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Robert Stewart: Interview

Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts, the Caribbeanå‘s number one ultra all-inclusive luxury resorts, that promise unparalleled delights for discerning travellers, are preparing to add two new properties to their growing portfolio. This week we talk to Robert Stewart, (pictured) Managing Director of Sandals & Beaches UK & Europe to find out how Sandals have weathered the recent storms.

Q. How many Sandals
are there now in operation? How many under construction and how many do you expect to see by 2005?

A. We currently have twelve Sandals resorts in operation. It is tough to say how many resorts we will have by 2005 - some years we don’t have much going on and then we’ll open 5 in a row. What is certain is that we will continue to grow.
We currently have a property under development, located on the South Coast of Jamaica, about 1 and half hours away from Montego Bay airport in Westmoreland, which is a really fabulous piece of land - virtually untouched. Sandals Whitehouse is set on 45 acres of forest and will offer 360 large rooms, including 54 luxurious suites and that should open next year.

Last year we also took over Dragon Bay in Port Antonio. Port Antonio is absolutely ‘the all’ Jamaica. It is a really unspoiled. We are developing somewhat of a boutique resort - I`m not sure of the exact date when that will be open.

Q. How is SARS affecting tourism in the Caribbean region?

A. Unfortunately it has really hurt some destinations badly, it’s a great hardship and it is really a shame. Hopefully it will quieten down and I am optimistic that things will return to normal. However some destinations have benefited because people are still travelling and the Caribbean will be one of those.


p>Q. I know that your partner relationships are a key priority for Sandals. In what ways have you and your partners worked together to get through difficulties that have arisen this year? (Outbreak of war, economic instability, consumer uncertainty, outbreak of SARS).

A. Sandals’ has a reputation that has been built over many years for being the strongest supporter of the trade at all levels. We are very active in the market and the effort that we apply towards keeping the business going and keeping people strong is probably a lot greater than most companies our size.

We have supported trade, travel agents, trade partners and tour operators very actively and anyone that has worked with us has given us feedback to say that they are really grateful for the effort we have put into stimulating and maintaining the market. We are really proud as a group and as a team that we have been able to maintain such a good relationship with everyone.

Q. According to many recent surveys (including the TIA
) Americans want to travel close to home, with more flexibility. In what ways has Sandals been pro-active in encouraging consumers to travel?

A. I think it’s sort of a Caribbean thing. The Caribbean is seen as a backyard to the US. So if people are thinking about staying closer to home, the Caribbean does get some of that attention. People have been taking advantage of the close proximity that the Caribbean offers from the US.

I don’t think it has affected our length of average stay, but we have seen a lot of people coming over from the US for three nights.
Q. Have you noticed any trend towards last minute booking patterns?

A. There has definitely been an emerging pattern. Last year we had a lot of last minute business due to world events - while we all assumed it wouldn’t last, this year there has been a much more prolonged period where people have been considering their plans. People who were contemplating travel as far back as January are now starting to book again.

Although we don’t focus on last minute bookings exclusively we are aware that it’s important to get a good share of the late business.  Last year everyone thought things would never go back to being the same, but I think everything is relative. It’s swings and roundabouts.

Q. Will Sandals Resorts ever develop outside the Caribbean?

A. We have given this thought over the years there has been speculation in the press, but the Caribbean is what we know right now and we are very much a Caribbean company. That’s not to say that we would ever rule it out because if an opportunity comes along we will evaluate it.


Q. What plans do you have in the pipeline for Beaches?

A. We will continue to grow the Beaches concept. We opened Beaches Boscobel last year. Beaches has been working quite well - it is a smaller part of the company but is experiencing bigger growth.

Q. What kind of meetings facilities do you offer guests at the Sandals Resorts?

A. Sandals being a couples resort, the meetings and conventions business is not as big as it is with some of the other Caribbean hotels, however the incentives market is quite a strong one for us and does provide a lot of business.

We find that the resorts can offer guests a great location for incentives. Our recreational activities are great for team building and unwinding.

Each resort has its own individual features. The Sandals Royal Bohamian Resort and Spa
, has a very nice conference centre with excellent facilities and state of the art equipment. Beaches Caicos
also boasts some wonderful facilities.

Q. Can you discuss Sandal’s recent performance? Did you hit your target for 1Q 2003?

A. We had a very good first quarter and we are very pleased. We do realise that some of the benefits were because of conditions of the world and other destinations have suffered this year. The Caribbean was one of the beneficiaries, but we are pleased. And we did hit our targets.

Q. What are your main priorities for Sandals in 2003?

A. In 2003, objectives for the UK side of the business will be to increase our relations with the trade, strengthening those relationships and continuing to grow the business.
For the company as a whole we are always improving the product and have gone the whole nine yards from the day we opened, offering great room facilities. We will continue to innovate and put in whatever it is that customers are asking for that we can deliver.
Q. Are you optimistic for the future outlook of the Caribbean hospitality industry?

A. Yes