In a way, you could say that Gordon “Butch” Stewart has his head in the sand, a lot of sand. So much, in fact, that one can only marvel at the success he has had with it. These last thirteen years he has taken quiet stretches of Caribbean coastline and built an empire out of them. Along the way he has won a shelf of awards, been hailed as the “saviour of the Jamaican dollar”, and has become one of the most influential business-men in the hemisphere. No-one outside Silicon Valley has ever done so much with sand.
Stewart’s all-inclusive Sandals Hotels are a cashless society: couples-only, everything pre-paid. They offer couples – male and female only, thank-you – the romance of clear blue skies, miles of open sea, and free service from a happy, well-trained staff. Attentive management swathes visitors in homely exotica with apparent effortlessness. The experience is infectious, almost addictive.
With ten properties on the ground – in Barbados and Antigua as well as two in St Lucia and six in Jamaica – and a string of local and international awards behind him, Stewart laconically concedes: “Yes, we’re doing it right.”
That “we” is an important emphasis for Stewart. Whenever he speaks about Sandals, he stresses collaboration. Lately, everyone has been basking in the glory of a clutch of top honours at the first World Travel Awards held in the United States last July. Accolades such as Best Caribbean Hotel Group and The World’s Leading Independent Resort are not to be sneezed at, especially when the competition includes Club Med and the votes that count belong to travel agents with global itineraries.
Stewart, though proud, is not turning cartwheels. He says: “Frankly, I thought Club Med would win. But our success must prove what we always knew: simply because we are in the Caribbean does not mean we can’t be the best.”
An encore? He smiles: “We don’t reach out after these things. We don’t promote ourselves that way. In fact we are constantly surprised by the awards we get. But the only way to be the best is to keep surpassing your best. We’ll go back and win again.”
With all this kudos, it is hard to believe that the luxury resorts which host more than 150,000 Caribbean tourists a year began with a derelict hotel on Jamaica’s north coast only 13 years ago. In April 1981 Stewart bought the Bay Roc hotel and the Carlisle hotel in Montego Bay in an effort to circumvent the government constraints on trade-related businesses. Seven months and $4 million later the Bay Roc re-opened as Sandals Montego Bay. Stewart remembers that even then it was still in a somewhat “primitive state”.
“We didn’t know too much about the business then; we were babes in the hotel industry,” he explains. “We had a lot of frustration in trying to bring that hotel to life, and by the time we felt we had enough of a product to receive guests a lot of people were feeling sorry for us. They felt we had made a big mistake and didn’t know how to come out of it. I, too, felt we had bitten off a big challenge, but I wasn’t totally overwhelmed.”
But Stewart was able to turn a profit within three years and was soon familiar enough with the business to begin his legendary expansion. The venture succeeded through sheer gutsy determination and a willingness to learn, qualities which had already taken Stewart from being a salesman at an export company called Curaçao Trading to a successful career as the head of Appliance Traders Limited (ATL), an air-conditioning business which diversified into refrigerators, freezers and other household appliances.
Stewart’s first breakthrough had come in the late 1960s when he won the distributorship for Fedder airconditioners with a characteristic mix of bravado and savoir faire. Predicting, accurately, that airconditioners would soon become cash cows, he pre-sold 30 of them – before he even owned any – by door-to-door inquiries in Kingston. Then he wrote Fedder asking for the distributorship, only to be told that the $3,200 he had raised in pre-sales was not enough to merit serious consideration of his offer. He responded by flying to New Jersey and persuading the company to change its mind. He offered cash payment for the first shipment; within a year Fedder was the market leader in Jamaica.
Chuffed with ATL’s success, Stewart emblazoned the company logo on his first Mercedes Benz. Detractors who felt the gesture lacked class were dismissed with the tart reply that “it was the air-conditioning business that bought the Benz.” The same earthy charm would rescue Sandals in its early days. “We started to learn the business,” he says. “We learned how to sell it, what people liked or didn’t like. For the first two years we lost money, and when you lose money in the tourism industry you lose lots.” How much? “Don’t ask!”
