Farewell Butch, the king of the Caribbean: The dazzling founder of Sandals resorts has died aged 79 but has left behind an incredible legacy
True visionary: Butch Stewart, who has died aged 79
Truly flamboyant characters in the world of travel are as rare as black rhino, so the last invitation I received from Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, the dazzling Sandals founder who has died aged 79, was not one to pass up.
It was a chilly November night in London’s St Katharine Docks and it could not have felt further from his Caribbean home, but Butch didn’t care. Wearing his trademark striped shirt on board his yacht, The Lady Sandals, he hosted a lavish dinner with his usual relaxed warmth, gusto and generosity. His business motto was in action: find out what people want, give it to them, and, in doing so, exceed their expectations.
Across the table, his son Adam, now chairman of the company, was outlining their future plans. Butch was in his element; his legacy being offered to his audience.
Stewart was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1941. By the age of 12, he was already selling fresh fish to local hotels. But he always longed to start his own business, and in 1968 he took the big risk that would transform his life – he bet on early air-conditioning being a hit on the island. He offered to represent an American company in Jamaica. The product flew off the shelves.
More than a decade later, he found a dilapidated hotel on a stunning beach in Montego Bay and spent millions renovating what would become the flagship for the most popular all-inclusive resort chain in the world. The rest is history.
Stewart was a disrupter in what was a bland and basic market. He tapped into holiday dreams: Sandals introduced affordable luxury, with refined white-glove service. Activities, transfers, gratuities and drinks were taken care of so guests could really relax.
He insisted that his resorts (there are now 15 spread across Jamaica, Barbados, Bahamas, St Lucia, Antigua and Grenada) be located on ‘the absolute best beach’, and he pioneered over-the-water villas and swim-up bars.
The lacklustre tourist industry in Jamaica was galvanised by Stewart’s vision. He served as director of the Jamaica Tourist Board for a decade, and in 1994 he led a group of investors to take over leadership of the failing Air Jamaica. A decade later he returned it to the government with an increase in revenue of more than $250 million.
Today Stewart’s empire includes two dozen companies, is Jamaica’s biggest foreign-exchange earner, and is its largest non-government employer. Adam describes his father as being a ‘fierce champion’ of the Caribbean.
There are now 15 Sandals resorts spread across Jamaica, Barbados, Bahamas, St Lucia, Antigua and Grenada
This is demonstrated in his philanthropic work. In 2009, The Sandals Foundation was formed to build schools, pay teachers and deliver healthcare to the needy. Three years later, he founded the Sandals Corporate University to provide professional development for his employees.
Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness says he is mourning one of the island’s most ‘brilliant, innovative and transformative business minds’.
Stewart is survived by his wife Cheryl, seven children, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.