SRI Executive Chairman Adam Stewart discusses expanding Caribbean resorts to support the return of travel, embracing future industry pros and tourism as an ecosystem.
Will things be different without Gordon "Butch" Stewart at the helm of Sandals Resorts International (SRI)? Unlikely, if his son and new SRI Executive Chairman Adam Stewart’s ambitious expansion plans and guiding philosophy are any indication. “The spirit of innovation is a hallmark of our brands. Simply put, we are in competition with ourselves to outperform our last best work. We never take away, we only add onto. It’s all about getting better and better.”
Travel Weekly spoke with Stewart about his strategy, plans and vision for the future of Sandals Resorts International, and about his expanded role in advocating for Caribbean tourism and the cultivation of Caribbean entrepreneurs.
On Expanding Sandals’ Caribbean Resorts
With such a strong brand focus on the islands, what do you think about the Caribbean that makes it an unrivaled travel destination?
We plan to double in size within the next ten years. We’ll be on a much faster growth trajectory than we’ve ever been in the past, building authentically Caribbean all-inclusive resorts that are a true testament to the destinations we call home. Owning every one of those resorts ourselves gives us the ability to move faster and invest more strategically. We’re not battling with a property owner or an asset manager; we are only battling with ourselves for what makes the most sense for our customers, and that’s what makes Sandals so unique in so many ways. Ownership is key. We acquired ownership of many land grants over the years and held them for the future. Now the future has arrived.
Why such an aggressive growth trajectory at this time?
There are a multitude of reasons. All-inclusive is the fastest growing segment in the industry right now and leisure travel is leading the sector’s return. We have set the benchmark for success in this sector and have the means, vision and momentum to move forward. We plan to show the world some incredible innovation and it’s not in our DNA to stand still for very long. We have had an amazing 40-year history and one thing my dad taught me well was that resting on your laurels from the past will get you nowhere in the future. We have to continue to out-innovate and out-perform ourselves and that includes the competitive set. That’s our intention.
Will your expansion strategy extend beyond the Caribbean region?
As a sixth-generation Jamaican, my dad being the fifth, the Caribbean is our sandbox. Nobody knows the Caribbean like we do. It’s our superpower. Our entire family lives in the Caribbean and one of our greatest joys is to bring more people to the Caribbean, to show them all the parts of all the four corners of the Caribbean. Our sole and total focus is on the Caribbean. It’s our strategy because we are Caribbean and we want to share it with the world. There is so much yet for our customers in the U.S., Canada and throughout Continental Europe to discover here.
You have projects in Curacao and St. Vincent in the works. Can we expect more, new Caribbean hot-spots to be part of the Sandals expansion strategy?
Absolutely. There will be more and more new destinations. Some of this expansion includes islands that are not widely known to our customers and some are destinations our customers and travel advisors ask us for. Our goal and mission is to demonstrate the depth and breadth of a region we know better than anyone else. This is our backyard and like I mentioned, we want to share it.
As the only Caribbean super brand and the only multinational Caribbean organization, we got to the stage years ago and only chose the best of the best. Meaning, we only develop our resorts on the best land that exists in the Caribbean. We will continue to invest in islands that we fall in love with, where we feel that soul, where we feel that spirit, because it makes selling the destination so much more authentic and real if you fall in love with the beauty and the people yourself.
Why did you choose Curacao for your next Sandals resort location?
The country of Curacao is still an undiscovered place and it will mark the first time we are stepping out of the English-speaking Caribbean. It’s very exciting when you look at it through that lens. It gives us the ability to navigate this diverse region as experts to bring new customers and to showcase the destination to all our travel industry and advisor partners.
We are excited about this venture and know our guests are going to absolutely love Sandals Royal Curacao. The island has this mashup of flavors between the traditional Caribbean, the Dutch Caribbean and South America. You see it in the people, you see it in the food. And the Dutch Caribbean, primarily Bonaire and Curaçao, is notorious for having some of the absolute world’s best diving. This resort we acquired and are ‘Sandalizing’ is easily the best hotel in the country. It’s on 44 acres of a 3,000-acre estate with very, very low density.
St. Vincent, which will be the site of your fourth Beaches resort, is another new destination for your brand. Why did you choose St. Vincent?
One of the things my dad and I loved to do most in this life was to jump on an airplane and find these magical spots in the Caribbean and St. Vincent is one of those spots. The whole archipelago of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is so beautiful. It’s a volcanic island, and it looks like something out of a fairy tale. There is so much pride in the people and you have to love their accents and the way they speak. And like all Caribbean people, if you smile at them, they smile back at you.
When I went over there in 2015, I made up my mind that we were going to put one of our flags on this country. Shortly after that they opened their first large international airport which was a game changer for St. Vincent. We started looking for land, and as the universe would have it the property we acquired is west facing. That is critical in the Caribbean as the trade winds go from east to west, and the west has the calmest beaches and some incredible sunsets.
With all this emphasis on new destinations, will Jamaica continue to be a primary focus for SRI in the future?Always. In the next ten years we will more than double our room inventory in our home country of Jamaica, expanding existing resorts and building new hotels and resorts.
What is the focus of your 10-year expansion strategy in terms of resort development?
