As the pioneering founder of Sandals Resorts International, Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart has redefined all-inclusive luxury in the Caribbean.
But the lavish holiday destinations are merely the latest in a string of achievements for the maverick entrepreneur. Past ventures have included everything from fridges to airlines, with Stewart developing unrivalled influence across the region as a result.
Here Breaking Travel News sits down at Sandals’ London office to discuss recent developments in the Caribbean and what the future holds for this most engaging of businessmen.
Breaking Travel News: Do you think the way the Caribbean, and particularly Jamaica, is portrayed in the media is a fair representation of the situation on the ground?
Butch Stewart: I think the way Jamaica is portrayed is fair. I do. Everybody from each country would like to see their best side put forward, but I think the media has been very decent to Jamaica.
Those who come down, those who visit, they get very excited. Jamaica is an exciting country. There is a lot of energy, it is very pretty.
Everybody should visit.
The people of Jamaica like pleasing people. If you walk down any road on the island smiling you will get some white teeth smiling right back at you.
BTN: Has this been affected by the recent state of emergency following the arrest of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke? Do you feel the atmosphere has changed at all?
BS: That made bad news, it blew up certainly. But in fairness, it disappeared just as quickly. The government, the police, they used the opportunity to go after the criminals.
Every country these days has drug gangs. Every country. Jamaica is no different; they are in Jamaica in big numbers. But the prime minister has been after them ever since.
It has had a positive impact on Jamaica. No question.
BTN: Jamaica, generally, seems to be in a positive frame of mind, despite the winder problems in the Caribbean?
BS: We at Sandals are very strong.
Economics everywhere starts with America and the Caribbean is no different. Jamaica is very dependant on the American economy, and we have had to work harder than normal for things to work.
BTN: Are you doing anything specific to bolster your position?
We have more guys on the road, more advertising, more expenditure. We are keeping things tight out there at the resorts, spending less money.
We work with the tourist board to support travel agents. Trust me; we are the travel agents best friend. Ever. We have a love affair with the travel agents, its been going on for 30 years out there.
A stream of travel agents visit us every year. There can be as many as 50 staying with us at any one time. They visit consistently throughout the year. We have had at least 2,000 from the UK over the last 12 months to Sandals – not just to Jamaica, but to Antigua and St Lucia.
We show them a good time. There is no reason why a travel agent should sell a product they find boring. Why should they?
BTN: Is there anything new for the agents to find at the present? Do you have any expansion plans at present?
BS: Yes, always. We are presently preparing to break ground on new ‘over-water’ suites at Sandals Grande St. Lucian Spa & Beach Resort – so honeymooners will be able to walk with the fishes.
There is also a secret resort we are working on. Presently undergoing judicial process, so not too much about that now. You know, confidentiality agreements.
We are good shape. The hot stuff around.
BTN: How about Air Jamaica? I understand you are no longer associated with the airline, but obviously it was merged recently with Caribbean Air. Do you think this will have a negative impact on visitors to the region?
BS: No, none at all. The name has been kept, and I think the deal offers a good opportunity.
They will be able to get rid of a lot of their costs, which were the main problem. They will not fly the amount of routes they used to fly, but that is not a problem; taking things in small, manageable bite-sized chunks.
BTN: Finally, I read you were responsible for introducing hairdryers to the Caribbean – as a new height in luxury. Anything else in the works?
BS: You laugh now – but in 1984 that was a big deal. We were first with everything – swim-up party pools, where you could drink around the pool.
We invented the term speciality restaurant – before you would have maybe al la carte and that would be luxury. But we installed a restaurant in Negril, called it ‘Jamaican Gourmet Food’, with the white glove service, still all inclusive. A bonanza.
The list goes on and on.
Everything we have done has been a progression. We need to stay ahead.