Obituary: Butch Stewart, founder of Sandals Resorts International
Hotel mogul Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, who set up Sandals Resorts International four decades ago and helped transform Caribbean hospitality, has died at the age of 79, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy.
To mark the passing of Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, we’ve decided to take a closer look at the life and times of one of the travel industry’s most influential figures.
A born entrepreneur
Born in Kingston, Jamaica on 6 July 1941, Stewart grew up on the country’s north coast and showed a keen entrepreneurial streak from an early age – even selling freshly caught fish to local hotels as a precocious 12-year-old. In 1981, he acquired a rundown hotel in Montego Bay, spending seven months and US$4 million renovating it to create the magnificent Sandals Montego Bay, which remains the Sandals brand’s flagship property to this day.
Sandals embodies Stewart’s vision of taking all-inclusive hospitality to a whole new level, earning him the nickname of the ‘King of All-Inclusives’.
“I had heard of the concept, yet at the time, the services and rooms were very basic,” he once reflected. “Contrary to that, I envisioned we could bring forward a luxury resort to offer customers so much more. So, we perfected it.
“Only the most comfortable king-size four-poster beds, fine manicured gardens, cosy hammocks and the kind of warm, refined service the Caribbean has become known for. Just as important was to be located on the absolute best beach, because that’s what everyone dreams of.”
Redefining the all-inclusive market
In contrast to rival all-inclusive properties, Sandals’ prices covered everything from gourmet dining, premium drinks and gratuities to airport transfers, taxes and activities. The brand was also the first in the Caribbean to offer whirlpools, satellite TV and swim-up pool bars; in 2017, meanwhile, Stewart oversaw the introduction of the first over-the-water accommodations in the Caribbean, followed shortly after by over-the-water bars and over-the-water wedding chapels.
He was still closely involved in the business more recently too, working on expansion plans for Curaçao and St Vincent right up until his final days.
One of the Caribbean’s most influential names
Stewart played a leading role in shaping the Caribbean hospitality sector during his life. Among other distinctions, he became president of the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica in 1989 and joined its Hall of Fame in 1995; he was a director of the Jamaica Tourist Board for a decade; he served as president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association in the mid-1980s; and he led a group of investors who took over Air Jamaica in 1994, before returning it to the Jamaican government in 2004.
At the time of his passing, Stewart oversaw an empire that included two dozen companies collectively representing Jamaica’s largest private-sector group, the country’s biggest foreign-exchange earner and its largest non-governmental employer, according to Sandals Resorts International. Its high-profile brands include the likes of Sandals, Beaches, Grand Pineapple, Fowl Cay and Your Jamaican Villas.
The company that he built up remains wholly owned by the Stewart family, which has named his son Adam Stewart as chairman of Sandals Resorts International, further expanding the remit of a man who has been CEO since 2007.
An unstoppable force
Speaking on behalf of the whole family, Adam Stewart said: “Our father 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.
“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. We will miss him terribly forever.”