01 MAR 2010: Sandals chairman Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart and his CEO (and son) Adam, were in Toronto last week, along with Jamaican Minister of Investment, Industry and Commerce, the Honourable Karl Samuda. The Stewarts also brought the “wow factor” with them as they unveiled some pretty fancy plans for the future of their resorts.

The Wow Spark

“Two things in life I always wanted to do, was go to Africa and go to the Maldives. I always assumed the islands had to be the most beautiful in the world.” They were beautiful, said Adam Stewart, describing the honeymoon part of his recent nuptials. (He wed Bahamian beauty Jill Simpson), but admitted that he could also find such beauty closer to home. “We are spoiled.” He said.

The Maldives always captivated Adam. Those sumptuous over-the-water-suites popular at this island country in the Indian Ocean appealed so much to the newlywed he took his wife there and convinced her it was a honeymoon. “My trip to the Maldives was my honeymoon but it really was a work trip that I was able to jiggle my wife into believing.”

The result of his experiences is now reflected in the next big Sandals plan offering clients more choices in their vacation planning. Island Routes (islandroutes.com), the company’s new luxury tour company offering 80 plus unique island experiences throughout Jamaica, Antigua, Greater Exuma and St. Lucia, is a hip nod to the Africa where Adam found his inspiration.

“Everybody was talking about safaris. They wanted to make sure you got out and saw the actual beauty of Africa,” he said explaining his latest venture. “We have the most beautiful natural landscapes in the Caribbean, people should be able to experience them.”

Wow Time: St. Lucia’s Kokomo Island Overwater Suites

The hot news right now, which was three and a half years in the making, has come true.

“We just got permission from the government of St. Lucia last week to be the first hotel chain in the Caribbean to build the over the water suites like in the Maldives,” he announced adding, “you could ooh and ah anytime you like.”

Hotel renderings showcase rooms with hammocks over the water, a couple of private suites with a pool over the water and lots more sizzle I’m sure.

Stewart senior added that a couple of other Caribbean islands are also in the Sandals Resorts over-the-water-suite vision.

“We’re trying to do it in Jamaica so I brought the Honourable Minister in order to convince him that he has to come back with me and make sure we get permission to build over the water. We have everything and I’m still working on it,” Butch Stewart said, and also hinted that Bahamas is the other island country scheduled for over the water villas.

Sandals Resorts’ big focus these days is in the Bahamas.

Wow Time: Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma

Now called Sandals Emerald Bay, Sandals purchased the former Four Seasons property and transformed the 183-room luxury resort with a multimillion dollar upgrade that includes private villas, a world-class marina, and a Greg Norman-designed 18-hole golf course.

The 500-acred resort does not skimp on luxury. Sandals Emerald Bay is the company’s first all Butler resort. There’s more entertainment, a big pool with a large Jacuzzi “the largest in the Caribbean,” says Adam, and a spa, gourmet restaurants and plenty of pubs.

“We even brought our own English pub ‘the Drunken Duck Pub’ from the UK and reassembled at our resort.”

Fun for the kids

A recent dad, Adam admits the Beaches concept allows everyone to have a vacation. Beaches Resorts became the first resort sponsorship of the popular children’s programme Sesame Street.

For the bigger kids, expect abrand new teen and tween programming across the Beaches Resort chain with action packed games like Scratch DJ Academy and Surfstream added to ever-demanding teen market.

I do at Sandals

As for weddings, the other Stewart, maven Martha Stewart (no relation) was hired to be the wedding fixer. With that familiar Martha touch using a palette of matching pastels, specially designed wedding decor and titles like “Beautiful Beginnings” and “Flutter of Romance” the Sandals Weddings by Martha Stewart line has six customizable experiences from which to choose.

“She knows the trends. When I got married the Betty Crocker cupcake was big. Nobody told me at the time,” joked Adam, complaining that he had spent a fortune on a traditional cake.

Despite last year’s economic downturn, Canadian business was up 200 percent at Sandals Resorts due in large part to the strength of the Canadian dollar, the Canadian economy, travel agents, and marketing.

If Butch Stewart’s magic touch as he’s demonstrated it over the last 29 years continues, no doubt we’ll be hearing more Wows about Sandals Resorts’ next grand scheme.

More familiar faces

Later that evening…

The luxury-included resort chain held a tradeshow followed by dinner at Toronto’s Delta Chelsea Hotel.

As the women’s hockey team won Olympic gold that night, the Sandals senior brass acknowledged its own big wins from the previous year.

Accolades such as ‘the most environmentally friendly company’; ‘Canada’s favourite hotel chain’ and ‘Canada’s favourite all-inclusive’ were announced, and Edith Baxter from Baxter Media presented awards to the Stewarts.

For agents, company president Kevin Froemming reiterated the value of travel agent partners.

“We will continue our tradition of not working with discounters including the likes of the largest online companies like Expedia who continue to undercut your prices. Those kinds of discounts can kill your profits but through working with us we will continue to make it a profitable sale for you,” he said.

“Also those agencies that sell on cheap price alone can’t compete on product knowledge.”

Froemming said travel agency sales continue to grow as more Canadian gateways open. “We have recorded record sales for Sandals Beaches and for that and your 28 years of support we are proud to have Canada as our fastest growing market.”

Of his boss Butch Stewart, he said, ”He’s kept true to his belief that there’s no better way to sell a product than through the training of our travel agents. Travel agents will be at the top of his list.”

In 2009, Sandals Resorts chartered 20 plus aircraft for agents. “Last year we made sure that 8,500 travel agents visited our resorts in North America alone.

“There’s nothing more powerful than closing a vacation sale then saying to the customer I’ve been there. I’ve been in that room. It’s also an expression that Expedia can’t say to its customers over the computer.”

To Know:

Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma

Agents booking a six-nights or longer reservations made now till March 31, will receive a US$300 “Companion Air Credit” for travel made by June 23 excluding black-out periods.

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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