Stewart's Story

At the recent ASTA Congress, Gordon Stewart, a major force in Caribbean/Jamaica tourism, was inducted into the ASTA Hall of Fame

By: Kevin Brass

Gordon Stewart, “Butch” to everyone who knows him, remembers the day in 1981 when he first came across the rundown hotel on Montego Bay that would launch the appliance manufacturer into the resort business.

“I had never seen that beach before,” said Stewart, 61, who grew up on the north shore of Jamaica. “When I saw it I couldn’t believe it. We were lucky.”

Stewart redeveloped the property and opened it as Sandals Montego Bay, the flagship of the Sandals empire that would change the face of the all-inclusive resort business. Today, Stewart is one of the most influential men in Caribbean tourism, controlling 17 resorts, Air Jamaica, the Observer newspaper and a dozen other companies, in addition to the appliance business that gave him his start. He is now the largest employer in Jamaica, controlling more than $1 billion in assets. Despite the problems of the industry, this year he’s opening three hotels, including his second in Cuba.

On Nov. 4 at the World Travel Congress in Hawaii, ASTA honored Stewart with its Travel Hall of Fame Award, in recognition of his contributions in developing and expanding the tourism industry. (The same award was given to Mario Perillo, chairman of Perillo Tours.)

“From day one Butch Stewart has appreciated the travel agent,” said ASTA President and CEO Richard Copland.

To many, Stewart is the personification of Jamaica tourism, a homegrown product who made the poor island nation into a first-class destination. And Stewart did it with his own style and flair.

“He’s absolutely a different breed, cut from a totally different cloth than anyone else in the world,” said Ron Letterman, president and CEO of Classic Custom Vacations. “He’s one of the best intuitive marketers I’ve ever seen.”

Much of Stewart’s story is already part of tourism lore, a classic story of a self-made entrepreneur who carved out his own fortune.

He started with the Dutch-owned Curacoa Trading Co., eventually rising to sales manager. In 1968 he went out on his own, founding Appliance Traders Ltd., an air-conditioner service and distribution company.

“When I was 26 I rolled the dice,” said Stewart from London, where he was attending a travel show. “I felt like I had had enough exposure to make a start.”

Supplying appliances to government-operated hotel facilities, he saw an opportunity to do it better and to solve a problem. Stewart said it was difficult to raise foreign capital for his appliance business at the time, but he could generate hard cash from foreign interests through tourism. Finding the Montego Bay property gave him a start.

Sandals soon became known for a willingness to offer the type of amenities considered unnecessary by his peers. He was the first to add such perks as Jacuzzis, swim-up bars and hair dryers in guest rooms, bringing an upscale, couples-only sensibility to the all-inclusive concept.

“I still believe the best thing that ever happened to us is that we knew nothing about the hotel industry,” Stewart said. “We didn’t know what the rules were.”

Stewart’s oft-repeated customer-first philosophy extends to all aspects of his properties, which often reflect the owner’s personal tastes. For example, many of the Sandals rooms now feature four-poster mahogany beds.

“I’ve always had a bad back,” Stewart said. “And I know what beds that don’t work well do to a person.”

This type of customer focus rescued Air Jamaica, which he took over from the government in 1994. While it is once again losing money, the airline is expanding its routes, and Stewart said that Air Jamaica, which handles more than half of the air passengers to Jamaica, isn’t threatened any longer.

To market his companies, Stewart focuses on travel agents.

“Most of our money is put into the agent’s side of things,” Stewart said. “I keep saying we’ve had this 21-year honeymoon with the agents, and I think it has paid off.”

ASTA’s Copland noted that the relationship goes both ways. At a time when travel agents were getting barraged from all directions, Sandals paid for billboards encouraging its customers to book through travel agents.

“This is someone who is very human, not just a corporate exec,” Copland said.

Stewart described himself as “an old fisherman ... sitting on the veranda with old friends chatting about what I call a lot of nonsense.” But those who know him use words like “driven” and “workaholic” to describe his work ethic.

“He’s very much hands-on,” said Mike Norton, vice president of Caribbean marketing for GOGO Worldwide Vacations. “I’ll hear from him on weekends, just to talk and see how things are going.”

“I never worked a day in my life,” Stewart said. “If this is work, give me more.”

Editor’s note: Look for our profile of ASTA’s Travel Agent of the Year Sho Dozono, on Dec. 16, in the Pacific Northwest destination section.