Perhaps the greatest debt of gratitude that the Caribbean has to the late great Gordon Butch Stewart is the confidence that he has given to the region, that allows a people so impacted by slavery, indentureship and colonialism to show the world that we can innovate and generate wealth based on our natural resources, talent and smarts.
In Stewart, Jamaica and the Caribbean produced a man who saw the possibility of offering a luxury product to middle and upper middle class couples and families, for a price that they could afford.
For sure, Sandals and Beaches are no budget resorts, but they brought luxury vacation packages to many who could, but for a while, live like the rich and famous.
Gordon Butch Stewart dropped out of school when he was only 16 and began his career at the Dutch-owned Curacao Trading Company, where he eventually rose to the position of sales manager.
He exited the company in 1968 and started his own business called Appliance Traders, Ltd (ATL).
Originally founded as an air-conditioning service and distribution company, ATL added refrigerators, freezers and other appliances.
In 1981 he bought Bay Roc: a rundown hotel on one of Montego Bay’s largest beaches.
Despite his lack of hotel experience, seven months and $4 million in renovations later, Sandals Montego Bay opened its doors.
Stewart had no experience in the tourism industry but he understood that if you provided a quality service that was second to none, if you differentiated your product and created value then you were likely to succeed.
Like all entrepreneurs, Stewart had his failures. The first time I met him, I was a young journalist and was sent to cover the launch of Air Jamaica’s non-stop flight between Norman Manley Airport and Piarco. Some may remember the all stop BWIA flights to Kingston that stopped off in Barbados and then Antigua and on to Jamaica, that took longer than a flight to New York City. Air Jamaica’s foray in into the T&T market was meant to break the monopoly.
It never worked out. BWIA launched a fare war, started flying non stop and ran Air Jamaica out of the market. Added to this, the champagne flights Air Jamaica had with passengers paying mauby money meant that Stewart’s entry into the airline business was not a success.
Stewart had other businesses, including Jamaica’s second daily newspaper, the Observer. But his legacy is forever written in the tourism business.
Sandals is a global brand. It also has significant vertical integration with its own marketing arm, it partners with airlines to reserve seats and in that process creates greater demand and airlift to their destinations.
For years, Tobago has complained about the issue of airlift and taxpayers have forked out tens of million of dollars over the years to pay airlines to fly to the island.
The way this works, is that if your destination does not generate sufficient demand for the airlines to fly profitably, then you have to pay the airlines to fly. The hope is that over time you can develop the market and therefore increase the numbers sufficiently to ensure the airlines want to fly there by making the route profitable.
Tobago has not been able to do this, in part because of the lack of marketing spend, but if we are brutally honest the service in Tobago is at best poor. There are also limited sites and attractions and the entertainment is limited.
The lack of vision by Tobagonians in the tourism sector, where there is the view, shared by the Prime Minister and Tracy Davidson Celestine, that the island is in competition with Trinidad, instead of seeing the possibilities of integrating the experiences of visitors, is in part what has us in this sorry state.
It is a true tragedy that many Tobagonians and the Opposition UNC did all they could to damage Sandals and impugn its name that led to the ultimate abandonment of the project.
Now that Sandals has pulled out, the Government seems incapable of articulating a new strategy to build a sustainable tourism sector that does not just limit it to encouraging Trinidadians to spend the weekend in Tobago.
The construction of the new airport terminal building that taxpayers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on is likely to be a white elephant unless Tobago significantly increases its arrivals.
Had Tobagonians and the UNC not done a job on the project and had the Rowley administration respected the need to communicate, we might have been in a different place now.
If you consider wherever the Sandals group operates, it has been a case of the rising tide lifting all boats. Grenada is a prime example of this and Stewart was a master at understanding this.
Yes he had strong views and like all businesses demanded the ability to get the necessary incentives and be able to repatriate his money to pay bills and as retained earnings. But that is business.
In Butch, the Caribbean has lost a great son and in this year of challenge and possibilities,Butch’s passing will leave a hole in terms of our collective wisdom on the way forward as a region that is so tourism dependent .
It will also leave those to come and those who witnessed so much of his brilliance an opportunity to say how fortunate the region was to have him.