Often described as the ‘dynamic’ CEO of multi-award winning Sandals Resorts International (SRI), Adam Stewart has a lot to be happy about at the moment. Since his appointment as CEO four years ago, Sandals has experienced unprecedented growth and development, which has seen the group transform from the all-inclusive concept to Luxury Included® resorts.
Under his leadership, luxury tour company, Island Routes Caribbean Adventure Tours was launched, which now offers over 200 experiences throughout the region. In addition, he founded the non-profit Sandals Foundation in 2008 which works with local communities and is soon to make its mark in the rapidly growing voluntourism sector.
As the Sandals Royal Caribbean Private Island prepares to host to the prestigious World Travel Awards next week, which will see the leading lights of the Caribbean & The Americas travel industry descend in Montego Bay, BTN caught up with Stewart, to find out just how the Caribbean’s Leading Hotel Brand has maintained its leading status over 30 years, achieving exponential growth while other travel organisations have been making cutbacks due to economic uncertainty.
BTN: On October 19, Montego Bay’s Sandals Royal Caribbean will play host to the World Travel Awards Caribbean & The Americas Gala ceremony. Why is it important to host events such as this?
AS: First and foremost hosting the World Travel Awards, an event accurately labelled the ‘Oscars of the Travel Industry’, is a tremendous honour and we are thrilled to be able to play our part in it. Aside from that, it keeps our resorts on the world stage and enables us to show off a little bit too!
BTN: Sandals has won numerous World Travel Awards since the Awards programme was first set up including World’s Leading All-Inclusive Company and Caribbean’s Leading Hotel Brand. To what do you attribute this on-going success and recognition from travel industry professionals?
AS: Our Chairman and my father Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart instilled an ethos into our company from day one and it remains as true today as it did then: to give people more than they expect. We place a lot of emphasis on the training and development of our staff which in turn gives us the platform to bring this vision to life.
What’s more, the role that travel industry professionals have played in the growth of our company and its continued success is remarkable. Simply put, we wouldn’t be where we are today without them.
BTN: Sandals has enjoyed 30 years of tremendous success, having been influential in shaping the all-inclusive marketplace and introducing many industry ‘firsts’ which have now become standard. How has Sandals managed to stay ahead of the game and continued to predict consumer trends?
AS: Of course, we never take the credit for inventing the ‘all inclusive’ product but we like to think we’ve perfected and developed more than anyone else in the industry. I put much of that down to taking the time to listen to people. Our customer remains at the centre of everything we do.
As big as Sandals and Beaches are, we remain a family company from Jamaica and that allows us to stay very close to both our guests and the travel trade and find out what they want, and more importantly, use our initiative to act upon it. We are deliberately different!
BTN: What advice would you give to hoteliers who are looking to launch in today’s marketplace?
AS: The relationship with the travel industry professionals is paramount to success and always has been. Without the support of the travel trade, forget it!
BTN: What were the main challenges you faced when you rebranded Sandals to Luxury Included® holidays? How difficult was it to change traveller’s perceptions of Sandals? Why was the luxury market an important one for Sandals to tap into?
AS: The main challenge we faced was creating the differentiation from other all-inclusive resorts and shifting consumer perception away from their existing memories of endless buffets, nameless drinks and hidden charges. The more investment we made in ‘luxury’ the more we became a completely different holiday and starting reaching to a new type of consumer. One who yearned for gourmet cuisine and white glove service, unlimited scuba diving, exquisite suites, butler service and all the other things that you find at a Sandals or Beaches Resort.
We found that our best salespeople were our own customers and the trade who had grown with us and coupled with some creative marketing, the good word soon spread.
BTN: The Sandals Foundation will be introducing your Voluntourism – Reading Road Trip Experience project during WTM. Can you give BTN a heads up on why this is an important project? Are you hitting your targets to give back to the communities in which you are supporting?