By 1982 another 66 rooms were being added to Sandals Montego Bay. Then in 1986 came the second Montego Bay property: Sandals Royal Caribbean (soon to be Royal Sandals). Four other Jamaican properties followed: Sandals Negril in 1988; Sandals Ocho Rios in 1989; Sandals Inn (the old Carlisle) in 1990; and Sandals Dunn’s River in 1991. Sandals Antigua opened in 1991 and Sandals St. Lucia in 1993. Sandals Barbados has now joined the family, and in 1995 Beaches, a 354-room 286-acre resort, will herald the advent of mass tourism on Jamaica’s south-west Coast.
The Sandals concept is one which Stewart sees as a “winner wherever it goes”. But he has opted to keep it in the Caribbean. He has reportedly declined invitations to extend the chain to places like Hawaii and Greece because of his “Caribbean vision”. That probably means that islands like the Bahamas, St. Kitts and even the Dominican Republic will soon be on the Sandals map.
All this activity has Stewart fired up. Sandals’ success to date notwithstanding, he still considers the all-inclusive concept evolutionary. “There have been so many changes since we first opened. The original formula for the Sandals concept, which we worked out back then, has been refined and refined again and again . . . We were the first hotel to open with a satellite dish with multiple television channels. We put kingsize beds in every room. We put hair dryers in every room, put in whirlpools at all the properties. In 1983 we introduced snacks around the clock. We’re the first to have a swim-up pool bar, squash and racquet ball courts. Lots of people have a perception of all-inclusives with long buffet lines; well, we have buffets but we also have white-gloved service and reserved dining all within the all-inclusive price; concierge service for suites and honeymoon suites so close to the ocean you can almost be washed away.” At this he laughs with delight.
Stewart believes that Sandals has so re-fashioned the all-inclusive concept that the time has probably come for ratings much like the “stars” accorded to hotels generally. Who else can offer the “stay at one, play at six” experience that Sandals has developed? Many are the compliments of guests who book into one Sandals property in Jamaica and then enjoy full access to the five others, opening up a choice of 30 restaurants, five dive sites, six glorious beaches, and a variety of ambiences.
In St. Lucia, it’s “stay at one, play at two”. Stewart sees the Antiguan guest hopping over to St. Lucia for the day: “stay at one, play at three”. In fact, he feels that island hopping is ideal for the Caribbean; Sandals already offers guests the chance to see several islands in one vacation with the assurance of first-class service all the way. With a twin-prop plane and a corporate jet for island-hopping, who knows – Stewart may soon be jetting his guests around the region personally.
Sandals Resorts now provide some ten per cent of Jamaica’s annual hard currency earnings. There is a Sandals University in Montego Bay, which handles staff training – it has contracted lecturers from the University of the West Indies to prepare for university accreditation in several academic disciplines. Stewart has played host to Raquel Welch, Mickey Rooney and a host of major celebrities and dignitaries; Sandals properties have been used for major promotions such as the widely telecast marriage of Barnum Bailey, the US circus magnate.
Although Stewart quips that he has been on holiday for the past twenty-five years, his on-the-spot approach has played a pivotal role in the maintenance of the high standards and customer satisfaction that has underwritten Sandals’ success. According to the US travel magazine Tour and Travel News, Stewart ranks among the industry’s “twenty-five most influential executives”, rubbing shoulders with the heads of American Express, American Airlines and Hertz Corporation. He has been honoured extensively in Jamaica: Hotelier of the Year, the Gleaner Honour Award, Investors Choice Company of the Decade.
He has also been credited with “saving the Jamaican dollar” in 1992. When the dollar began to slide dangerously, he announced a “Butch Stewart Initiative” which pledged a consistent flow of US$ earnings to check the depletion of hard currency in the official banking system. Perfect timing and presentation effected a spectacular slowing of the decline and held the dollar within a stable range. More importantly, the scheme discouraged black marketeering, shored up confidence in the economy and made Jamaica seem a lot less volatile to potential tourists.
Money, Stewart says, is not his motivation. The real satisfaction comes from “making things happen, being a part of something big.” Clearly, whatever challenges lie ahead, he is going to revel in them. What makes him so intriguing is not wealth or conquest – both staples of the entrepreneurial appetite – but the sheer, maverick energy of the man.