I love Sandals Resorts, so it was with great sadness that I read the founder of Sandals, the Honorable Gordon “Butch” Stewart, O.J. recently passed away at the age of 79. He leaves a legacy of leadership, philanthropy, and a travel brand that revolutionized the all-inclusive resort model.
Stewart was born and raised on the island of Jamaica and always had a love of the Caribbean. Years before he became the founder of Sandals, he helped revive Jamaica’s travel industry and held many leadership roles over the years including director of the Jamaica Tourist Boards for over a decade and president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association in the mid-’80s.
Tourism can’t be successful if people can’t get to your island. In 1995, Stewart led a group of investors to revitalize Air Jamaica, the Caribbean’s largest regionally based carrier. The group transformed dirty planes, poor service, planes that were rarely on time, and a business that had plummeting market share and revenues into a hugely successful business. The airline was returned to the Jamaican government in 2004 with an increase in revenue of over $250 million USD.
When the Jamaican dollar began to slide in 1992, Stewart came to the rescue with the “Butch Stewart Initiative” which pumped $1 million USD a week into the official foreign exchange to halt the slide. Dr. Henry Lowe, at the time president and CEO of Blue Cross, wrote to Stewart saying: "I write to offer sincere congratulations to you for the tremendous initiative which has done so much, not only for the strengthening of our currency, but more so, for the new feeling of hope and positive outlook which is now being experienced by all of us as Jamaicans."
One of the things I remember about my stay at Sandals Resorts was the opportunity to give back. The brand encourages you to pack school supplies in your luggage that can be dropped off at the front desk. An excursion from the resorts lets you go on a “Reading Road Trip” to help local students improve their reading skills. Stewart’s philanthropy in the Caribbean was extensive for more than 40 years and culminated in his establishment of the Sandals Foundation in 2009. It focuses on education, community, and the environment. Over the years it has helped to build schools, pay teachers, and improve healthcare. In addition, Sandals International covers all the costs for administration and management of the non-profit so that 100 percent of every dollar donated goes directly to the foundations’ initiatives.
Sandals Corporate University was founded in 2012 by Stewart with a mission to provide professional development for employees. Educational and training programs are provided through access to more than 230 courses and partnerships with 13 local and international universities. Opportunities are open to every staff member who wants to advance their career. It delighted Stewart whenever he was dining anywhere in the world and an excited staff member would share with him, “Thank you. I got my start at Sandals.” To continue the legacy of Sandals’ founder, The Gordon “Butch” Stewart Tourism and Hospitality Scholarship will continue to support the development of young professionals around the globe.
A Travel Innovator
Butch didn’t invent the all-inclusive concept, but he revolutionized it. In 1981, recognizing the potential of Bay Roc, a rundown hotel on a beautiful stretch of beach in Montego Bay, he launched the first Sandals. “I had heard of the concept [all-inclusive], yet at the time, the services and rooms were very basic. Contrary to that, I envisioned we could bring forward a luxury resort to offer customers so much more. So, we perfected it. Only the most comfortable king-size four-poster beds, fine manicured gardens, cozy hammocks, and the kind of warm, refined service the Caribbean has become known for. Just as important was to be located on the absolute best beach because that’s what everyone dreams of.”
His model raised the standard by offering multiple gourmet restaurants, premium drinks, all land and watersport activities, as well as gratuities and airport transfers all included. As the founder of Sandals Resorts, he single-handedly built the world’s most awarded vacation brand from one resort in Jamaica to over two dozen distinct all-inclusive resorts and villas throughout the Caribbean. As part of this process, the company has taken old resorts and revamped them into luxury destinations, increasing job opportunities and revenue in tourism-dependent economies. He was hard at work on the company’s expansions to the Dutch island of Curacao and St. Vincent at the time of his passing.
The company Stewart founded is still wholly owned by the Stewart family. Adam Stewart, his son, was named the new Chairman of Sandals Resorts International. Speaking on behalf of his family, Adam Stewart said, “Our father was a singular personality -- an unstoppable force who delighted in defying the odds by exceeding expectations and whose passion for his family was matched only by the people and possibility of the Caribbean, for whom he was a fierce champion. Nothing, except maybe a great fishing day, could come before family to my dad. And while the world understood him to be a phenomenal businessman -- which he was -- his first and most important devotion was always to us. We will miss him terribly forever.”
Inspired by Stewart’s story? Consider