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(JAMAICA OBSERVER) — Prime Minister Andrew Holness, obviously overwhelmed by the enormity of the Sandals Caribbean empire — after watching a classy, head-spinning display on video — was full of praise for the chairman and founder of the region’s premier resort chain.
“I’ve grown to admire, respect and love the energy and passion of Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart,” Holness said to applause from a packed room at the newly opened Robert ‘Daddy’ Stone Conference Centre, named after the first Sandals employee.
The occasion was the chairman’s luncheon with politicians and top personalities, mostly from Montego Bay, at Sandals Montego Bay, the former Bay Roc hotel from which Stewart launched the Caribbean’s most recognised brand in 1981.
Before Holness took the stage, the room had been primed for the moment with a fast-moving but in-depth video show, interspersed with a parade of the global achievements of Sandals Resorts International (SRI) and the men and women who built it, some of them from the ground floor up, under Stewart’s formidable leadership.
“You may call him a patriot, thinker, innovator, entrepreneur and philantrophist who cares deeply about people,” the prime minister said, setting off another prolonged round of applause, joined by current and former tourism ministers Edmund Bartlett and Dr Wykeham McNeill, respectively.
Veteran journalist Franklyn McKnight afterwards confessed he was untypically moved by the vastness of the Sandals achievement, having watched its growth from birth.
Holness based his brief address on a quip from a visitor — Sara Thayer of Woodlands, Texas, a repeat Sandals visitor — who told him on his arrival: “We have to change the Jamaican dialect that says, ‘Yeh mon’ to say ‘Yeh womon”, to reflect the changes we are seeing.”
The prime minister said the guest who was at the resort with her husband, Paul, was right because nowhere is the intersection between culture and business more evident than in tourism. He said visitors could get sun, sea and sand almost anywhere, but what would drive Jamaican tourism was the value-added that was wrapped up in the Jamaican culture.
He said the Government was grateful for the continued investment by Sandals in Jamaica. To Stewart he suggested: “It is clear that as a family-owned business – that your ethical and moral stance on the issues shines through…We are very confident in your brand which, even though is it is now multinational, we still consider you a Jamaican company.”
Responding, Stewart said he too was happy with the way the Government was being run and that Holness’ approach would release the entrepreneurial spirit that would make Jamaica self-sufficient.
Stewart briefly traced the beginnings of Sandals Resorts, noting that his original motive was to earn foreign exchange to purchase air conditioners and other appliances for his Appliance Traders Limited.
But Sandals had grown enormously over the years, setting a blistering pace in hotel innovation across the Caribbean.
“Now we don’t have a lot of competition. What we have are competitors who love what we do,” he said to lusty cheers from a partisan crowd, adding that the all-inclusive model was frowned on at first but was now fully embraced, as tourism had become the backbone of Jamaica.
SRI Deputy Chairman Adam Stewart unveiled an impressive array of achievements by the resort chain, noting that it was serving 700,000 guests per year at 19 resorts with 6,000 rooms in seven islands, employing just shy of 14,000 people, and enjoying 84 per cent brand recognition in North America.
Gary Sadler, the senior vice-president for global sales; Heidi Clarke, director of the Sandals Foundation, the hotel’s charity arm, and Jordan Samuda, who heads the purchasing arm, also related the phenomenal story of success in other areas of the brand.
In the second city for the occasion were: National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang; Agriculture Minister Audley Shaw;
Minister Without Portfolio Karl Samuda; Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith; Justice Minister Delroy Chuck; Gender and Culture Minister Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange; Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte; Custos Rev Conrad Pitkin; Montego Bay Mayor Homer Davis and former Deputy Speaker of the House and publisher Lloyd B Smith, among others.