Avia Collinder, Business Writer
Sandals Resorts International (SRI ), a hotel chain spanning seven Caribbean countries, has announced expansion plans that include a new 'Suites of Sandals' luxury product and at least US$180 million (J$15.5 billion) of near-term investment in St Lucia.
SRI has just completed the refurbishing of Sandals Riviera in Ocho Rios at a cost of US$19 million (J$1.6b), said CEO Adam Stewart, and has already introduced the product there and at Sandals Grande St Lucia at a price of US$650 per night.
Stewart unveiled the 'Suites' at a weekend celebration of SRI's 30th anniversary held at Sandals Riviera, which feature 1,250 square feet of room space, butler service and other luxuries.
An over-water version of the new suites, with glassed floors through which guests can view the sea floor, is on the drawing board.
The first 150 glass-floor suites are to be built at a cost of US$180 million at the Sandals Grande St Lucia where authorisations have been secured after three years, said Stewart, the son and heir apparent of SRI founder and chairman Gordon 'Butch' Stewart.
Other SRI projects mentioned were Beaches Dragon Bay in Portland; Beaches Whitehouse, to be located next to Sandals Whitehouse in Westmoreland; 100-suite Beaches Negril; a 400-room Beaches Bloody Bay hotel; and a 250-room Sandals City hotel on Oxford Road in New Kingston - all in Jamaica; and Beaches St Lucia and Beaches Antigua.
The value and source of financing for these projects were not disclosed.
Adam Stewart said the chain had picked up good deals during the recession, including the purchase of the Four Seasons hotel in Exuma, Bahamas.
He said the 500-acre property was valued at US$600 million but that Sandals got it for US$26 million, and then spent another US$18 million on upgrades.
The resort company's website lists 13 hotels in four islands - Jamaica, Antigua, St Lucia and the Bahamas - but Sandals is also present in Turks & Caicos Island and Cuba, home of Sandals Royal Hicacos on the Hicacos Peninsula.
The Sandals chain originated in Montego Bay when Butch Stewart acquired Bay Roc hotel in 1981.
The chairman said SRI has spent US$300 million since 2008 to improve its hotel properties. The plant upgrades included Beaches Boscobel for US$8 million, which was outfitted with a parrot island and water parks - with Stewart noting that 80 per cent of family holiday decisions are shown by research to be made by children.
To tap this business, Beaches has long hosted 'Sesame Street' characters and advertises on the show, broadcast by PBS in 148 languages.
Beaches has also introduced a teen-only Club Liquid nightclub as well as a Scratch DJ Academy.
Sandals employs more than 10,000 workers in its Caribbean hotels, which makes the chain the "largest private employer and largest foreign-exchange earner on St Lucia, Antigua, Turks and Caicos, and Jamaica", declared CEO Adam Stewart.
Over the recession, Sandals has used discount deals to keep its rooms occupied and is currently running a 65 per cent reduction special.
The company has also been pursuing a product diversification strategy that senior vice-president for sales Gary Sadler says includes a new incentive programme for travel agents, in relation to product categories sold, which promises to make them "millionaires".
Some 474 sales agents in North America also drive cars with Sandals advertising wraps on the exterior, said Sadler.
Sandals has also done co-branding with Martha Stewart, Sesame Street and the hosting of travel agents on a private yacht with capacity for 5,000 - tactics that Sadler declared ought to be duplicated by Caribbean governments with an interest in selling island tourism in a serious way.
"We have chartered planes from 25 gateways and brought over 10,000 agents to see and experience our hotels. Until governments do similarly, they have not done anything for tourism," he said.
The chain also does half-day workshops with 12,000 travel agents in Canada, the United States, Latin America and elsewhere on an annual basis, he said.
SRI's sales and marketing staff number 500 across the globe, including Germany and Russia. In the United States, 50 of 75 employees are business development managers.
Sandals claims 54 per cent of the resort wedding business in the Caribbean, some of it driven by the 'Martha Stewart weddings'. It also counts annual visits from divers at 100,000 persons.