Remembering Gordon “Butch” Stewart, Sandals Resorts Founder and Travel Industry Icon

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The world knew Gordon “Butch” Stewart as the man who popularized Caribbean all-inclusive resorts, starting with Sandals Montego Bay in 1981 and growing it into a multi-island behemoth with 23 properties (and counting) under five brands in seven countries. The Caribbean knew Butch as one of its fiercest champions, one whose vision, drive, and marketing dollars put the islands on the radar of sun-starved travelers in search of a value-packed vacation. Jamaicans knew him as an intensely proud son of the soil, a plain-spoken powerhouse behind a clutch of companies that sell everything from refrigerators and Porsches to newspapers, and who once led the investment group behind the privatization of the now-defunct airline Air Jamaica.

But to me—and anyone who ever worked for him—these mammoth achievements are second to what we remember about Mr. Stewart. (If you worked for him, he was never “Butch.”) 

I worked in public relations for Sandals in the Montego Bay—Mo’Bay, to locals—head office from 1993 to 1997. The first time we met, Mr. Stewart christened me “Sample,” a nod to my height. (I’m 4’10.”) He never called me any other name when I worked there, nor years later when we’d see each other at industry events. In his signature striped shirt and aviator sunglasses, Mr. Stewart would swagger over like a bow-legged cowboy, his belly unapologetically leading the way, give me a huge hug, and ask, “What yuh saying, Sample?”

I remember how excited I was to fly with him in his private jet for the first time; we were heading home to Jamaica from Antigua, where Sandals had opened a resort in 1991. He’d extended the invitation as casually as if he were offering to share a cab, though I didn’t realize he was serious until I heard him ask someone to “tell Johnny”—one of his pilots—“to get the plane ready.” Ask anyone who worked for Mr. Stewart and you’ll hear of similar kindnesses quietly extended. Long before the company’s non-profit, the Sandals Foundation, was established in 2009 to promote healthcare, education, and environmental awareness in the islands where its resorts operate, Mr. Stewart paid for individual staffers’ medical expenses out of his own pocket and used his business connections to help others.

He was supportive, too. When I nervously asked him to allow me to take a sabbatical from my position to accept an editorial internship at a magazine in New York City, he agreed with only two terms: “Never forget where home is, Sample. And come back within six months.”

And I did go back. But that internship in 1996 sowed the seeds for the job I have today, as a travel writer and on-screen host who specializes in the Caribbean. Sandals did have its faults—same-sex couples were not permitted at the resorts until 2004. But what I learned during my time there is the bedrock of my knowledge of the Caribbean travel industry, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I owe my career to the company—and by extension, to Mr. Stewart, who gave me the freedom to broaden my professional horizons beyond my job description.

My four years at Sandals changed the trajectory not just of my career, but also of my life. In the days since his death I’ve seen social media posts from an entertainer who used to perform at the resort crediting him with his career. From the daughter of a business associate who recalls her father being flown free-of-charge on Mr. Stewart’s jet to a Miami hospital after having a heart attack. And from countless people in the travel industry who, like me, find it hard to believe that the man who was a pillar of our industry has passed.

Mr. Stewart was not my friend. But he was always there, presiding in the background the same way the hills preside over Jamaica’s landscape. And now that he’s gone, it’s as if the Blue Mountains stand a little less tall. He believed so much in Jamaica—and Jamaicans—and was the Caribbean’s tireless flagbearer until the very end.

I remember standing with Mr. Stewart on the runway at Sangster International Airport in Mo’Bay in 1996, waiting for Air Jamaica’s new Airbus A-310 to land after its inaugural flight from London Heathrow, captained by a local pilot. A reporter asked how Mr. Stewart thought the crew would handle flying the brand-new aircraft. He chuckled knowingly and said, “Our pilots are Jamaican, man. They know the way home.” I know Mr. Stewart does, too.

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