Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

If it were up to suppliers, travel advisors would be listed among essential workers.

Perhaps no one knew that better than Gordon "Butch" Stewart, chairman of Sandals International, who died on Monday at age 79. When he wasn't giving away cars wrapped in Sandals' logos to his highest-producing travel agents, he was singing their praises to anyone who would listen.

And praises were sung back to him.

I wasn't on the job as editor in chief of Travel Weekly for long before I got a message that Butch would like to get together.

I met him on a small, private island in the Bahamas. He was standing waist-deep in clear blue water, wearing a snorkel mask, bending over and looking at fish as I approached.

He greeted me cordially, and we boarded his boat, the Lady Sandals, and went fishing with his daughter, Jaime, who was involved in the business at the time, and his college-age son, Adam, now chairman of the company.

It was 2002, and travel agencies were still reeling from the impact of 9/11. Butch was very concerned about travel advisors, spoke of their importance to him and expressed worry about a distribution channel that had already been reduced by one-third.

His passion and concern for agents was clear. He didn't uncouple that concern from worries about his own business, but it was obvious that, beyond his own business interests, he felt a bond with the agent community.

Butch's passing brought me back to the article I wrote after that meeting.

"Quality travel is not a commodity," he had told me. "I feel bad for consumers who think that it is. You can't just look at vacation packages that sound similar and then make decisions based upon price alone. Anyone can put together a brochure filled with beautiful photographs and promotional copy, even when they bear little resemblance to reality."

He pointed out that travel agents have the benefit of hearing the feedback of hundreds of travelers.

"Agents must work for consumers. If they sell someone the wrong trip, they'll end up with unhappy clients who will bad-mouth them and never return."

Knowing this, he had been among the first suppliers to put together a training program, and he said that when he received a booking from a graduate of his program, "I feel most confident that the guest is being matched to the property that's the best fit."

He linked his high repeat-visitor rate to the high percentage of business he got from agents. "Agents know what they're doing," he said.

And he said that travel advisor feedback was invaluable. "I confess -- agents have had a tremendous impact on how Sandals and Beaches have developed," he said. "When something's not right, agents let us know. And when they talk, we listen -- they're speaking on behalf of our guests. Simply put, without agents, Sandals would not exist in its present form.

"I've had a 21-year love affair with travel agents," Stewart continued. "It's been a mutually beneficial relationship for both of us, but when agents and suppliers work well together, the biggest beneficiaries are consumers."

Stewart could not conceive of a world without agents, he added. "No consumer could hope to do enough research to match what years of experience and training have taught travel agents. To my mind, travel agents seem to be getting more relevant with every passing year, not less."

We met several times over the years, but another conversation we had, in 2009 during the Great Recession, came to mind when I learned of his death, partly because I thought that lessons he learned during that economic downturn could benefit suppliers today as we emerge from our current crisis.

Consumers, Butch said at the time, would want better pricing. That brought his focus to reducing the cost of purchased goods rather than cutting staff. "I don't want service to slip, so the restructuring is small," he said. He recognized that consumers "were saying to themselves that they could have spent their money anywhere, but they spent it with you, and you darn better do it well."

A year into the recession, he had said that "an interesting thing has happened. We have a better organization. It has been a year I have relished because we got to understand our own business better. As much as we thought we were in charge, we went back to school. Operations, marketing, whatever. We had more focus groups for guests, travel agents and staff than we've ever had in any year before. It forced us to focus where the weaknesses of the product were.

"And as a result, our guest satisfaction scores have rocketed at the same time our costs are down," he concluded.

Butch, the industry will miss you. The best teachers teach by example, and for those who paid attention, the lessons Butch Stewart taught will live on. 

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