and the trees – that's why, of all the resorts in that strip of Bali [Uluwatu], it is the only place you'll see indigenous tribes of monkeys and flocks of butterflies within the resort. It's their home, and we're guests among friends.

The meaning of karma – and the true Hindu concept of karma – is obviously a lot deeper and more religiously complex, but my understanding of it is really, what you give, you get back. I believe that you have to work with the environment, with the eco structure. If you take a piece of land and chop everything down and stuff it all up and drive all the animals away, then there's going to be some comeback. If you're responsive to it and supportive of it then the Universe gives back good things and that's why it feels so good. I've had this conversation with a hundred different people... and you can be totally against it but I'm yet to hear from anyone, sitting up the top there at Karma Kandara with the breeze coming in and the sun going down, that the place is not magical.

Karma Rottnest will be finished by Christmas 2017 – 10 years in the offing. We'll get there in the end, and deliver a product that WA can be proud of. The style will be similar to Karma Kandara – getting back to something quite natural but still unashamedly luxurious.

The best holiday you ever have is when you're 21 years old, a backpacker travelling the world. The trouble is you're forced into life and you end up doing a real job and it's good – you get married, you have children and you holiday in five-star resorts, but it's kind of missing something. You don't want to go back to dodgy prawn curries and sleeping on the beach, but you still want that freedom, so what we try to deliver is that certain je ne sais quoi. 'Five Star Hippies' is a line I use for the experience we provide – grownups, bungalows and beach bars, and you don't have to behave a certain way. We appeal a lot to celebrities, it's very non-judgmental. I find a lot of five-star products quite hierarchical, people trying to prove that they're cool.

Karma Rottnest will be a 4.5-star, quality proposition, but with the Karma vibe – fantastic spa treatments, alternative treatments and reiki, fantastic food and enigmatic wine lists, tapas bars. A gym and conference centre, corporate and yoga and health retreats, detox weekends. We're looking at an open-air cinema, a Three Monkeys Club for kids. We see a lot of our business as catering to people who are not necessarily staying with us, but staying on the island or coming for the day, or specifically for our activities – very much all inclusive, everything is open to everybody.

I've never had a real job in my life. I dropped out of uni and went into the music industry and then into the tourism business. I always build resorts based on what I want as a consumer. This could be criticised from a purely commercial point of view, because we've built 29 resorts around what I want to experience, and we're planning and developing six more.


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