Stewart the Younger to team Sandals: Why wait for the future?

The e-mail was vague, but for a change straight to the point: “Dear Media, please accept this invitation to provide coverage for the event. Unveiling: the closer you look, the better we look.” Unlike so many I receive, this one came with its seductive promise: “The chairman Butch Stewart of Sandals Resorts International will be in attendance. Please RSVP in order that catering and seating arrangements can be made.” Something for everyone: an opportunity to rub shoulders with the hotel magnate perchance to discover how he works his magic and for those who live to eat, a Sandals spread!

Quite atypically, I called to confirm the STAR’s attendance. I assured the PR manager I would personally cover the evening’s activity but, regretfully, would have to pass on the famous Sandals cuisine. Previous engagement and all that.

For the curious: I don’t normally cover events for the STAR. But not only was the event being staged at a time when newspaper reporters are putting the finishing touches to their weekend editions, our paper on the occasion was short-staffed: some on vacation, at least one knocked out of action by a ferocious ‘flu attack: Nasha had been so looking forward to the event, for several reasons.

Wheezily she pleaded with me to deputize for her. For several years I had covered events for her boss, when we both worked at Weider Publications, in Los Angeles. Actually I didn’t mind the assignment, not with its advertised inducements that included the chance to meet Butch Stewart’s golden child Adam, about whom so many important tourist-industry people had for several weeks been waxing almost poetic. So yes, I looked forward to being a journalist again, if only for a few hours.

I arrived at Sandals Grande shortly after six with my close friend Berthia Parle and a STAR photographer. While Berthia headed straight for her reserved seat, I lingered at the entrance to the hotel’s ballroom, named after Bill Clinton’s visit several years ago. From there I could see that nearly every seat was occupied. What would prove a meticulously staged event had started bang on time. Obviously Sandals does not operate on Looshan time!

On specially set up tables at the entrance was arresting Sandals literature, all expensively produced on the highest-quality paper—invaluable tools in the hands of the hotel chain’s super sales staff, by all accounts all overseen by chairman Butch Stewart himself. How could I just walk past? I’m a printer and publisher. Everywhere I looked my eyes were greeted by wall-to-wall banners, glossy reminders of the world-famous hotel chain’s countless print campaigns. I don’t mind admitting the publisher in my soul could not resist fingering the material on the tables. Awesome!

As I say, the venue for the night’s main event was the William Jefferson Clinton Ballroom where a monster stage had been set up. Drinks and dinner were already being served the audience when I arrived. A sit-down affair. Not quite what I had bargained for. It would be no easy matter making an inconspicuous exit—especially if I followed Berthia who had settled down in her reserved place at the head table while I scoped the audience from the entrance, as journalists tend to do.

I scanned the other hotshots at the head table: Philip J. Pierre sitting in for the off-island prime minister Kenny Anthony; tourism director Louis Lewis—and the night’s superstar Adam Stewart. Should I take my own reserved seat near Berthia? It would be good-bye sneak exit if I did.

I finally decided to join my friend, my seat between Jeremy Jones and Adam Stewart! There I stayed for the next five hours. Yes, notoriously hyper moi. What unfolded onstage was actually a Sandals revival. (I learned later that Sandals Resorts International (SRI) hosts one every other year, to mark the hotel chain’s mind-bending accomplishments and to announce future plans before large and excited audiences comprising mainly Sandals managers, travel agents, sales and call-center reps, leading industry figures and government officials. Basically a closed event, which is why I felt so honored to have been invited.)

Suffice it to say the evening provided me a much-appreciated education. I learned a lot about the power (yes, pointless denying the obvious) of the Sandals brand, its accomplishments, its goals, not only as a resort but also as a corporate citizen in the several islands where Sandals operates. This year’s revival was hosted by the senior vice president of Unique Vacations, Gary Sadler. He was entertaining in a Ryan Seacrest kind of way, if a tad older than the American Idol fixture. You didn’t have to be told you were in the presence of a master salesman.

Philip J. Pierre spoke for the government: he dutifully lauded Sandals, touched on increased airlift into the island, the purported rise in tourist arrivals and so on. It was just what was expected of him but to his credit one got the feeling Mr. Pierre spoke from his heart and was determined to convince Adam Stewart of his government’s good intentions. He could not resist crowing about the various concessions Sandals either had received or would in due course. But he did it with humor!

Louis Lewis director of the St. Lucia Tourist board followed him onstage. Mr Lewis spoke to the Sandals employees and reminded them that they ultimately were responsible for delivering the Sandals brand. “You are the ones who deliver on converting the expectation of the visitor into a real and memorable experience, and by so doing converting it into a sustainable economic value to your place of work and country.”

Then it was the turn of the SRI team. In general they were impressive, informative and obviously passionate about their jobs and their achievements. Then again, that’s what the evening was all about. Gary Sadler, the suave VP of sales spoke pridefully about the size of his army that generated sales for 24 Sandals resorts in the Caribbean and elsewhere. He revisited his own humble beginnings from a playmaker at the company, revealed he had received, courtesy the hotel, the education that had equipped him to climb through the ranks. It was obvious he believed every inspiring word he uttered. Not for a minute did he lose his entranced audience.

