By TANYA SMITHCARTWRIGHT
TRIBUTES poured in yesterday after Sandals Resorts founder and owner Gordon “Butch” Stewart died in the United States at age 79.
Former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham referred to the hotel mogul’s passing as a devastating loss to the Caribbean region. Mr Stewart, referred to by Mr Ingraham as a “good friend” to The Bahamas, died in Miami on Monday. He was recently diagnosed with an undisclosed illness.
Mr Ingraham said: “In all my years of contact with him, whether in office or out, he never over-promised and he always fulfilled his commitments. He was an astute tourism businessman. I valued his views and advice on tourism in our region. ‘Butch’ was, in my estimation the pre-eminent Caribbean hotelier.
“His success in competing successfully with some of the largest international hotel brands is testimony to that achievement. He was a good friend to The Bahamas and a reliable corporate citizen. I sometimes felt that we in The Bahamas held a special place in his heart.”
Mr Stewart, who was fond of wearing striped shirts, began his career as an air-conditioner and appliance salesman. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1941 and founded Sandals Resorts in 1981 with the opening of Sandals Montego Bay. Sandals Resorts branched out in 1997 with the debut of its Beaches brand of resorts opening in Negril, Jamaica.
Mr Ingraham said he was shocked to learn about Mr Stewart’s death yesterday.
“Only then did I recall that I had not received my usual Christmas telephone call from the always warm, cheerful and upbeat hotelier,” Mr Ingraham said.
“Butch had made it his custom to telephone Christmas cheer to me every year since our first meeting in St Lucia in 1992 shortly after my election to office as Prime Minister for the first time. There, he gave me the grand tour of his new hotel acquisition ‘La Toc’ and outlined how he proposed to transform the resort into one of his signature five-star, all-inclusive hotels.
“Still, some of my fondest memories of him include time spent over lazy meals at George Myers’ home and of days spent with him in Jamaica and on the waters of The Bahamas doing one of the things that I love best – fishing. I think that Butch qualifies as one of Jamaica’s best exports to the Caribbean. Always a Jamaican at heart, he loved all of the Caribbean. His death is a devastating loss to the Caribbean region.”
The Sandals portfolio in The Bahamas includes Sandals Royal Bahamian in Nassau, a property on Fowl Cay and Sandals Emerald Bay in Exuma.
Mr Ingraham, former North Abaco MP, remembers encouraging Mr Stewart to come to The Bahamas. He reminisced: “It was early days in the creation of his highly acclaimed all-inclusive hotel chain. I encouraged him to come to The Bahamas where he already owned land in my constituency and where he purportedly proposed to develop a Sandals Resort. He promised to come. I was to learn that Butch’s word was his bond.
“He came to The Bahamas. He never built that resort in Abaco but he acquired the then government-owned and money-losing Balmoral Beach Hotel in Cable Beach. He transformed the dog-eared property into the Royal Bahamian Balmoral Hotel Resort and Spa. He expanded the room count, restaurants and beach amenities, including an exclusive off-shore beach experience on neighbouring Balmoral Island and he doubled the number of employees at the resort.”
Mr Ingraham said he was honoured to have counted Mr Stewart among his friends.
In a statement yesterday, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis recognised the hotelier as a leading pioneer in tourism, whose all-inclusive resorts became an iconic global brand.
“He competed successfully with other international brands,” Dr Minnis said. “His commitment to the region was manifest in the economic impact of his properties throughout the region, including his resorts in the Bahamas at Sandals Royal Bahamian on New Providence and at Fowl Cay and Emerald Bay in the Exumas.
“He was a great friend and lover of the Islands of The Bahamas and the Bahamian people. At a time when The Bahamas was looking for investors to acquire government-owned hotels, he was the first in line, transforming the Balmoral into the Sandals Royal Bahamian Hotel. He significantly and immediately added to the number of rooms and employees of the resort and the reputation of the Bahamas.”
Dr Minnis added: “He was famously enthusiastic about the extraordinary potential of the Caribbean and often remarked about the still untapped potential of the Islands of The Bahamas. He moved a number of significant corporate functions of the brand to The Bahamas.”
Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar hailed Mr Stewart as a “captain of tourism” in the Caribbean. “His passing is enormously tragic,” Mr D’Aguilar said. “He was innovative, creative, full of energy, always ready to start something new and do something different in the Caribbean so his loss is huge.
“But I can say that he’s trained his family, Adam, his son who worked with him for 15 years to step up into the mantle and so I am comfortable that Sandals is in good hands and they will continue to go from better to better. Butch built the foundation and his son will now take it to the next level so it’s very, very sad, but I feel that Sandals is in good hands.”
Mr Stewart’s son, Adam Stewart, announcing the death of his father, said: “Our family couldn’t be more proud of the legacy you have created and the incredible life you lived. You approached every day to change the world, nothing was impossible.
“A Jamaican boy turned entrepreneur with a heart as big as his voice and a personality that nobody could contain. My dad was built of Old World values, manners and respect, humility and appreciation, honesty and integrity and always looked out for everyone, especially his family.”
The Progressive Liberal Party’s spokesman on tourism, Vaughn Miller, praised the hotelier as an industry giant, a visionary and an influential investor in Caribbean tourism. He said the PLP thanks Mr Stewart for his contributions to the Bahamian economy.
Mr Stewart is survived by his wife, Cheryl; children Brian, Bobby, Adam, Jaime, Sabrina, Gordon and Kelly; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.