My Thank You To The Late Sandals Chairman, Gordon "Butch' Stewart

The first time I dipped my toes in the calm ocean waters at Sandals Negril, Jamaica I felt like I was home. Despite being born in the USA and it being the first time I'd ever been out of my home country, let alone to Jamaica, a feeling of absolute peace and comfort washed over me. That same feeling of climbing into bed after a long day.

I remember sitting in our hotel room at Sandals Negril, browsing the bright and colorful multi-resort brochure wondering where our next Sandals trip should take us. That was the first time I saw a photo of Gordon "Butch" Stewart. 

With my interest piqued, I read the short bio about him and couldn't fathom how a man who came from humble beginnings could take a dream and make it such an incredible reality. One I was very thankful for as I sat on my balcony sipping my Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and listening to the whisper of the small waves lapping at the shoreline just feet away from me.

I fell in love with Sandals Resorts and the island of Jamaica on that trip. I left with tears in my eyes, wondering when I'd get to be back "home" again. I also left with a newfound inspiration to make sure it happened. I knew I needed to get back there to experience that Sandals magic again.

A year later, still inspired and obsessed with my week at Sandals Resorts, I found myself opening up my own travel agency. I wanted to live vicariously through my family and friends by helping them fall in love with Sandals, too. Thus, a dream was born.

Yet never in my wildest dreams did I envision what the next decade would bring me. That I'd not only meet Mr. Gordon "Butch" Stewart himself, but he'd play such an important role in my success. From the first booking I made as an agent, to earning Preferred Agency status with Sandals, to becoming the youngest Chairman's Royal Club (CRC) member at that time, and winning multiple awards at the Sandals Travel Agency Recognition (STAR) Awards. None of it would have been possible without Mr. Stewart's genuine love and support for travel agents.

No one in the travel industry appreciated and celebrated travel agents the way he did. He not only set an example for what a true agent-supplier partnership should be, he set the bar so high, his competition was constantly propping up ladders trying to get on his level to match it.

I remember the first time I met Mr. Stewart. I was attending my very first Sandals event as an agent. I was so close to earning the prestigious Chairman's Royal Club status after only a few short years of selling travel-- an achievement my Sandals representative kept reminding me was pretty much unheard of. 

I arrived to find myself being ushered to the head table where a name card with my name on it sat on a plate. What an incredible honor at an event of over a hundred travel agents to be seated at an eight top table with the guest of honor. 

We had no prior knowledge ahead of the event as to who the guest of honor from Sandals would be. At other events it was Gary Sadler, the VP of Sales, or David Roper, the VP of Industry Relations, or Marsha-Ann Brown, the Director of Romance for Sandals Weddings. Any one of those people would have been a privilege to share the table with that night.

As I sat down, I looked to the place setting beside me and my heart nearly stopped as I read the name card: "Hon. Mr. Gordon 'Butch' Stewart".

I'm pretty sure I pinched myself. Who was I to have been given the honor of being seated at the head table next to the Chairman himself, when there were so many other agents in the room with us that night? I was in disbelief as I sat there, checking back every so often to make sure my eyes weren't deceiving me.

It was just as my nervousness was taking over that Gary Sadler, VP of Sales stopped by our table. We'd never met before, so his words to me that night were his first words to me, ever: "Do you know who you're sitting next to?"

Years later, after dozen of events and building a friendship with Gary, I've learned that was just him in work-mode running around making sure all was well for the Chairman's arrival. But at that time, in my overwhelmed mind, I interpreted it as "hey newbie, can you handle this or do we have to move you?"

I gulped and nodded. "Yes, Sir". He walked off leaving me sitting on pins and needles, palms sweating as I wrung the cloth napkin in my lap.

In no time at all the guest of honor arrived. Everyone stood at the announcement, clapping enthusiastically as the double doors swung open. Upbeat music played as he entered the room, looking all business yet also casual, in only a way Mr. Stewart seemed to pull off.