Jeremy Jones was next to take the stage, to thunderous applause. A most affable man is he, overflowing with charm and allure. After some five years in St Lucia as regional manager improving the Sandals image and supervising the expansions of Sandals in Antigua, Grenada and Barbados, Jeremy knew precisely the buttons to press and where they were located. An especially touching moment was when he invited his replacement Andre Dhanpaul onstage. More proof of the muchtalked about Sandals team spirit!

Mr. Jones’s purpose on the occasion was further to polish the image of Sandals Corporate University. He underscored that what made Sandals different was the Sandals team, the people of Sandals. Individuals did not come to Sandals merely looking for a job, he said, they came with a Sandals career in mind.He backed up his statement with statistics and screen projections: 1375 persons had received their certificates from Sandals in the last three years, all endorsed and certified by the American hospitality industry! Sandals had handed out a staggering US$600,000 worth of scholarships to some 300 recipients!

For Jones, every Sandals resort is a university. Every employee is handed the opportunity to improve his or her education and in consequence their future. He closed by further emphasizing the importance of education, and encouraging all involved to reach for the Sandals stars.

Said Jones: “Sandals appreciates and rewards hard work. Sandals is partner in its people’s future!” Halfway through his delivery I actually caught myself thinking career change!

Another of my favorites was Marsha-Ann Brown, weddings and romance director! Raw passion was what she unleashed on her most appreciative audience! Judging by the applause that threatened the ceiling throughout her delivery it can safely be assumed she is one highly respected and beloved Sandals star. I, too, fell in love. She was up-front about her function and her team’s: selling dreams!

The Caribbean accounted for 40% of all destination weddings, she gleefully revealed, with the biggest portion of the pie in the hands of Sandals! After listening to her for only a few minutes I was ready to schedule a dream meeting with Ms Brown, my dear husband and me: time to renew our vows and set off on a Sandals honeymoon.The dream weaver was followed onstage by Heidi Clarke, the director of the Sandals Foundation, brainchild of Adam Stewart CEO of Sandals. Formed in 2009, the purpose of the foundation is to give back to the islands where Sandals operates. The foundation has helped many in need, yet goes largely unheralded by the media and consequently the larger community. Ms Clarke revealed that Sandals Foundation had impacted some 200,000 lives! Every cent donated by the resorts’ guests goes back into the community.

Clarke shared some shocking statistics with her audience: the Caribbean has 22 million unemployed; 12.4 million are orphaned; 38% of women are pregnant before they hit 20! She spoke with conviction about the foundation’s determination to touch every child’s soul and ended her contribution with a Gill Green-produced touching video on the wonderful work of the Sandals Foundation!

Before I knew it, it was close to midnight. Way, way past my regular bedtime. But this was no ordinary evening, not with the Sandals Kool Aid in almost total control of my emotions. Like a cougar-groupie at a Justin Beiber concert, I looked forward to the night’s closing act. What could he possibly say that already his Sandals army had not said? I was thinking all of that with the man of the evening seated right next to me.

Throughout the evening I had surreptitiously been observing him: he drank water, sipped herbal tea. He ordered nothing stronger as he awaited his turn at the microphone. Woman and bodybuilder that I am, I checked him out while trying hard to remember I am also a lady. A taken one at that. It was clear to me that he worked out: he was lean and fit and of average height. No politician’s pot-belly there. He spoke with a heavy Jamaican accent that had not been the least bit affected by a US education. I asked for a copy of his speech, hoping he’d comply and sparing me the need to stay up much longer. Tough cookies. He came to speak from the heart, not from a calculatedly prepared script.

I liked this son of Butch Stewart who had evidently inherited a ton-load of charisma from his famous Papa.Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals operation since 2006 took the stage around 11.30. Microphone in his hand, he stepped away from the podium and started working the huge stage, reminiscent of Steve Jobs. Within seconds he had taken his audience to another world—built around Sandals. He was gracious. He thanked “Auntie Berthia, now Senator Berthia.” He thanked Lady Janice seated near me, thanked her and her late husband Sir John—for “embracing my family and welcoming them to St Lucia”. Then he showered his team with gratitude.

“For me tonight was about two words; two words that people say all the time but maybe they don’t think about it all the time; two words, and the two words are: thank you. Thank you to all of you that are here. The sum of each of your hearts is what is doing what we’re doing as an organization.”

His words came across as genuine, sincere, touching. You just knew he believed his every word. At a time when nearly all we hear in Saint Lucia is political hot air, insults, empty promises . . . what a change to hear this instantly inspiring young Jamaican. His every utterance suggested passion, love, gratitude, unshakeable self-confidence and, yes, humility. He made no secret of his love for his parents; his love for Sandals—not to say his often repeated appreciation for the teamwork that had made the hotel chain the marvel it is today.

The 30-something Stewart’s love for the Caribbean couldn’t be more obvious. So is his adulation of his father who, from unbelievably humble beginnings, had not only dreamed his impossible dream but made it come true (to borrow from Ringo Starr’s big hit), “with a little help from his friends.”

Stewart the younger also has his own dream: to take Sandals Resorts International where no hotel chain has been before. He didn’t actually say that, folks, but I certainly got the feeling that Adam has in mind a Sandals Garden of Eden. And you know what? I suspect that, if asked, everyone in his audience would’ve readily agreed that Adam has all the qualities necessary to take Sandals to the moon!

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