Sandals' Butch Stewart remembered as 'dynamic, larger-than-life figure'

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Gordon "Butch" Stewart, a true son of Jamaica, a travel and tourism visionary entrepreneur and founder of Sandals Resorts International, died Jan. 4 at the age of 79.

According to his son Adam Stewart, chairman of the company, his father had chosen to keep his health condition private, "and we respected that wish."

Speaking on behalf of his family, Stewart said that "we have lost a superhero, a marketing genius and talented showman, but those who knew him best recognized that he was a dreamer who could dream bigger and better than anyone."

Butch Stewart's life is a story that begins with a man's love for the island of his birth but which expands to incorporate his abiding affection for the whole of the Caribbean.

Stewart, born in Kingston on July 6, 1941, grew up along the country's north coast, where his passion for the sea, the game of dominoes and free enterprise deepened.

He dipped his toes into the hospitality industry at age 12 by selling fresh-caught fish to local hotels and, after attending secondary school abroad, became a master salesman at the Dutch-owned Curacao Trading Company.

The itch to start his own company came when he recognized that air conditioning could offer an essential service during the hot Jamaican summers, and he convinced American manufacturer Fedder Corp. to allow him to represent the brand in Jamaica.

With that, Stewart's first business -- Appliance Traders Limited -- was born, and he was on his way.

Stewart had a passion for the beaches and waters of his native Jamaica.
Stewart had a passion for the beaches and waters of his native Jamaica. Photo Credit: Sandals

It was there that he developed the business philosophy that became his mantra for the rest of his life: "Find out what people want, give it to them and in doing so, exceed their expectations."

In 1981, the rookie hotelier bought, renovated, redesigned, replumbed and rewired a down-at-the-heels resort and opened Sandals Resort Beach Club, now Sandals Montego Bay.

Standing on the beach with Stewart during a visit to that hotel, now the company's flagship property, in 2016 to debut the first results of a four-year renovation project, he told me that "this resort is my first love. It all began here."

Today, the empire he created comprises 24 properties across five brands on seven islands. Two more resorts, on Curacao and St. Vincent, are on the drawing board.

Stewart wore many hats throughout his life, balancing government and private sector priorities. He served as director of the Jamaica Tourist Board for a decade, was president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association in the mid-'80s and led a group of investors to take leadership of Air Jamaica in 1994, focusing on on-time service, increased training for personnel and offering the signature free Champagne on flights.

In 2004, Stewart gave the airline back to the government with a revenue increase of more than $250 million, according to Sandals.

Growing up in Jamaica gave Stewart's life a freewheeling start.
Growing up in Jamaica gave Stewart's life a freewheeling start. Photo Credit: Sandals

David Shields, vice president of sales for Island Routes Caribbean Adventures, a sister company of the Jamaican-based ATL Group that includes Sandals and Beaches, had traveled with Stewart over the years during sales calls with travel advisors.

"The words that come to mind to describe Butch are caring and a deep sense of concern. He gave care packages to all team members when Covid-19 shut down borders and resorts," Shields said.

"One of his very powerful initiatives came in 1992 when he pumped $1 million a week into the official foreign exchange market to help halt the slide of the Jamaican dollar," Shields said. "This effort stabilized our currency."

Chairman of the Jamaica Tourist Board John Lynch, who worked with Stewart for decades, spoke of his commitment to excellence.

"His passion and vision for tourism in Jamaica and across the wider Caribbean are unparalleled. He will be remembered for his groundbreaking work in growing the all-inclusive concept, and we are confident that his rich legacy will be preserved," Lynch said.

I've been covering the Caribbean, and Sandals, for Travel Weekly for 36 years, and so I have experienced Stewart's idea of hospitality firsthand. I am reminded of a brief encounter with him at a cocktail reception at a Sandals years ago.

I was holding a glass of wine in one hand and he asked me why I had no jerk chicken hors d'oeuvres in the other -- an appetizer I had declined when the server came by.

"Our brand is hospitality. Guests must feel welcome in my house. You are not allowed to decline our hospitality," he laughed and summoned the server by name.

"Please give this lady some of that chicken," he said, as he grabbed a chicken wing himself and moved toward other guests.

Kevin Froemming, vice president and chief marketing officer of Playa Hotels & Resorts, worked for Stewart for 10 years "and learned a great many things from him, not the least of which was the power of promotion and his ability to look past challenges/obstacles and treat them like opportunities."

"He created an iconic brand in Sandals through hard work and dedication and has always had a great appreciation for the trade and provided the trade with exceptional support," he said. "I will miss him greatly. And I know that Sandals and the thousands of its employees are in great hands as his son Adam takes the helm."

Stewart with the thousands of requests that poured in after he announced Operation Relax in 2003 to salute U.S. active military members during the Gulf War.
Stewart with the thousands of requests that poured in after he announced Operation Relax in 2003 to salute U.S. active military members during the Gulf War. Photo Credit: Sandals

During the Persian Gulf War in the early '90s, Stewart donated more than $1 million in complimentary vacations to Operation Desert Storm veterans.

He then continued his support by doubling the effort and donated $2 million in complimentary vacations in 2003 after Operation Iraqi Freedom to salute active members of the U.S. armed forces with Operation Relax.

His philanthropy continued with the creation of the Sandals Foundation in 2009 that offers support to Caribbean communities, from building schools and paying teachers to bringing healthcare to those who cannot afford it.

Janelle Hopkin, president and managing director of Spice Island Beach Resort in Grenada described Stewart as "dynamic, charismatic and a larger-than-life figure." Her hotelier father, the late Royston Hopkin, and Stewart were great friends.

"Men like my father and Butch Stewart were far ahead of their time in terms of taking their dreams and turning them into great legacies," Hopkin said. "They shared an unwavering friendship and never saw each other as being competitors but rather as necessary components of the Caribbean luxury hotel sector.

"My father considered him a true brother and a giant of a man who shared his philosophy that it was not about hotels, but hospitality" Hopkin said.

Stewart surrounded by family members at the Caribbean Hotel and Resort Investment Summit.
Stewart surrounded by family members at the Caribbean Hotel and Resort Investment Summit. Photo Credit: Sandals

With his easy, infectious warmth, his trademark striped shirt and aviator sunglasses, Stewart exuded unstoppable energy and approachability.

And while his diverse companies collectively represented Jamaica's largest nongovernment employer and largest private sector group, Stewart "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" in the words of his son Adam.

"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," he said. "We will miss him terribly forever."

Alongside his devotion to family and his love of fishing was Stewart's love of the game of dominoes, played with longtime friends on park benches or on the deck of his fishing boats.

He once told me that he would teach me how to play dominoes. I am sorry that I missed that chance, but his daughter Jaime has assured me that if I ever do pick up the game, "dad will be guiding your hand from the heavens above."

Stewart is survived by his wife, Cheryl, children Brian, Bobby, Adam, Jaime, Sabrina, Gordon and Kelly, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A private funeral service is planned.

Those wishing to share memories, condolences or personal stories may do so at [email protected]

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