It was in the week of 20 March last year the Caribbean began to shut its borders.
"The tourism industry recognised it was literally life or death,” recalls Sandals executive chair Adam Stewart. "Everyone started talking about protocols. But there was no way then to Google ‘how to establish health and hygiene protocols for a multi-national resort chain during a pandemic’.
"Then something beautiful happened. The biggest airlines, cruise lines and hospitality chains came together in a way that was unprecedented. Sandals led the way representing the Caribbean. We drafted the Sandals platinum protocol – it was the most comprehensive [Covid] protocol then, and remains so today.
“I was incredibly proud to be a Caribbean national and watch the partnerships flourish. We issued our protocol publicly, gave it to smaller hoteliers and villa operators and told them to plagiarise it – never had it been more important for all of us to move together.”
It’s a remarkably measured take on what quickly became, and continues to be, the greatest crisis the travel industry has ever faced. But echoing his late father Gordon “Butch” Stewart’s unwavering belief in the resolve of the Caribbean and its people, Stewart saw Covid as another opportunity for the world’s most tourism-dependent region to shine.
“Tourism, ahead of any other industry, acted maturely and comprehensively,” says Stewart. “We banded together and did one heck of a job. There was this odd two-week period when the hotels closed and nothing happened. Then the Zoom calls started, from 7am to 11pm every day, as we wrote protocols, formed pathways and worked with our governments.
“The news said the world was falling apart. But when I looked outside, everything was more naturally beautiful than ever. For about a year, I lived the mantra ‘this will pass’. I’ll never give up on the mindset that people, one day, will want to get together with loved ones and experience the most beautiful parts of the world.”
Albeit almost a distant memory, 2019 was Sandals’ best year ever. And although Stewart recognises Covid has left some people wondering if they will ever travel again, Sandals’ demand for September and October 2021 – which Stewart said were usually slower due to children going back to school – is 151% ahead of September and October 2019.
“Demand is off the scale,” he says. “We’re running out of inventory for autumn and laying immense business for 2022 and 2023. There’s a message in the numbers about the power of travel; nothing is more important than time spent together with family and loved ones.”
Stewart’s father Butch passed away in January aged 79. He would have been 80 on Tuesday (6 July). Born in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, he set up a business selling air conditioning units, but struggled to find ways to make US dollars owing to the country’s socialist administration during the 1970s.
However, he deduced he could earn foreign exchange if he bought a hotel, and so acquired a small property in Montego Bay. “That’s how Sandals was founded,” Stewart tells me, whose journey to succeeding his father started in the 1980s in the company’s mailroom with his sister – posting brochures to travel agents.
“He went into hospitality for all the wrong reasons,” Stewart smiles. “He didn’t aspire to be a hotelier and had no formal training. By the time I was five, we had three Sandals in Montego Bay. In 1988, we went into Ocho Rios and Negril, and by the mid-1990s, I was doing summer jobs for the company. I grew up in this business, and it’s been an incredible journey.
“[My dad] was a visionary, he just saw something bigger for Jamaica, which ultimately turned into something bigger for the Caribbean. It’s the classic self-made story. He developed a brand that put the Caribbean on the world stage.”
Stewart said one of his father’s legacies would be his 1983 decision to found a company pension scheme. “Up to 2019 in Jamaica, only 15% of Jamaicans working in tourism had pensions, and 10% came from Sandals. People thought he was insane. He didn’t have to do it, but he did it for the people.”
This philanthropic spirit endures. At the start of the crisis, Sandals bought ventilators and gave over a hotel to the Jamaican government to use as a quarantine centre, free of charge. It produced care packages for staff and retained their full medical benefits.
“It was very important for us to keep our team united,” says Stewart. “Tourism workers who were trained in our Covid protocols went back into their communities and passed on that knowledge organically. It kept Sandals and our customers safe.”
Stewart’s respect and passion for the trade lives up to his father’s ambition to inspire a generation of travel sellers. “He understood the symbiotic relationship between agents and brands like Sandals,” Stewart explains. “It’s why we spend on the sales team, the BDMs, the co-marketing and branding and the training materials. For us, it’s a cost of doing business.
“At the turn of the century, people were saying agents would become extinct. We never bought that argument. Travel agent business with us, as a group, is now outperforming our best year ever.
“Covid has made agents even more powerful. There are, and always will be, consumers who want to speak to a human directly. There are going to be long-term consequences of Covid; I believe on the distribution side, the travel agent has found a higher calling.”
Stewart reveals that, as of early June, Sandals’ booking demand in the UK had recovered to around 80% of 2019 levels, fuelled by family and wedding business. However, he believes this only scratches the surface of the pent-up demand yet to be unlocked.
“I’m hopeful we’ll start to see Caribbean nations on the UK green list shortly – no hotel is a buzzing hotel without Brits in it,” says Stewart, with a smile.
Plans to grow Sandals’ UK business includes the brand’s first venture in the Dutch Caribbean, in Curacao, supported by significant UK regional connectivity via KLM. It is also working on a new property in St Vincent and the Grenadines, which will be the first Beaches resort in the eastern Caribbean.
“The story of Sandals is one of going to an island, falling in love with it, building something next-generation, taking it to market, and then developing air routes through demand, trust in the brand, and partnerships with airlines and agents,” says Stewart. “St Vincent is a perfect example.”
Sandals has hired 500 nationals for the project, 17 months ahead of the proposed opening in Q1 2023. “It allows us to have ‘Sandalised’ management in place when we open the hotel,” Stewart explains. “We’re playing the long game.”
Sandals’ corporate university has been instrumental in this philosophy, blending corporate training with academia. “Every hotel and resort is a campus,” says Stewart, proudly. It was in 2009 during his tenure as chief executive that Sandals launched its foundation and the corporate university. “We hire personality and train skill,” he says.
“We don’t prejudice anyone due to their lack of opportunity. We’ll teach them to read and write and give them their masters completely paid for. It’s a licence, and Sandals is a password. The university has allowed us to move faster and get more Caribbean nationals ready for the brand standards we uphold.”
The group, Stewart reveals, owns landbanks sufficient to double Sandals’ footprint. During Covid, it has bought four new resorts, with another two already in development.
“Over the next seven to 10 years, we will – in effect – double the size of Sandals. We’re building what I call Sandals 2.0 and Beaches 2.0. The university has given us the ability to move at pace and execute this.”
Stewart’s ambition matches his father’s legendary vision. “Covid has been what I call the great accelerator,” he says. “There are very few things happening right now that we didn’t anticipate. These new sanitation and cleanliness measures I don’t see going away, and they shouldn’t.
“Ultimately, I think travel agents will be winners in all of this. Consumers will stop taking movement for granted. Covid has humbled us all and won’t be soon forgotten, but it won’t last for ever. I believe we’ve got to a point where the worst is far behind us.”
ON HIS DAD
My dad grew up on the beach. I always said he used to fish to make a living, and later, earned a living to fish.
I’m a British passport holder, as are my family. It’s where we holiday – it’s the one place to which we escape.
ON THE COVID RECOVERY
This crisis has different economics to the 2008/09 downturn; there is going to be a super-boom that comes from this.
We’ve always known the power of agents; we feel privileged the agent community has taken time to invest in our business.
ON THE FUTURE
Customers have really started leaning into brands they trust; people are ready to get back to travelling with brands they know and love.