EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Robert Stewart, MD Sandals
By Ben KilbeyHot on the heels of sweeping the board at last years World Travel Awards, picking up accolades that included; Caribbean’s Leading Hotel Group, Antigua and Bahamas’ Leading Spa Resorts and Caribbean’s Leading Family All-Inclusive, Sandals Managing Director, Robert ‘Bobby’ Stewart advises Caribbean Travel News on what the Ultra all-inclusive will be focusing on in 2005, the serenity of the Caribbean and the importance of the UK market.Sitting in Sandals’ offices in the very exclusive and fashionable SW3 area of London I wait for the man who has it all to play for. A multi-million dollar Jamaican business at his fingertips (well, not only his) and the world as his oyster. Robert, more affectionately known in the industry as Bobby, Stewart is a busy man indeed. I wait for a meeting to clear up when I will pounce and try and engage Bobby in conversation. The receptionist advises me to get comfortable, “He doesn’t look like coming out anytime soon.” Not to worry I will practice my verse.
15-minutes passes and the man appears; “Ben, ya mon, good to see ya mon,” we engage in a strong handshake. For everything they have the Stewarts are a grounded family, always carrying a welcoming smile and obliging handshake. Bobby speaks in a undeniable Jamaican accent, keen not to allow his roots to go unnoticed.
We start with ‘04.
“Well, Business was excellent in 2004 we had, despite the hurricanes, a significant increase. Somewhere in the order of 25 percent, we are very happy with that, very happy, we made budget. Predictions for ‘05 are even better, in ‘04 we had some challenges, I think in ‘05 we are well positioned and we should be going forward quite strongly - right now in January we are very happy.”
Bobby’s face tells it all.
The Sandals product has been greatly upgraded over the last few years;
“Every single year we are going through the property and upgrading rooms, redoing rooms, adding new features, for instance the Red Lane Spa last year, this was a complete makeover for Sandals spas. Also we delineated the changes between Sandals resorts Classics (regular resorts) and Signature Spa resorts. I think when people actually see what Sandals offers they are blown away by the difference, shocked at the difference between the Sandals product and every other all-inclusive that wants to be like us!”
Sandals grand success is not down to taking things easy, it boils down to hard work and a desire to succeed.
“We are pushing the hardest in Caribbean. (Operators typically see) when business turns around we are always taking the jump, our business will surge first, surge to a greater degree, two or three weeks behind that you are gonna’ see the rest of the Caribbean coming up as well.”
As the US economy dips and weakens further is it time for Sandals to sit up and pay attention to more emerging markets such as China? With the largest proportion of Sandals clientele arriving from the states (UK is in second position, up from third) is it time to expand the marketing net to catch some new fry?
“China. We have been paying more and more attention to it. We don’t have any plans to do anything really big or active right now. We are watching the market, looking for opportunities, and will continue to do so. If we see an opportunity to do something to grow and develop over there then we will definitely do it, but nothing active right now.”
When quizzed on Cuba Stewart is jubilant, talking of a myriad of culture, fabulous beaches and, “the price is good, that ties in with everything else to make it very popular!”
Sandals now operate 3 properties on the Caribbean island and are happy to do so. However, what with the reshuffle at Air Jamaica and the dropping of the UK/Cuba route couldn’t this pose a problem for arrivals from the UK?
“Cuba has grown from the UK, and will continue to grow. There are other carriers providing airlift - you have got Virgin for example - there are also some other things happening. You have got some charters, and you know, hopefully the lift will correct itself very quickly. We will continue to work closely with everybody to make sure we have access to every single avenue for getting people down.”
Obviously there are no worries on arrivals to Cuba.
On the subject of Air Jamaica Bobby is firm in indicating that no matter what happens from here forth the family will not re-engage in the airlines investment plans:
“There is no chance of us being back into Air Jamaica, we spent ten years on it. I think Butch Stewart did a really, really good job in building that airline from what it was ten years ago to what it is today, they have some fantastic routes that took a lot of effort to develop, a lot of effort to market and promote.
They now have some fantastic aircraft and a very good reputation. The Government have something very viable that they can carry forward, I really hope that they do well with it and everything works out as I think it is very important for the island, and the region, to have a strong carrier.”
So what is the state of play on accommodation in Cuba?
“We just opened two properties in Cuba - one that we gained from a competitor. It was amicable, they were suffering poor occupancy and the owners were losing a lot of money so, after they lost it they came to us and had a chat, so we are now operating Sandals Princess del Mar - which is one fantastic resort, I think the best resort in Cuba, absolutely the best resort in Cuba. Fabulous, drop a camera anywhere and the photograph fits nicely.”
Another success for the Ultra all-inclusive. As far as developments are running one of the most important this year would have to be Sandals White House on Jamaica’s South Coast.
“Sandals White House, you need to see, it is fantastic, amazing! It is the same drive time from Montego bay airport as Negril is. All the rooms are built right on the water, all are beachfront. There are European villages Similar to Turks and Caicos, so that people can spread out and do their own thing.
The Beach is huge, 50 acres with a 500-acre nature reserve. This is one fantastic resort, the rooms are huge, some of the biggest we have in our chain, fantastically decorated.”
There are plans of later adding a Beaches resort and adding a golf course. Bobby enthuses:
“The area is really going to take off. It has access to all same tours as Negril and Mo’bay so there are huge amounts to do.”
Arrivals from the UK are ever increasing and this is only set to get better.
“We have more then doubled our market-share as a percentage of Sandals overall business from the UK over the last 2-3 years. UK used to be our number 3 market and is now number 2 - it is 5 times larger then Canada. It is a very significant market. We offer a very international mix; Germans, Italians etc. At some resorts in the Eastern Caribbean UK guests make up more then 50 percent of clientele.”
The increase in arrival from the UK can be greatly attributed to the close knit relationships Sandals forge with all of their operators.
“We work very closely with all of our operators and we do cart-wheels for everybody that we work with, Virgin I think is another example of that. Virgin is our biggest operator currently, we have developed a relationship over the years that works very well for both of us. We would always be careful to make sure that we are always just as close with everyone else that we work with,” said Bobby.
“We work closely with all our tour operators, everybody is on an equal footing - it is our policy. I think that is a very important point.
In summing up Mr. Stewart is keen to stress that being an all-inclusive doesn’t mean that people don’t have the opportunity to sample what the destination has to offer.
“We encourage everybody to get out. We are THE biggest provider to just about every single tour operator, every person that operates a tour or attraction in Jamaica, that’s craft markets, inside country canopy tours, Dolphin encounters you name it, people come to our resorts and are encouraged to get out and see the country. People that come want to get out and see the country, they don’t just want to hide out and sit on a beach and bake. They come down to experience the culture of Jamaica, culture of St. Lucia the culture of Cuba. And that is what they do.”
So, on another note, aside from the business that Bobby has to constantly engage in, what does Mr. Stewart do when he wants to escape from it all?
“Head down to the Bahamas, meet up with a group of friends and go fishing. Not sport fishing, I fish for what I can eat, then we play some dominos, drink some rum and kick back.”
In closing I ponder what were the best gems of wisdom that Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart ever gave Bobby a simple answer follows:
“Shut up! Know when to stop talking!
With thanks to Bobby Stewart.
For more information on Sandals resorts visit www.sandals.co.uk
For more information on Virgin Holidays visit www.virginholidays.com
Carriers to the Caribbean include:
For more information on the World Travel Awards visit www.worldtravelawards.com