Sandals Founder + Chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart: How To Build A Billion Dollar Empire

Gordon Butch Stewart Photo Credit: Sandals

Gordon Arthur ‘Butch’ Stewart O.J., C.D., Hon. LLD is an anomaly in the business world. He’s managed to not only create an estimated billion dollar empire, but has done so wearing an ever-present smile along with his trademark striped shirt. The man often referred to as the “Cupid of the Caribbean” (he’ll tell you why later) has control of his privately-owned Jamaican-based empire that today includes 23 Caribbean properties, Appliance Traders Ltd., ATL Automotive, ATL Autobahn and The Observer media company. All told, Stewart spearheads two dozen diverse companies that collectively represent Jamaica’s largest private sector group, the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner and its largest non-government employer.

The 78-year-old Sandals Founder and Chairman is responsible for flipping the “all-inclusive” resort market on its head and making it a luxury enterprise, offering everything from butlers trained by the English Guild to airport transfers via Rolls-Royce Ghosts. And he is constantly working, creating new opportunities set to engage guests, such as his new golf course in St. Lucia alongside Greg Norman, a new Rondovals at Sandals South Coast and refreshed restaurants and rooms at Sandals Royal Caribbean.

Simply put, the Jamaica-born businessman—who is still based in the Caribbean to this day—is fueled by a dogged passion for hard work, duty to country and love of family who always seems to be having the most fun. “Honestly, I’ve never worked a day in my life,” he says. And now, he’s sharing how to do what you love—as he did—and make billions in the process. Talk about living your best life…
Sandals South CoastPhoto Credit: Sandals

How did you get started in the hotel business and what drove you towards the hospitality industry?

Serving customers with a generosity of care and exceeding their expectations is the essence of hospitality and the values that have driven my lifelong approach to business – even before the start of Sandals. The late 70s and 80s were a politically sensitive time in Jamaica. As the value of the local dollar dropped, it became necessary to find a way to earn the stable foreign currency necessary to meet business obligations. That was the impetus for Sandals Resorts and exceeding expectations the source of its success.

You didn’t invent the all-inclusive concept, but you say you’ve perfected it. What do you mean?

After significant innovation in the space – from in-room amenities such as hair dryers and coffeemakers – which may seem quaint today to included transfers and premium brand drinks, we made a very conscientious decision in 2007 to go further, much further and create a premium all-inclusive resort experience that would compete successfully against any resort experience in the world. And we’ve done it. No beads, bracelets or winding buffet lines. The Sandals Resorts five-star standard begins with a phenomenal beachfront setting; selection of groundbreaking and beautifully appointed suites including over-the-water bungalows, which we introduced to the Caribbean; choice of at least 16 restaurants at every resort; top-shelf liquor and enhanced service including butlers trained by the Guild of Professional English Butlers. Quality, service, style and choice are what define our luxury included concept and we’re very, very proud of it.

What, in your opinion, is the secret to the success of your company?

Teamwork, a commitment to exceed expectations and leadership that makes these values the priority has been the essence of our success.

Sandals
Luxury stays at Sandals include private transfer via Rolls-Royces

Do you need consistent innovation and ingenuity to keep the brand fresh, or has the product simply perfectly established a formula at this point?

Any organization that stops innovating will not last very long. We are committed to exceeding guest expectations and they change, as they should. That’s why we include fast and free WiFi and have invested heavily in areas that today’s audiences demand such as quality interior and exterior design, excellent food and beverage, thoughtful service and new destinations. Whether it’s an incredible rooftop experience, opportunity go bowling or sip cocktails in an authentic speakeasy, we’ll never stop creating new ways to delight our guests.

Can you tell us about your five-star initiative?

Luxury customers know that signing chits and tipping don’t make for a better experience and that’s what our 5-Star campaign is all about. We are on a mission to dispel myths and to make sure customers seeking a true luxury resort experience – from in demand destinations and spectacular beachfront settings to standout suites, personalized service and incredible dining, consider Sandals Resorts.

What does Sandals offer that you yourself seek on vacation? What are you five “musts” for any hotel/destination?

When I travel, I look for an authentic vacation experience that’s true to the destination matched with the luxury of a 5-star resort, and I believe that Sandals does just that.