To my surprise, he walked around the giant room of people stopping at every table to greet each guest and thank them for attending. We all stood, continuing to clap as he walked around the room of at least a hundred travel agents from Central Florida, shaking hands and taking photographs. Making sure everyone felt his appreciation for their support of the resort brand. It was such a humble thing for him to do.

After what felt like an eternity, he got to our table. The applause tapered off as he greeted everyone, getting to me last. We exchanged hello's and I thanked him for allowing me to be his table-mate for the evening. He took a seat, and the entire room followed his suit.

I fumbled trying to figure out how I should sit. I wanted to appear professional but also remain comfortable. All the while I was internally freaking out. What if I said something stupid? I was known to do that in awkward situations. What if I spilled wine all over myself? Or got food stuck in my teeth? I contemplated not eating or drinking anything.

Then movement beside me caught my attention. Mr. Stewart smiled at me, leaned back in his chair, hiked up his pant leg a little, took the gum he was chewing out of his mouth and stuck it to the rim of his empty plate. I almost burst out laughing when I realized I'd been so nervous for nothing. Even though his distinguished presence was felt throughout that large ballroom, he was clearly a normal, down-to-earth, person just like the rest of us.

It's a story I've recounted over the years to various agents and Sandals people. Even telling it to Mr. Stewart himself once, which was followed by his usual boisterous laugh.

The second time we met, it was at my first Sandals Travel Agency Recognition (STAR) awards. I remember thanking him for the opportunity to make a living doing what I love. He was so happy to hear how well I was doing he smiled and wrapped me in a big hug. A moment my husband got on camera, that I will always cherish.

I've had the absolute honor of having multiple opportunities to be in his presence over the last decade of my life. I've sat with him in meetings. I accepted awards from him at events. Shared meals with him. Enjoyed his sense of humor when he'd tell us jokes. He called me "little one" after I officially became the youngest member of his Chairman's Royal Club. I had the pleasure of serving on his first Chairman's Advisory Council.

His generosity opened doors for me I never imagined possible. It was because of my partnership with Sandals that we bought our first car, then our first home. It's why my husband and I are blessed to have quit the rat race and now work together selling travel in our home office, so we're both able to be home to raise our son. He is why we have been able to visit every single Sandals and Beaches resort property-- some of them multiple times-- and have made enough travel memories to fill a lifetime.

There were so many moments in my life I look back on in awe because Mr. Stewart bestowed his kindness on me. Moments I never imagined I'd have the opportunity to experience. Moments I will never forget as long as I live. It was through his generosity that I was offered the incredible privilege to fly in his private plane and visit Sandals Grenada for the first time. To take my first-ever helicopter ride in his personal helicopter so I could see the updates at Sandals South Coast. Or sail around the Tampa bay on his yacht, hosting my clients for a private dinner.

He recognized that I, and others like me, had worked so very hard and wanted to show his appreciation every way he could. He truly valued our partnerships. Every time I step into my home office and see my awards from Sandals, I am reminded of that. Every STAR award, every Unveiling, every workshop, and anything else that Sandals does bigger and better than anyone else in the industry is a reminder of that appreciation.

Whenever I step onto a resort and that feeling of being home rushes back to me, I will think of him and send up a thank you. For it was his desire to make all of the Sandals Resorts feel like a home for his guests that was why I fell in love with the brand all those years ago. It's that reason why my clients continue to fall in love with it to this day.

His passion was what changed the course of my life that morning on the beach in Negril, fifteen years ago, and made it mine, too. Because one man had a vision he brought to life, I was inspired to do the same. 

We both considered ourselves eternally grateful to making a living doing what we loved and never having to work a day in our lives because of it. I, because of him, and he, because of people like me who put their faith and support behind a mega-brand he continued to perfect until his final days.

Today, my dream is my reality too, and it's all due to him. I have truly "had the time of my life" selling Sandals, and "I owe it all to you", Mr. Stewart. It's been an absolute life-changing honor and privilege to have known you. No Sandals event will ever be the same without your mighty presence, one that will forever be a void nobody can fill. You will be missed as much as you were loved.

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