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  1. Leaders in Luxury
May 24, 2010updated Jan 29, 2014

Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, Chairman and Founder

By Chris Boyle

Gordon 'Butch' Stewart, Chairman and Founder

and Kevin Froemming, President

Think about the upper echelons of luxury resorts and names like Banyan Tree, Six Senses, One&Only, Aman and Four Seasons probably come to mind. However Sandals Chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart believes his company is ready to take its place among the best of the best, with some 20 resorts across the Bahamas, his homeland Jamaica, Antigua and St. Lucia. During a recent stopover in New York City, the founder and his President, Kevin Froemming, met with Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan at the Jumeirah Essex House to make their case.

ET: On February 4th you opened Sandals Emerald Bay in Great Exuma, a property that had previously been a Four Seasons. Did you change much?

Butch Stewart: Four Seasons builds fine properties, but we changed everything. It was only four years old, but we redid all the guest rooms and suites. We put in plasma screen televisions and state-of-the art entertainment, we opened five new restaurants, we completely redid the pool, we added butler service for the entire resort. We even created a moonlight Jacuzzi with a fire pit so you can watch the stars in the Jacuzzi with a roaring fire. There is a Greg Norman par-72 golf course and five of the holes are on the water, so if you have ever played at Pebble Beach, it will remind you a bit of that.

Kevin Froemming: We are launching a Greg Norman Golf Academy in the fall, with Greg and various pros on-site. We are also planning a Pro-Am golf tournament for the fall, and we formed a partnership with Beringer Vineyards and they have trained all of the staff on serving and presenting wine. Whereas at the typical all-inclusive a bottle of wine costs the resort about $1.50, our wine is $15 to $20, plus we have a special Manager’s List and Chairman’s List, so if one of your readers wants Dom or Krug, we have it.

ET: Do you think Sandals gets the credit it deserves when it comes to providing a high-end luxury product?

Butch Stewart: In fairness [to the media] we have come a long way in a pretty short time, and we get painted into the all-inclusive category and that is a disservice to the product we have created.

ET: Have you ever thought of doing a sort of “Pepsi Challenge” blind test, bringing people into your hotels but not telling them it’s a Sandals to see their response?

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Butch Stewart: That’s not a bad thought. We are busy beavers working to improve and upgrade. On the average month we are spending between $2 million and $4 million on upgrades at our properties. We are not content. We always want to get better. And frankly when you look at our suite product, with river suites, penthouse suites, the Rondovals [circular suites], the Millionaire suites—nobody has created so many different and luxurious types of suite product as we have.

ET: It doesn’t sound like you’re bored, even after all these years!

Butch Stewart: Not yet. But we also just took on Audi and VW dealerships for Jamaica, as well as Bentley and Porsche, so you know, I like to keep busy with new projects.

ET: After Exuma, are there any places you would like to expand?

Butch Stewart: I’d like Barbados, Aruba and Grenada. I love the Bahamas and wouldn’t mind [having] another property there. But again, we are also very focused on continued improvement in the product we have.

ET: So it sounds like you are pretty confident in the product as it is today.

Butch Stewart: Every week—and I mean every week—we get an amazing amount of direct and positive feedback from guests. In the winter our repeat rate was up to 47 percent, so all we have to do is get the other 50 percent. We’re not perfect, but you know, we work on it everyday.

ET: Are there any other things you are doing that you think might be relevant to elite travelers?

Butch Stewart: I know your readers are top executives and successful business owners. We have amazing meeting and banquet space at Exuma and also in Antigua. We do really fantastic meetings and incentives. Everyone has a good time.

Kevin Froemming: Our Martha Stewart Weddings [introduced in January] have been a major success.

Butch Stewart: Martha Stewart didn’t get where she is by accident [laughs]. She came down with ten of her top wedding designers and went to each of our resorts, and they changed everything until it was just perfect, and the feedback has been amazing.

Kevin Froemming: And at Beaches, our family resorts, we are going to launch a Martha Stewart Handicrafts program for parents and children this year. So if you look at people like Martha Stewart and Greg Norman, we have some very strong partners who really understand what the elite traveler is looking for because they are those people themselves.

ET: Any secrets to your success?

Kevin Froemming: The success for Mr. Stewart and the company is that we stay focused on the Caribbean. He has lots of opportunities to do a Sandals in Dubai or Tahiti, but we are really local owner operators. It is not like some companies where when the CEO comes in, they roll out the red carpet because he comes maybe once a year. We have three [private] jets and we work them hard. We are always at the resorts so we are there everyday. We are part of the team, and we know the local culture. And at the end of the day, the thing guests talk about most is the service we provide, and that’s because we are there everyday on the properties and we know what’s happening

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