1. I’m a Jamaican who loves the water so a great beach with easy access and crystal-clear waters is a must!
2. Friendly, local staff are very important to me. I always like to learn more about a destination from the people who live and work there.
3. A variety of options! I like to have lots of choices when I’m on vacation. One day I might want to relax by the pool and then the next day, get out and explore the water sailing on a Hobie Cat.
4. Unique rooms and suites are key. I want to be wowed when I walk into my room, whether it be a large, spa-style bathroom or a pool on my balcony.
5. Top-notch dining is non-negotiable for me. A high-quality, authentic food and beverage experience is one of the most important elements of any excellent vacation.

Sandals South Coast
Luxurious accommodation at Sandals South Coast

Photo Credit: Sandals South Coast

Have you considered opening Sandals resorts outside of the Caribbean? If you’ve considered it, is this something we might see in the future?

Options are always to be considered. For now, we are proud of what we’ve built in the Caribbean, which is our home; the Caribbean people who have benefited from the opportunities Sandals has presented and the many people we have introduced through the resorts to this incredible part of the world.

There are plenty of perks that come with being the leading Caribbean Luxury Included resort company but what are some challenges that you have faced in your career that you’ve overcome, and if so how?

Every success comes with challenges and I’ve had my share along the way. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, but I would point to the period immediately following 9/11 as one of the most challenging moments in the history of the company, as it was for too many. With travel absolutely halted, there was great temptation to slash prices and cut services. We made the decision to bet on us and an American customer in need of our style of vacation. While we did put incentives into the marketplace, we also used that time to acquire new resorts and begin extensive renovation at existing resorts. The risk was rewarded, and the company celebrated by initiating “Operation Relax,” donating $2 million in free vacations to active-duty military at home or abroad.

Obviously traveling is a part of your routine, since you get to travel to so many stunning destinations, where would you say is your favorite place in the world?

My favorite place is to be on my boat fishing.

Gordon "Butch" StewartPhoto Credit: Rio Chico

Which of the Sandals properties do you enjoy the most and why?

Oh boy, that’s a tough one! I mean, how do you pick one child over the other? Sandals Montego Bay, our flagship resort, holds a very special place in my heart. I mean, that’s where the Sandals story first started. Whenever I visit Sandals Montego Bay, I’m always overcome with a flood of memories of those early days when we really had no clue how to run a resort. And yet, here we are in 2019 leading the way. The fact that Sandals Montego Bay recently completed a massive transformation from top to bottom, adding new rooms, new restaurants and new amenities will guarantee that a whole new generation of Sandals guests also fall in love with this amazing resort.

You’ve been in the game for a while now and have likely seen changes in the travel industry. How do you think the all-inclusive category has evolved since you started, in regards to luxury accommodations and service?

I think the most dramatic change within the all-inclusive space since we began in 1981, has been the shift in the perception of the category. Once upon a time, guests believed all-inclusive meant one thing: mediocrity. Every all-inclusive resort was the same. We changed that, paving the way for more entries into the category and more choice for consumers. And this is a good thing because Sandals has never aimed to compete on price. We are focused solely on quality of experience. This is why we take such tremendous pride in the location of our resorts, the beauty of our grounds, our incredible variety of suites that dazzle in their uniqueness from rondovals to over-the-water bungalows. It’s why we put so much care into our food and beverage, operating multiple standalone restaurants run by a dedicated staff and chef rather than servicing diners from a single commercial kitchen. Today’s luxury customer seeks customization above all else, personalization of every facet of the experience. That is the Sandals difference and the essence of our new 5-Star campaign.

What can we expect moving forward from the “Cupid of the Caribbean” (and how/why do you have that nickname)?

I always laugh when I’m called “The Cupid of the Caribbean” but when I first started Sandals in 1981, I was targeting the honeymoon market so everything was geared towards romance, for two people in love. And while weddings and honeymoons are a big part of our business, Sandals is also a great place for couples to get away and reconnect, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and enjoy the very best in luxurious accommodations, delicious dining, impeccable service and so much more. From romantic candlelight dinners under the stars to relaxing spa treatments in a seaside gazebo, we offer something for every couple at any stage of their relationship.

You’ve said in the past that you’ve “never worked a day” in your life, because you enjoy it so much. Do you think that’s the key to success in both business and in life?

Being fully engaged in the things that are important to me, committing to do my best – this is living life to its fullest. That is the ultimate success.

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