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Here’s how Stewart’s entrepreneurial genius helped shape Caribbean tourism

Here’s how Stewart’s entrepreneurial genius helped shape Caribbean tourism

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

TORONTO — Sandals Resorts International’s obituary for Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, sent out this morning, honoured the legendary Jamaican entrepreneur’s many accomplishments as tributes to Stewart continued to pour in.

The founder of Sandals Resorts passed away Jan. 4, 2021 at the age of 79, leaving behind his family and an incredible legacy of resorts across the Caribbean.

Gerry Kinasz, Chairman, The Travelweek Group, called Stewart “an incredible innovator in the industry. He was such an inspiring and charismatic man who could entertain a room for hours. And he always made everyone, employees and guests, feel welcome at his resorts, setting the bar high for luxury and service in the Caribbean.”

Travel agents are feeling Stewart’s loss keenly, as he always championed their role in Sandals’ success. Government officials and tourism boards also tried to put the loss into words.

Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister, the Hon. Allen Chastanet, said: “Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart was never an ordinary man. He dreamed big, he thought big, he acted big. He was a visionary, a pioneer and a trailblazer.  His son Adam described him as a ‘superhero’ and I concur because what he did for this region as a whole and for the islands in which he invested was transformative.”

Prime Minister Chastanet said that as a young Director of Tourism in the 1990s, “I convinced him to take a chance on Saint Lucia and he did. Three hotels and 2,000 jobs later, the legacy and impact of Sandals is indisputable.  No one individual has ever left such an indelible footprint on the Caribbean region or been more responsible for the development of the ‘Caribbean’ brand.”

Stewart was a marketing and branding genius, he adds. “His quest for bigger and better led to the unprecedented growth of his hotel chain and global recognition of the Sandals brand. I have lost a former boss from my airline days, a mentor and more importantly, a close friend but the Caribbean has lost an irreplaceable icon.”

Meanwhile Antigua and Barbuda’s Minister of Tourism & Investment, the Hon. Charles H. Fernandez, called Stewart “a Caribbean giant in the tourism industry.”

“It is often forgotten that, despite his humble beginnings, he competed against the biggest names in tourism to build a successful and respected network of hotels across the Caribbean,” said Fernandez.

“That undertaking was not easy.  It required a special person with unique skills and committed drive to successfully overcome the challenges from established institutions, and to carve a universally known brand name. Butch Stewart was all of that and more.”

Few Caribbean islands were more positively impacted by Stewart’s entrepreneurship than his home island of Jamaica. This morning Jamaica’s Tourism Minister, Hon Edmund Bartlett, expressed deep sadness at Stewart’s passing. 

“Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart has made an indelible mark,” said Bartlett. “He has established himself as not just the standard by which entrepreneurship can be judged, but he has established a brand that has become global and is also the strongest statement that small island states such as Jamaica can make on global scenes, irrespective of their areas of involvement.”

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Angella Bennett, Regional Director – Canada, JTB, added: “Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart: OJ, CD, Hon. LLD was a remarkable entrepreneur, hotelier and innovator who transformed visions into reality. His influence and achievements made an indelible impact on Jamaica and expanded across Caribbean. I join my colleagues at the Jamaica Tourist Board in extending our sincere condolences to his family, friends, colleagues and associates.”

FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS TO EXTRAORDINARY SUCCESS

As Stewart himself explained in this 2018 exclusive interview with Travelweek, Stewart got his start not with resorts, but with air conditioners, founding Appliance Traders Limited (ATL) in Jamaica in 1968.

As he told Travelweek’s Deputy Editor Cindy Sosroutomo in that 2018 interview: “We were the new kids on the block, the underdogs in Jamaica’s growing air conditioner market. We were competing against big brands like Carrier, York and General Electric, but we had the desire to be #1.”

Not surprisingly, ATL became #1 in the market within a year.

Stewart was born in Kingston, Jamaica on July 6, 1941 and grew up along the island country’s North Coast, now home to many Sandals and Beaches Resorts. Even before ATL, at the young age of 12, Stewart first stepped into the hospitality industry selling fresh-caught fish to local hotels. His success got him ‘hooked’, as SRI says in its obituary for Stewart, and his enthusiasm for entrepreneurship never waned.

As the travel industry knows, Stewart went on to transform Caribbean tourism and specifically all-inclusive resort accommodation. “An unstoppable force, who delighted in defying the odds by exceeding expectations, Stewart single-handedly built the world’s most awarded vacation brand from one resort in Jamaica to over two dozen distinct resorts and villas throughout the Caribbean,” says SRI.

In 1981 Stewart purchased a rundown hotel on a beautiful beach in Montego Bay. Seven months and $4 million in renovations later, Sandals Montego Bay would open as the flagship of what is today the most popular award-winning, all-inclusive resort chain in the world.

Here’s what Stewart said about the all-inclusive resort concept: “I had heard of the concept, 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.”

SRI adds: “Butch Stewart loved Sandals.  At the time of his passing, he was hard at work on plans for the recently announced expansions to the Dutch island of Curaçao and St. Vincent.”

Stewart was elected President of the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica in 1989 and was inducted into its “Hall of Fame” in 1995. He served as a Director of the Jamaica Tourist Board for a decade and as President of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association in the mid-1980s.

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Meanwhile Stewart’s considerable philanthropy was formalized with the creation in 2009 of The Sandals Foundation, offering support ranging from the building of schools and paying of teachers to bringing healthcare to the doorsteps of those who cannot afford it. This in addition to his tireless support of a wide range of environmental initiatives. Beyond the work of the Foundation, Stewart has given millions to charitable causes such as celebrating the bravery of veterans and first responders and helping those in the wake of hurricanes. In 2012, Stewart founded the Sandals Corporate University.

Stewart’s successes in business and in life have earned him more than 50 local, regional, and international accolades and awards including Jamaica’s highest national distinctions: The Order of Jamaica (O.J.), and Commander of the Order of Distinction (C.D.).

In 2017, Stewart was honored with the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Caribbean Hotel & Resort Investment Summit (CHRIS), hosted by the Burba Hotel Network, marking his significant contribution to the hospitality industry.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

In its obituary SRI notes that the company Butch Stewart built remains wholly owned by the Stewart family, who, in honour of Mr. Stewart’s long-term succession plans, has named Adam Stewart Chairman of Sandals Resorts International, extending his leadership of the brands he has shepherded since he was appointed CEO in 2007.

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.”

Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart is survived by his wife, Cheryl, children Brian, Bobby, Adam, Jaime, Sabrina, Gordon, and Kelly; grandchildren Aston, Sloane, Camden, Penelope-Sky, Isla, Finley, Max, Ben, Zak, Sophie, Annie and Emma; and great grandchildren Jackson, Riley, Emmy and Willow.

A private funeral service is planned. Memories, condolences or personal stories can be shared via email at AllThatsGood@sandals.com,

Kathryn Folliott
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