Sandals’ answer to region’s economic decline
As Barbados and its Caribbean neighbours continue to fret over steep economic declines, Gordon “Butch” Stewart and the Sandals Resort International conglomerate which he heads have confidence in the region’s future.
As Stewart, often described as a “beacon of human possibility” sees it, the region’s pathway to progress should be paved with a mix of job creation, tax reform that eases pressure on the tourism industry, a buoyant agricultural industry that is inextricably linked to local consumer demand and with a heavy injection of philanthropy, especially in countries where Sandals has properties.
It has 10 resorts and three private villas in Jamaica, three resorts in St. Lucia, another three in the Bahamas, two in Antigua, and one each in Grenada, Barbados and the Turks & Caicos.
Chairman Stewart is emphatic when it comes to the role philanthropy can play, which in the hotel chain’s case is in reflected in the activities of the Sandals Foundation launched by Adam Stewart, his son and Sandals chief executive officer.
“The Foundation focuses on doing things in the Caribbean and has raised $16 million in five years to achieve its goals,” Stewart told participants at a recent New York Carib News editorial board meeting held on board Lady Sandals, the chain’s luxury yacht that was anchored in the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan.
“The foundation has worked with schools, built a hospital, and is assisting students of the University of the West Indies. It also provides children with toys donated by Sesame Street. If I had known it was going to be so successful I would have launched it long ago.”
Stewart said Sandals was one of the largest, if not the largest, private sector employer in the region and he identified increased employment as the key solution to the region’s widening budget deficits and mountains of debt.
“The single best thing for the Caribbean is for people to get jobs. I believe in people working,” he said, adding that achieving this needed an efficient, attractive private sector that gave customers value for money.
That was vital because Sandals has a sound reputation, an impeccable image to which the wholly-owned Caribbean company must live, he said.
The chairman listed some crucial steps that would accelerate the pace of economic growth in the Caribbean. Heading the list was tax reform that would lift some of the financial burden on the tourism industry, the mainstay of the economies of most Caribbean countries. Hence, the enthusiasm he displayed when he spoke about Sandals recent entry into the Barbados market. He was particularly upbeat about the government’s decision to classify tourism as an export sector thus offering concessions to the industry’s key players, especially the hoteliers.
Next is the urgent need to boost links between tourism and agriculture. The growing consumption of more local foods would reduce the foreign import bill, he argued. Jamaica was a case in point. He insisted that his birthplace had set the standard for its neighbors to emulate by growing large amounts of produce which consumers, including Sandals, purchased.
“Jamaica has done a remarkable job in creating the bond between agriculture and tourism,” Stewart said. “Agriculture goes hand-in-hand with tourism.”
A third plank in the platform must be an effort to attract “quality investment” to the various countries. “The Caribbean is simply not attracting quality investment in sufficient amounts to spur economic growth and improve the standard of living of its people,” Stewart said.
Then, there is the level of management.
“We believe in high quality management training and we do much of that ourselves through our corporate university,” he said. “We invest quite a lot in the training of our managers and employees.”
Also on the list of needs is heightened cooperation and coordination of corporate activity, especially when it comes to construction and refurbishment of properties. And the example he cited was Grenada where they were able to build a hotel in less than a year. The job was done in ten and a half months.
“I have never before seen such coordination of the work of contractors coupled with the high quality of labour and production as were displayed in Grenada. It was a magnificent experience,” he said. “Yes, Grenada has its economic problems, but people want to work and they do work the same as in Antigua & Barbuda.”
When it comes to Barbados, where the company is currently “Sandalising” a property, refurbishing it in time to get it fully operational in January, he listed its valuable assets range from its sophistication and high standard of living to its strong private sector, “one of the strongest in the Caribbean,” said Stewart.
That brought him back to employees and the economic future of the region as a whole. With as many as 50 nationalities on its payroll, Sandals believes it is well-placed to help boost the area’s human resources.
“When you look at it, anything you want you can you can get it in the Caribbean – religion, engineering, food, relaxation, food, and entertainment,” he said. “Our manufacturing sector is somewhat fragile.
“Countries must recognise that heavy taxation shrinks growth. Manufacturing for export suffers because of taxes. People have aspirations and we are all for helping them fulfil those aspirations.”