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Fidel Castro, Bob Marley and Sandals — Carib's most powerful brands

BY DESMOND ALLEN Executive Editor - Special Assignment allend@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, January 20, 2014    

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No one disputes the fact that it has one of the world's most formidable marketing machines. Yet, Sandals Resorts International (SRI) is infuriatingly shy about blowing its own trumpet, which is not the same as promoting itself to the millions of tourists who come to cavort in the warm blue waters caressing the Caribbean shores or to soak up year-round sun on its sparkling beaches.

But maybe that should not be too surprising. Caribbean children are brow-beaten into thinking that "self-praise is no recommendation", which leads to a propensity for taking great achievements for granted and, regrettably, national inhibition.

Yet, if Gordon 'Butch' Stewart's Sandals were to allow itself a moment to brag, one could scarcely disagree that the achievements are many and profound and worth shouting from the tree tops of Antigua; Bahamas; Barbados; Grenada; Jamaica; St Lucia and the Turks and Caicos Islands which are home to Sandals/Beaches resorts.

In just over 30 years, a relatively short span in the broad expanse of time, the Sandals brand has gained such worldwide traction that it is recognisable by 94 per cent of Americans and Canadians and 87 per cent of Britons, making it by far the most powerful Caribbean insignia, after Cuba's Fidel Castro and Jamaica's Bob Marley.

Not bad for a self-made man who, as a boy, caught and sold fish from his little boat off Jamaica's scenic north coast resort town of Ocho Rios. Still, don't expect a quote from him in this article. This is one of those many times when 'Butch' Stewart prefers for the work to speak for Sandals and him.

Sandals employees say foreigners routinely assume the resort is American in origin and appear shocked by revelation that the hospitality leader is Jamaican-born and Caribbean-based. That, however, has not spoilt the modesty of the principal and his over 10,000 employees called team members.

The latest country to be "Sandalised" — a term invented by the empire for the hospitality lexicon — is the tiny spice island of Grenada which is expecting hundreds of jobs from US$100 million of investment, backed by marketing promotions that the island could not buy, in exchange for unprecedented tax concessions.

A high-powered Sandals team is transforming the ailing Grenada LaSource hotel to Sandals LaSource, and meticulously following Stewart's instructions to leave no stone unturned in bringing nothing but the best to make the resort even better than a five-star, if that is conceivable.

The hotel was formally opened late last month and has already put 500 of the best paid Grenadian tourism workers on its payroll. Sandals achieved the distinction of grabbing the most booking of any hotel in Grenada prior to opening and is already the largest employer and earner of foreign exchange there.

The buzz created by Sandals has typically sparked additional airlift into the eastern Caribbean island and attracted investors from across the globe, many taking their cue from the Sandals presence.

The Grenada development was remarkable for the level of transparency. Caribbean governments are notorious for hiding and giving hefty tax holidays to preferred investors, usually from outside the region. Exposure has usually come because some disgruntled local investor or opposition politician tipped off the media.

In this case, the Grenadian Government, once all details of the deal were inked, has been loud about the 25-year tax holiday offered to Sandals and available to leading indigenous investors.

Apparently seeing the developments in Grenada, the governments of Barbados and Antigua have offered similar levels of tax concessions, in exchange for a Sandals and Beaches resorts for Barbados and a Beaches resort to add to the Sandals resort already in Antigua; with all the other goodies that come with that.

Other Caribbean islands are being tempted by the Sandals track record in every country it operates. For example, the Sandals resort chain is the:

* largest single private employer of labour in Jamaica

* largest single private earner of foreign exchange in Jamaica

* largest single private employer of labour in the Turks and Caicos Island (TCI)

* largest single private foreign exchange earner in the TCI

* largest single private employer of labour in Antigua-Barbuda

* largest single private earner of foreign exchange in Antigua-Barbuda

* largest single private earner of foreign exchange in St Lucia

* largest single private employer of labour in St Lucia

* second largest single private earner of foreign exchange in The Bahamas

* second largest single private employer of labour in The Bahamas

Proud ambassadors for the Caribbean

Sandals also enjoys several other distinctions that set the hotel chain apart. It's the only regional private sector company with a fully accredited university for on-the-job training and linked to institutions like Ryerson in Canada; Florida International University; Western Hospitality Institute; South Pont Education and American Hospitality Education in the United States. Its chairman is the highly respected Justice Michael Tulloch, the most recognised Caribbean judge in Canada.

The resort has been lauded for being the largest developer of hospitality management training and for constantly pushing the glass ceiling higher for women. The Sandals business model has attracted attention from the prestigious Harvard and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the US.

If there is an area in which Sandals doesn't seem to mind boasting it's in being Jamaican and Caribbean. But there too it can be easily forgiven. Its entire operation is flavoured by Caribbean personnel, with some highly qualified expatriates where necessary.

Island by island, the clamour of people to work with Sandals gets louder because of the well known security of tenure, the decent wages, usually the best in the sector and the prospects for a better life. That has created enormous goodwill for Sandals across the region.

Britain's Daily Mail saw what was happening and conducted a survey which found that the recognition factor for Sandals was above 87 per cent in the United Kingdom. In the US and Canada that recognition factor was above 94 per cent. The World Travel Awards, regarded as the Oscars of the hospitality industry, can retire its award for World's Leading All-Inclusive Resorts to Sandals, after 18 years in a row.

The goodwill enjoyed by Sandals has also been fanned by the work of the Adam Stewart-led Sandals Foundation that in four years has raised and pumped millions of dollars into communities where Sandals operates.

Loyalty to Sandals by its customers is near cult status, evidenced by the awesome fact that in this year alone, up to five hotels will have returning guests representing more than 50 per cent of their occupancy; which means that the resort chain will only have to work to achieve the other 50 per cent to fill its rooms.

Having set the bar for the region's tourism industry, Sandals' challenge from here on will be to find ways to develop the brand even further and maximise the already awesome benefits which accrue to its host countries.

That might not be too difficult. Stewart's philosophy is that his hotels must surpass the expectations of the guests. It's intrinsic in the luxury-included vacation concept.

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