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How Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart Transformed Caribbean Tourism

In nearly 40 years as a pioneering Jamaican hotelier, Gordon “Butch” Stewart, who died this week at age 79, popularized the all-inclusive resort category, creating what became one of Jamaica’s largest employers and one of the Caribbean’s largest travel companies.

Beginning with two Montego Bay hotels, Carlyle on the Bay and Bay Roc, in 1981, Stewart fashioned the model for the upscale, all-inclusive Caribbean resort. His company pioneered stays that combined accommodations, meals, entertainment and activities, often packaged with an air component, for a single price.

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Sandals and its family-friendly Beaches Resorts brands ultimately spread to five additional Caribbean countries and late last month announced a sixth, with the planned addition of Curacao later this year.

Sandals Founder Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart

In addition to the all-inclusive category innovations he pioneered, Stewart’s personality was instrumental in the company’s growth and popularity. The antithesis of the hands-off owner, he consistently endeavored to impart the friendly, outgoing character of Jamaica’s people to his guests through his employees and staff.

The disarmingly easygoing Stewart was a constant presence at the Sandals properties during its earliest days and throughout the years that followed, chatting, laughing and interacting with every level of staff in a genuine manner. He encouraged employees to behave similarly with guests, and their willingness to share aspects of Jamaica’s culture with resort vacationers became a signature across his properties.

When the roar from planes departing from nearby Sangster International Airport periodically interrupted the Montego Bay resort’s serene surroundings, Stewart instructed staff to stop whatever they were doing to wave at the outgoing planes. Guests also took up the practice, and it remains a tradition at the Montego Bay property to this day.

Caption: “Good service and genuine hospitality is about making people welcome [and] comfortable.” – Gordon “Butch” Stewart (at center, flanked by Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

Yet Stewart was also a shrewd businessman who combined his trademark outgoing friendliness with a tough-minded, uncompromising emphasis on high-quality accommodations, facilities, amenities and services.

Under his guidance Sandals launched a series of innovations later recognized as industry standards and ultimately adopted by other companies, including “couples only” resorts, multiple, themed resort restaurants, swim-up bars, over-the-water suites, English butler service and premium liquors and spirits at resort bars. Stewart also fomed partnerships with iconic brands including such as Microsoft Xbox , Sesame Workshop, Mondavi Wines and Greg Norman Signature Golf.

In time Sandals also became a training ground for Caribbean hospitality professionals. Many of today’s top resort executives began their careers at Sandals. “All over the world, I meet refreshing young people who got their start in hospitality working for Sandals Resorts and are now working in the most highly regarded hotels and restaurants,” Stewart said in a 2014 TravelPulse interview.

“They tell me what I share with you now, good service and genuine hospitality is about making people welcome [and] comfortable,” he said. “We are proud of our tradition of innovation in the all-inclusive resort segment and we have consistently worked to expand our offerings. But more is only better if it’s quality.”

Born in Kingston on July 6, 1941 and raised in Honeymoon Bay, Ocho Rios, Stewart ultimately became an appliance and electronics salesman, forming Appliance Traders Ltd. in 1968. In time the firm blossomed into one of Jamaica’s largest appliance retailers, leading Stewart to purchase the two St. James parish properties that now form Sandals Montego Bay.

By 1991 he’d expanded beyond Montego Bay to operate several properties in Jamaica’s Negril and Ocho Rios districts. The same year, Sandals opened its first resort outside of Jamaica, in Antigua and Barbuda. The company now operates eight Jamaican resorts along with properties in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, Saint Lucia, The Turks & Caicos and The Bahamas.

In 1993, Stewart founded the Jamaica Observer newspaper and acquired a majority stake in Air Jamaica. The airline was sold back to Jamaica’s government in 2004 and ultimately folded into Caribbean Airlines. Later expansion included the 2010 launch of Caribbean tour provider Island Routes, and the formation of the Sandals Foundation, which directs educational and environmental philanthropic programs through Jamaica. Stewart’s son Adam is currently deputy chairman and CEO of Sandals Resorts and the ATL Group.

Gary Sadler and Gordon “Butch” Stewart (photo via Sandals Resorts)

Stewart was at times a controversial figure. He was known as a tough negotiator with Caribbean governments, reportedly insisting on numerous concessions to bring his resorts to new countries. In recent years Sandals was involved in disputes regarding tax payments. Yet the imbroglios did little to impact the resort’s tremendous growth and popularity with sun-seeking vacationers.

Stewart received several of Jamaica’s highest honors, including The Order of Jamaica and Commander of the Order of Distinction. In 2001 he received an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of the West Indies and in 2011 received an honorary doctor of business administration degree from Johnson and Wales University.

“As long as most people think I’ve done something good with my life, that’s plenty good enough for me,” he said in a 2012 Jamaica Observer interview.

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