One of the tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 is that it’s forced many countries across the Caribbean and beyond to isolate in a way that’s returned to haunt us in the overall fight to beat the virus worldwide.
In Our Caribbean, the opportunity was also presented by the pandemic (and still does) for a united approach by CARICOM states to face the COVID threat together, but, unfortunately, to date we still haven’t overcome that challenge.
However, 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 we look to return (as close as possible) to Normal in these very abnormal times.
Governments and companies are equally challenged by the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic and regrettably, 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.
But not in all cases…
Some regional entities have actually risen to the challenges, among them the University of the West Indies (The UWI), which took the COVID bull by the horn very early, establishing the UWI COVID-19 Task Force long before the first COVID case was detected anywhere in the region and being able to advise CARICOM governments sufficiently well to have saved thousands of lives.
Another (entity) is Sandals Resorts International (SRI), the Caribbean’s unmatched global powerhouse in tourism, the only company I know of that tried its virtual best to maintain its full complement of staff — with a level of economic support — throughout the shutdown; and while many others have simply locked their gates or introduced changes that cost more jobs, SRI’s hotels led the charge towards reopening the region’s tourism-dependent economies.
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-in 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 had effectively transcended the boundaries that have been allowed to divide and restrict competitors, creatively creating new properties and jobs with upward industry mobility opportunities for citizens and contributing significantly to national economic prosperity wherever it’s located.
Another SRI hallmark is that its corporate structure and modalities always allow that if it says it will do something, it does.
I was heartened when the Stewart family indicated, immediately after declaration of the pandemic in early 2020 that they would keep SRI open wherever it operates and use the unwelcome closedown to upgrade its properties across the Caribbean in preparation for reopening soonest it was safe.
I felt the same 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’ project at Buccament Bay.
You might ask: Why would the company decide to recruit 500 Vincentians for a project that’s still (at least) many, many months in the future.
Executive Chairman Adam Stewart answered that question in a statement preceding the St. Vincent recruitment drive, saying it was 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 floods.
Which other Caribbean hotel company has shown its preparedness to do what’s needed, just because it’s the right thing to do?
Sandals is also one of the very few Caribbean private sector entities that have rallied to The UWI’s cause in this time of redefinition of the region’s university into one that will better serve the CARICOM and reduce its dependence on regional taxpayers by turning its high-class and still-climbing global rankings on the world’s university education index into a source for global and further regional expansion and new forms of international revenue generation.
Like all other regional private entities in the business of tourism, SRI has had to study the turf and ride the waves accordingly as the political and economic winds blow, but rain or sun, hurricanes or volcanic eruptions, Climate Change, Environmental challenges or Health hazards, Sandals will continue to have responsibilities every day to all its employees everywhere and the payment of taxes that in all cases amount to sums no government would wish to have to do without.
That SRI has been able to ride those waves successfully over time is testament to its understanding of how the Caribbean’s winds blow and ability to adjust and flex with times and changes.
That Sandals and The UWI can dance in the interest of ensuring the region has a world-class university that can also dance with the private and public sectors in the common interest of and for the benefit of all is a different but very welcome example of the region’s public-private sectors can join to tackle pressing regional problems, whether in health or education.
I also believe CARICOM leaders should seize the opportunity to join with The UWI as it continues to build a better university for a Batter Caribbean; and work with SRI wherever it operates in the region to show what the governments and private sector entities can achieve by working closer together, especially in challenging times like now when opportunities abound behind the dark clouds that those who can see can and should put to work in the region’s wider interests.
Saint Vincent’s Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves aptly described the SRI decision to hire 500 employees it does not immediately need as a massive gesture of Caribbean solidarity, which is exactly what it was.
The Minister flowered 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 provided meaningful assistance to citizens and the country at a time of greatest need.
But Sandals has long been walking that route…
Its hotels across the region are a true reflection of CARICOM that you won’t see on signboards, but in and on the faces of Saint Lucians working alongside Jamaicans, Barbadians, Antiguans, TCI islanders, Bahamians, Grenadians and even persons from countries where there are no Sandals resorts as yet (including 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.
‘Butch’ Stewart, who I knew, always boasted that ‘Our people can achieve any goal if we endeavor 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 what deepening our integration is all about.
We need only to look 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 b30 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.
We should never fail to appreciate those persons and institutions that make a positive difference for the better in our region and for the lives of its employees across the Caribbean and in the various world capitals from where they also drive the traffic that Sandals brings to the region year after year.
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!