The story began in Jamaica 35 years ago when Butch Stewart, chairman and founder of Sandals Resorts International, bought a dilapidated, run-down hotel, improved it, renamed it Sandals Montego Bay and opened it in late 1981 with 99 rooms on what he describes as "the best and largest private beach in all of Montego Bay."

The all-inclusive concept was a virgin segment back then. "Club Med was the forerunner, and different brands have done it different ways over the years," Stewart said. "It has been a journey of evolution with many twists and turns, and behind every hotel is a story."

Fast forward to Sandals Montego Bay today, now 251 rooms in 19 room categories with nine restaurants, four bars and four pools set on 26 acres.

Already completed are renovations to the 67 rooms in the Palm wing, in the resort's Caribbean Village, the building closest to the center of the resort.

Terraces have been expanded and all have a soaking tub and overhead paddle fan; the guestrooms are sleek, modern and clutter-free; lighting controls are simple to understand; furniture has teak wood finishes; USB ports are located on the desk and the console unit below the flat-screen TV; the air-conditioner is energy-efficient and quiet; and the bathrooms are enormous and feature a porcelain vanity, backlit mirrors and a shower that includes a long seat and a rainfall showerhead in addition to the standard in-the-wall fixture.

All rooms are handicapped-accessible.

"We are so excited regarding the investment in this resort," Stewart said. "The next block of rooms to be done is the Almond wing in the Oceanfront Village. In our watersports program, we're introducing snuba [a combination of snorkeling and scuba] and night scuba diving, and we recently received a 40-foot, glass-bottom boat for our fleet of dive vessels."

More dive sites are being added to the 60 that are already available around the island.

Sandals Montego Bay offers separate check-in areas for its guests in the butler suites and Club Sandals and offers the "Stay at One, Play at Three" plan, which enables guests to use the facilities and restaurants at nearby Sandals Carlisle and Sandals Royal Caribbean.

The resort also is the only Sandals property that has an on-site chapel, which serves as one of the wedding venues and also offers nondenominational church services on Sunday evenings.

The chapel at the Sandals Montego Bay.
The chapel at the Sandals Montego Bay. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers

Other changes in Jamaica

Elsewhere in Jamaica, the Sandals Royal Caribbean Spa Resort & Offshore Island will debut its five over-the-water suites in early fall.

The 1,200-square-foot suites will feature a glass floor, infinity pool and Jacuzzi on the deck as well as indoor and outdoor showers. The units are being built at a cost of $1.5 million per key.

Sandals Ochi Beach Resort launched in 2015 on the site of the former Sandals Grande Riviera Beach & Villa Golf Resort in Ocho Rios with seven new dining options, 11 bars, 105 pools, the Ochi Beach Club, two Red Lane Spas and access to Sandals Golf & Country Club.

The Rabbit Hole, a new speakeasy-style bar, has been so successful that other Sandals will be adding them, according to Adam Stewart, CEO.

A total of $20 million has been spent thus far on renovations at Sandals Negril Beach Resort & Spa, an hour's drive southwest of Montego Bay.

The 226-room resort, which opened in 1998, has completed redos of 64 rooms in the Coconut Cove building.

Features include soaking tubs, patios with coral stone floors, big bathrooms that are wheelchair accessible and new built-in bars. The concierge and butler-level suites have dining tables, and every room has a beach view.

Every room at the resort is within a one-minute walk of the beach, which is wide, long and protected by a reef.

A 30-minute walk or a five-minute drive away is the 210-room Beaches Negril, where Sesame Street characters meet and greet guests of all ages.

"This is a playground for everyone; the multigenerational market is a big one for us," said Adam Stewart. "If we had the real estate, we'd have a Beaches in Montego Bay, as well."

Barbados and beyond

Elsewhere, expansion continues to play a big role this year throughout much of the Sandals portfolio.

Sandals Barbados, which opened in January 2015 with 280 rooms, will grow to 506 rooms with a total of 15 restaurants late next year.

"Beaches Barbados will break ground later this year," said Adam Stewart. "It will be the Beaches of the future."

In Antigua, construction is slated to begin later this year on the 310-room Beaches Antigua on the site of the Halcyon Cove Hotel in Dickenson Bay that will be adjacent to its existing Sandals.

The 225-room Sandals LaSource Grenada, which opened in 2013, plans to add 257 lagoon nature reserve suites late this year.

"We've had extraordinary success in Grenada, where we see demand for our brand and this destination soar," Butch Stewart said. "So we are investing more in our product here to meet the high demand."

In St. Lucia, Sandals Grande added three restaurants late last year: Kimonos, Soy and the Bombay Club join the Jerk Shack, which opened earlier in 2015.

While the English-speaking Caribbean has been the playground for Sandals Resorts International for 35 years, where it dominates with 24 resorts on nine islands across its Sandals, Beaches and Grand Pineapple brands, "we're looking at renovating existing hotels and at land on other islands in the Dutch-, French- and Spanish-speaking Caribbean," Stewart said.

Sandals at one time had three properties in Varadero, the all-inclusive beachfront destination east of Havana.

"There's a huge curiosity factor regarding Cuba. I love Cuba, but I couldn't sell or improve the properties that carried our name since the government owned them," he said. "Cuba offers a tremendous opportunity, and I would happily go back when the situation changes."

Sandals plans to introduce an app later this year that will eliminate check-in at the front desk.

"What could we ask at the front desk that we don't already know about that guest when he checks in? Through the app and the guest's interaction with it, we will have all the necessary information we need," Stewart said.

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