There is a huge crossover in our customer base between Sandals and Beaches, and they appeal to different customers. Sandals is for two people in love and Beaches is family focused. There is an opportunity to expand our family-friendly Beaches Resorts brand. Currently we have just three Beaches Resorts vs. 17 Sandals Resorts, and while you will see a lot of evolution to the Sandals brand which is set to expand, we have six new Beaches Resorts on the drawing board right now. Sandals customers want to return and bring families and travel advisors want an experience for families that is of the caliber and quality of the Sandals experience. It all comes down to brand trust.
On the Travel Advisor’s Role in Tourism Recovery
Travel advisors play a key role in your success. Will their role change in any way under your leadership?
Not while I’m here! My dad described travel advisors as the backbone of our company. I’ve known many of them for 30 years, since I was a little child, and as I worked with my dad at his side over the last 20 years we built and forged amazing relationships with travel advisors. During the pandemic, and the economic crisis of 2008-2009, and even predating that to the Gulf War in 1991, our travel advisors have always been our most resilient and our most loyal distribution channel.
Those who have specialized in selling Sandals and stood by the brand have done a great service to this organization. I value those relationships deeply and I’m grateful for all the effort they have put behind making Sandals an incredible company. As we continue to build more sophisticated resorts with more luxury features and amenities, and our product becomes more complex to sell, travel advisors will become even more relevant in our world.
On Expanding Education in the Travel Industry
Innovative partnerships seem to be an ongoing initiative for Sandals. Beyond resort expansion, are there new partnerships on the horizon?
We recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding for one of the most significant partnerships. In honor of my Father’s legacy and his commitment to creating opportunity through education, we will be building the Gordon “Butch” Stewart International School of Hospitality and Tourism in partnership with The University of the West Indies (UWI) and Florida International University’s (FIU) Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.
This will be an independent, standalone, international and fully accredited university. The physical campus will be in Montego Bay, and there will also be an online campus for the world at large. Thirty million people travel to the Caribbean every year, but the Caribbean has never had a truly cutting-edge, world-class hospitality school. And we will offer our infrastructure at all our resorts throughout the Caribbean — for practical learning opportunities, everything from cooking on the frontline to management, finance, accounting, IT, construction, development — the list goes on and on.
This is probably the most important partnership we have ever formalized. It signals our commitment to global tourism and to the future. We will be preparing the next generation that will power not only our resorts, but the world of hospitality at large. Our family is truly humbled and proud of this moment.
Forty Years of Love & Trust
Sandals Resorts International is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a special commemorative supplement. Learn about the company's fascinating evolution as well as beneficial travel advisor information. Enjoy!
On Travel and Tourism as an Ecosystem
What impact do you hope to achieve via your new role on the World Travel & Tourism Council executive committee?
My work with the WTTC is to represent the Caribbean at large, to make sure we have a big voice at the table and are heard, to lobby policymakers to ensure they embrace the Caribbean without prejudice to make the right decisions for everyone’s success.
The Caribbean relies on revenues from our tourism source markets and from foreign exchange retention in our economy. Tourism is our economic anchor, and it’s also our greatest opportunity as we go forward.
As we go forward in tourism in the Caribbean, part of my role is to make sure that more Caribbean entrepreneurs understand how to get into the business. A lot of them only think about the hotel side, but tourism is an ecosystem, and that ecosystem doesn’t work in a singular manner. Tourism is the collective of everything that is happening around the hotel. It’s the entertainers and the farmers and the fishers. It’s the bus drivers and the taxis, the restaurateurs, the hardware stores, the chemical companies. These secondary services also allow the ability to earn foreign exchange and create a living from tourism, so the people of the Caribbean can achieve their economic goals and dreams.
For forty years, my family has been part of the tourism infrastructure in the Caribbean, where Sandals is the largest private employer. We know this region and the impact of the decisions made by government on the industry’s ability to make a difference on the lives of the people who live here. The Sandals brand is a password; a trusted family company that helps open the door to opportunity and the work I intend to do through WTTC is to continue to open those doors for the Caribbean region.
Who is Adam Stewart?
Your father was a big personality, a legend in the industry. You’ve described him as, “a consummate entrepreneur and a lifelong dreamer.” Tell us a little about yourself, Adam.
I’m a pretty quiet personality. When I’m on stage I do my thing, but I’m generally a private person. I love family and my extended family. And I love what we do. I’m a firm believer that in this life you should do what you love, irrespective of what society says you should do. If I didn’t love it, and have a fire for it every day, I wouldn’t do it.
If I’m not in a boardroom with a suit on, or visiting our various resorts, I’m on a boat somewhere in the Caribbean with my family and friends and our colleagues. We live a real island lifestyle. We are purveyors of all things Caribbean, and that’s who I am as a person.
I don’t like egos and I love hard work. I am very grateful for the position I’ve been put in, and I know all too well how we got here. It was the people who held our hand through thick and thin, in good times and bad — airline partners, travel advisors, our past guests — and they are always top of mind in my professional journey.
I recognize that we all work so we can take care of our families. It’s important that we all find time to unwind and I hope our customers can do that at our resorts, but that we too, make time to spend with our families and loved ones. Having lost my dad this year, and with so many of us having lost friends and family to Covid, it really brings into focus that we are not here for a long time, and we need to make the most of our time here. Those are the values and the kind of authenticity that I live my life by every day.