Sandals: A true Caribbean brand and global flag-bearerMonday, June 14, 2021
Castries, St Lucia—The novel coronavirus pandemic contains within its belly a cruel twist of fate. While it forced Caribbean countries to isolate quickly for their own safety, it is now making it difficult for them to come back together with the same speed, now that it is time to regroup as one from the ravages of the virus.
There is little, if any, disagreement that a unified and truly regional approach to the COVID threat by Caricom countries is the only viable way forward out of the pandemic. Regrettably, that will be easier said than done.
Governments and private companies are equally challenged by the unprecedented impact of the pandemic and, in many instances, the general responses have been mainly pessimistic, as most have opted to either respond and react to changes as they come, or otherwise go with the uncertain flow.
Still, amid all the deepening and expanding uncertainty of the times, there are some rarely-seen but quite visible, and thus welcome examples that give hope, as the region looks to return, as close as possible, to normal.
Some regional entities have actually risen to the challenges, among them The University of the West Indies (UWI), which took the COVID bull by the horn very early, establishing the UWI COVID-19 Task Force long before the first virus case was detected anywhere in the region and in being able to advise Caricom governments sufficiently well to have likely saved thousands of lives.
Enter Sandals Resorts International (SRI), the Caribbean's unmatched global powerhouse in tourism, and the only regional company that tried its best to maintain its full complement of staff —with a level of economic support —throughout the shutdown.
While many others simply locked their gates or introduced changes that cost more jobs, SRI's hotels led the charge towards safely reopening the region's tourism-dependent economies, at great expense to itself, but demonstrating its unshakeable belief in the region.
All this, despite the region's hospitality sector being amongst the most ravaged by the pandemic – and the usually unfair hits and jabs the company takes and soaks up from time to time for being the best at what it always does better.
SRI, built by the late Gordon “Butch” Stewart and now led by his son Adam, has grown over the past few decades to become more than just a Caribbean-wide resort company; and its contributions and continuing role should not be underestimated.
As a business, Sandals has effectively transcended the boundaries that have been allowed to divide and restrict competitors, finding ways to create new properties and jobs and contributing significantly to national economic prosperity wherever it's located.
Why waste a good crisis, Adam Stewart has been quoted as asking. Another SRI hallmark is that its corporate structure and modalities always allow that if it says it will do something, it does.
It was very heartening when the Stewart family indicated, immediately after declaration of the pandemic in early 2020, that they would use the unwelcome close down to upgrade its properties across the Caribbean in preparation for reopening as soon as it was safe.
It felt good a year later to see Sandals launch a massive recruitment drive in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, even though it has not even moved so much as a pebble or an inch of dirt on the proposed site of the anticipated Beaches resort project at Buccament Bay.
Why would the company decide to recruit 500 Vincentians for a project that is still many months in the future? Executive Chairman Stewart gave a simple, straightforward but telling answer:
“It is to provide direct employment opportunities because of the displacement caused by the April 2021 La Soufriere volcanic eruption, which came on the heels of the continuing fallout from the pandemic — only to be followed by devastating floods.”
Saint Vincent's Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves aptly described the SRI decision to hire hundreds of employees it does not immediately need as a “massive gesture of Caribbean solidarity”, which is exactly what it was.
The minister showered deserving praise on Sandals as a quintessentially Caribbean company, noting that Adam Stewart has leveraged SRI's regional presence to leave deep footprints in the Vincentian sand, as it provides meaningful assistance to citizens and the country at a time of greatest need.
Which other Caribbean hotel company has shown such levels of readiness to do what's needed, just because it's the right thing to do?
Like all other regional private entities in the business of tourism, SRI has had to study the turf and ride the waves accordingly as it faces the political and economic winds through rain or sun, hurricanes or volcanic eruptions, climate change, environmental challenges or health hazards.
It must at all the time keep sight of its responsibilities, some might say burden, to all of its more than 14,000 employees across the region, and its obligation to the payment of taxes that in all cases amount to sums no government would wish to have to do without.
But Sandals has long been walking that route...
Notably, the resort chain is also one of the very few Caribbean private sector entities that have rallied to The UWI's cause, as the institution redefines itself as one that will better serve the Caricom territories and reduce its dependence on regional taxpayers.
To do this, The UWI plans to turn its high-class and still-climbing global rankings on the world's university education index into a source for global and further regional expansion, generating new forms of international revenue.
There is an interesting view that Caricom leaders should be more energetic in seizing the opportunity to join with The UWI as it continues to build a better university for a better Caribbean; at the same time working with SRI wherever it operates to show what the governments and private sector entities can achieve for the region by working closer together.
Sandals hotels across the region are a true reflection of Caricom that one won't see on signboards, but in and on the faces of Saint Lucians working alongside Jamaicans, Barbadians, Antiguans, Turks and Caicos Islanders, Bahamians, Grenadians and even persons from countries where there are no Sandals resorts... as yet, notably Curacao, Trinidad & Tobago and Dominica.
Sandals has always insisted that it is committed to Caribbean development and, in particular, to creating new and exciting opportunities for regional citizens interested in tourism to earn skills for life. The company has shown, time and again, that it really believes that the potential of Caricom citizens should not be limited to any one specific territory, but they should rather be given the opportunity to grow, develop and prosper on a regional level.
And Sandals has remained faithful to that pledge, including when the region runs into stormy waters.
Late founder Butch Stewart always boasted that 'Our people can achieve any goal if we endeavour together'. And too — with beaming pride — that 'a Sandals-trained person can be hired anywhere in the world'.
Imagine how powerful a human asset is created when an employer offers employees opportunities to live and learn beyond the scope of their own borders – which is what Caricom was designed to achieve and what deepening our integration is all about.
We need only to look to Caricom's goals: constantly improving standards of living and work, full employment of labour, sustained economic development, expansion of international trade and competitiveness -- and flying the region's flag on the world stage for the past 30 years – and it seems to me that Sandals gets a tick in every box.
All the above doesn't even include SRI's outstanding philanthropic efforts through the Sandals Foundation, present at both regional and national levels, especially in health, education and the environment.
For now and the immediate future, Sandals will stand alone in its ability to drive tourist traffic into the region, surpassing the collective advertising and promotional budgets of all the governments in the 'Sandalised' territories.
Hence why I again applaud SRI — the Caribbean's Number One global brand —for all it has done and continues to do for the region at different levels, beyond normal expectations in the Age of the New Normal:
Big-up and One Love!
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