AS: It’s all about engagement. We’re not in the business of preaching to people about the troubles of the world but we know that there are people out there who need a little help from time to time and we know that there are people out there willing to give it. It’s up to us to link those two groups of people together using the power and resources of the Sandals brand. Initiatives such as this are tremendously gratifying and the feedback that we’ve had has been excellent.
The work we undertake with the Sandals Foundation is ongoing and comes with the kind of targets that continuously move – there’s always work to be done and it’s the reason we do what we do. The scope is very varied and equally rewarding. The feeling when you hear one of your scholarship students in Jamaica is studying medicine or that our marine sanctuary has helped to reverse damage caused to the coral reef is hard to beat.
BTN: You have announced some exciting new developments as part of a $500 million plan to expand and enhance Sandals’ offering in the Caribbean. Do you have any plans to expand beyond the Caribbean?
AS: The Caribbean is our home and we know it better than anyone else. We literally grew up playing on the beaches and swimming in the waters here so it’s hard to imagine us expanding outside of this region.
BTN: What differentiates Island Routes tours from itineraries that travellers can book with any other tour operator? What do today’s travellers want?
AS: We look to meet the needs and desires of the Caribbean travellers by offering unique experiences for everyone and that means finding new excursions off the beaten track and away from the tourist hubs. We integrate each island’s unique cultural and social geo-demographics into the tour experience so that guests, all-inclusive or not, leave with a firm appreciation of the host country’s culture. Yes we offer more traditional tours, the ziplining and the catamarans, but we’re definitely noticing a shift towards culturally-based tours.
Guests are certainly more discerning about tours now, they only want to do the best of the best and are more aware of safety standards and the finer details. This is where Island Routes comes into its own.
BTN: What are your key growth markets in coming months?
AS: We’ve spotted huge potential within group bookings. Whether that’s golf, spa, weddings or diving we have the kind of product that allows us to cater for groups superbly. For example, the opening of Sandals Emerald Bay and with it the Emerald Reef Golf Club and a large red Lane Spa, is perfectly suited to welcoming groups.
We expect good things from last minute wedding booking also.
BTN: What do you consider to be the main challenges for Sandals in 2012? How do you plan to overcome these?
AS: We face the same challenges as any business in the world at the moment and that’s coping with the aftermath of a global recession where markets are still climbing on their knees but our plan is simple. Whenever someone comes to a Sandals or Beaches resort our aim is to ensure that they have the time of their lives and are glad they came.
BTN: What travel patterns / trends are emerging in the Caribbean this year?
AS: As you’d expect in a climate such as this, consumers are undertaking an huge amount of research before they book – visiting as many as 20 different web sites compared with just 6 before. As an industry, we’re also seeing people continue to take long haul vacations but are reducing the duration of their stay. However, we appear to be bucking this trend and are seeing our guests continue to stay for over 10 nights.
Late business will continue to play an important part as it did this year although we are now even noticing last minute wedding bookings which again we’re well equipped to handle.
World Travel Awards fever comes to Jamaica
A distinguished line-up of travel industry professionals and media from 60 countries are set to gather at the luxurious Sandals Private Island in Montego Bay on October 19th to find out who will triumph at the World Travel Awards Caribbean & The Americas Gala Ceremony.
The Caribbean & The Americas Gala Ceremony marks the fifth and final leg of World Travel Awards 2011 Grand Tour, and follows heats in Dubai, UAE; Antalya, Turkey; Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt; and Bangkok, Thailand.
Regional winners from these events then progress to the Grand Final later in the year.
The event partners are Sandals Resorts, BBC World News and WeClickMedia, while media partners include National Geographic Traveller, eTurboNews, Focus on Travel News, Breaking Travel News, JaxFax and Travel Daily News.
For more info about World Travel Awards 2011 Caribbean & the Americas Ceremony & bookings visit the http://www.worldtravelawards.com/americas2011” target=“_blank”>website.