(Barbados Nation) Jamaican hotel magnate Gordon “Butch” Stewart is making a second play for another 30-acre property in Barbados. This time around he has his eyes fixed on the Almond Beach Village in St Peter, whose Trinidadian owners Neal & Massy have announced an April 30 closure for the expansive beachfront property.
In this week’s Big Interview, the chairman of Sandals Resorts International chain speaks candidly about his interest in taking over the hotel.
He also seeks to clear the air on his last investment in Paradise Beach, which he purchased in 1992 but was hit by legal and other wranglings and never got off the ground.
He spoke to Editor-In-Chief Kaymar Jordan.
First of all, bring us up to date on your offer to take over the St Peter property.
Stewart: Well, a number of architects, engineers, interior designers, landscape people went down [to Barbados last week]. We are going to get the reports the middle of this week and I will go through the process of evaluation.
You know these days you have to be really careful because global problems have slowed travel down, and we have to make sure, because we would have to what we call Sandalize the property, which at this time looks like an enormous amount of money to spend.
So we are talking, we are very interested and we would love to be in Barbados.
We are hearing Bds$40 million in terms of refurbishments. Is that what you estimate as well?
Stewart: The refurbishment is one thing, but we would have to go a lot further. Typically, a resort of that size [approximately 30 acres] should have ten or 12 restaurants. It should have a lot of other things.
[If our bid is successful] we would probably be doing a Beaches, not a Sandals, which would involve a lot more facilities, water park, kids games, Xbox [arcade]. So it is an ongoing process.
But in another couple of weeks we will be in a much better position to say, “Look, we made it”, or, “We didn’t make it”. We naturally have to pay our respect to the people in Government; they have not had any discussion like that, but it is a process.
So you are talking principally to Neal & Massy at this stage?
But we are hearing that there are at least four other offers on the table. Not just Sandals, but a number of other big players locally and internationally. Are you sure you will get it?
Stewart: Well, you know, once Sandals gets involved everybody starts talking. There are not many people doing anything called development right now, apart from people talking.
So I don’t worry about that. You win some, you lose some anyway. So what’s the big deal?
The one apprehension we have heard so far with respect to your taking over the property is that you would want to have a private beach. In fact, we understand that that was the deal breaker last time you were pursuing a major investment in Barbados.
Stewart: First of all, that is rumour. Nothing could be further from the truth. I mean we operate in Antigua; the beach is not private; St Lucia is not private; the Bahamas is not private; Jamaica is not private. So nothing could be further from the truth.
No, I think what happened is that we just got mixed up with bureaucracy and couldn’t make any progress; and it was also earlier times and more primitive times for Sandals Resorts. If we had had probably better professional help, it would have been [workable].
We are a young company, 30 years old this year – but absolutely nothing like a private beach.
That’s all nonsense!
But at the end of the day, you got fed up with the Paradise project – now Four Seasons – and you left. Can you assure Barbadians that if given the opportunity to take over Almond you would be in it for the long haul?
Stewart: (Chuckle) Take a look at all the places that we are at. Any island that Sandals is in, does well. Every island! And we go in, we dig our holes, we make our nest, we develop the properties.
Why didn’t we see this level of commitment to Paradise?
Stewart: Well, first of all there is no organization that thinks longer term than Sandals Resorts. We just took over the Four Seasons in Exuma in the Bahamas. We spent Bds$17 million Sandalizing it. We went from two-and-a-half restaurants to seven-and-a-half, all the bedrooms refurbished; we completely landscaped it, the golf course is immaculate.
We have been able to attract airlift in there and we are really happy with how it is going. We have inside entertainment, outside entertainment; so we put all the facilities that were missing. It is a gorgeous hotel and we have been in there now a year and half or more.
Why not go back to Paradise Beach where you have a history and save that project, which is currently stalled?
Stewart: Well, you know, we sold it and some other people [Four Seasons developers] own it and the history is like that; so I don’t think we will quibble. They have their project doing and I wish them good and I hope they do very well because if they do well the rest of the tourism community will do well . . . .
I think Four Seasons, all things being equal, would do well in Barbados.
So would you consider putting money back into Four Seasons to get it going again?
Stewart: Well, we [Sandals] don’t have any partners. That project has a lot of partners.
But would you be willing to buy out the stalled Four Seasons, if offered?
Stewart: No; I mean I think that project is advanced. I don’t think it is for sale, nobody has told me that.
Look here, these economic times that we are in, it is not a simple deal to develop a hotel that is so capital-intensive, and I can tell you a lot of the chains have literally been going out of business.
A lot of hotels going out of business; there are a lot of big hotels in receivership now, in the Caymans, everywhere. So it is not unusual for people to be struggling. Not unusual at all.
Why now then? Why Barbados at this time for Butch Stewart and Sandals?
Stewart: But I didn’t say it is a fait accompli.
Neither did I, but you have confirmed a strong interest.
So why now?
Stewart: I think Barbados for us is a void, and I think Sandals would do a lot of good for Barbados. I think Barbados would do a lot for Sandals.
You know, we made an attempt some years ago and it didn’t work out.
Well, other places have worked out well. It is time to go back to Barbados and try to make the best of it.
If you are successful, will the 500 jobs at Almond be assured?
Stewart: Well, I think a lot more jobs would be assured because we would have to add rooms. The Beaches Resorts employ 2.2 people per bedroom and offer a lot of services.
I think what is there right now is significantly less than that, but we would be doing a lot of modifications and we would have additional rooms. So I would imagine that it would probably be 30 per cent more people than currently employed.
But would the deal call for the retention of the current group of workers or are we looking at a brand new set of employees?
Stewart: I could never answer that question.
What about the completion timetable? When do you expect this whole process to be finalized?
Stewart: You know time is money, but at this stage I can’t tell you what would be done or what wouldn’t be done. I can’t even tell you if a deal is at hand either.
I know that we are having constructive discussions with Neal & Massy. They are fabulous people; I know them well. They are easy to deal with, they are tough business people.
They are going to get their pound of flesh, and so they should.
But I would imagine the kind of work that would have to be done, it would be at least a minimum of ten to 14 months to have an incredible new hotel.
How much are you offering for Beach Village?
Stewart: I don’t think the other aside would appreciate my saying that.