Cuba Is Calling (or Is It?)

With the relaxation of U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba, the country has become a culturally rich, historically important destination for American groups. Cuba is experiencing an awakening, with corporations already targeting the island nation to make a big splash with their events. Americans are drawn to the unknown of Cuba. Naturally, curiosity is a big driver in wanting to travel to a country that hasn’t been accessible for 50 years. “Cuba is a luxury destination in terms of people and culture,” says Collin Laverty, founder and president of Cuba Educational Travel. “Americans will find incredible music, dance and ingenuity of the people.” Cuba’s food shortage presents one of many opportunities to incorporate CSR into events, which can prove transformative on both sides. “[Cubans] are looking for information and are like sponges when it comes to talking with Americans,” says Peter Sanchez, CEO of Cuba Tours and Travel. The education factor goes both ways. Corporate groups will learn the turbulent nature of Cuba’s past; what has kept the people going in a Communist society; and how their culture weaves together a strong fabric of art and music undettered by a controlling government. Despite all the allures of a country isolated from the rest of the world for more than a half-century, many challenges associated with the frosty relationship between the United States and Cuba remain. In that regard, Cuba is a risk for meeting professionals willing to take on financial and technological challenges—signs the country’s infrastructure might not be ready for a surge of U.S. travelers, let alone groups—yet it remains a destination promising rich rewards. Back in Time In many aspects, Cuba remains locked in the 1950s. From vintage cars to franchise-free landscapes, Cuba appears to be frozen in time, a paradise most Americans have seen only in photographs. The vitality of the Cuban people is revealed through their art and music. Architecture spans many centuries, creating a look of old and new in one space. The 500-year history of Havana is revealed through its 16th century castles and modern buildings that are a mix of everything from baroque to art deco. A trip to Old Havana—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—reveals the colonial beginnings of the city. Groups can take a walking tour of the city’s capitol building, plazas and cathedrals, with a stop at the humidor bar at Hotel Conde de Villanueva. While attendees enjoy a glass of rum or fresh cup of Cuban coffee, a professional cigar roller explains his craft. The next stop is lunch at El Templete, a fish restaurant near the harbor in old town, followed by shopping at Havana’s largest souvenir market. The day is brought to a close with dinner at paladar (privately run restaurant) La Guarida—said to be the hardest table to get in Havana—which served as the backdrop of the 1993 Oscar-nominated film “Strawberry and Chocolate.” The queen of Spain, Robert Redford and Steven Spielberg are only a few of the famous guests who have dined there. Ironically, a tour of modern Havana begins with sightseeing via classic American vintage cars. A stop at Hotel Nacional de Cuba allows attendees to view the property’s Vista al Golfo bar (Hall of Fame bar), with pictures of film stars such as Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Errol Flynn. Attendees can then participate in a salsa course and learn the national dance of Cuba. Lunch can include a surprise appearance by the last living member of the Buena Vista Social Club, Amadito Valdes. Attendees will watch a documentary of the famous band and hear a live performance by Valdes, followed by an autograph signing. Planning Challenges Generally speaking, Cuba’s infrastructure has a long way to go to accommodate groups. From Wi-Fi connectivity to hotel options, the country‘s services are in need of an upgrade. Cuba has approximately 61,000 hotel rooms, about the same amount as the Dominican Republic. But with an expected surge in U.S. travelers, that inventory cannot accommodate multiple large groups at once. “Currently, the challenge is securing hotel rooms in the major cities as a supply crunch has developed increased demand,” says Laverty. “There is a severe shortage of four- and five-star properties in these cities, including Havana.” Airbnb began operations in Cuba in June with some 2,000 homes available for rent. While this can accommodate smaller groups, it does not work well for larger programs. Using Airbnb rentals would also present a time and cost challenge for transfers because attendees would be spread out over many areas. If you’re fortunate to secure a block of rooms in a hotel, the typical amenities you might find in a U.S. property are lacking or nonexistent. The cell network does not support smartphones, and most hotels do not have in-room Internet; access is available only in the hotel’s business center. “Cuba is not a luxury destination in terms of accommodations and amenities,” says Laverty, who has brought more than 500 people-to-people exchange groups to Cuba over the last four years. “[Being] under development in the telecommunications sector makes Cuba one of the few remaining dark zones in the 21st century.” In fact, Cuba has one of the lowest Internet penetrations in the world at about 5 percent, and the cost of telecommunications is exorbitantly high. But it’s getting better. President Obama called for new efforts to increase access to communications in Cuba. Telecommunications providers are now allowed to establish the necessary infrastructure to provide commercial telecommunications and Internet services in Cuba. “U.S. cellphones can’t use the Cuban national carrier and therefore don’t work and will not until U.S./Cuba carrier agreements are reached,” says Tom Popper, president of insightCuba. “In October, I heard that Cubacel, the state-run cellphone operator, is now renting cellphones to foreigners, which hasn’t happened in five years.” While communications may be limited, hotel offerings are inexpensive, even with a 50 percent markup mandated by Cuban law. Blue Diamond Resorts has 13 properties in Cuba, several with rooms priced as low as $100 per night with breakfast in the high season—and that includes the markup. Another advantage is the currency. The Cuban CUC has no international value and is a one-to-one value with the U.S. dollar. The value of the currency never changes, making it easier to budget. Money Matters Paying for services in Cuba is a big challenge. The country does not accept U.S. credit cards, and due to the U.S. embargo, there are no reciprocal agreements between U.S. and Cuban banks, making wire transfers impossible. “A planner who had to prepay for agency services emailed me asking how she could pay, since a wire transfer is not possible,” says Popper. “Canadian and foreign-held banks still have to comply with U.S. Department of the Treasury laws and often won’t handle the funds.” Prepayment using traveler checks seems to be the only option. It’s important to tell your delegates in advance to bring cash or travelers checks to pay for incidentals. Building relationships with hotel managers, restaurant owners and tour guides goes a long way to ensure a successful event. Laverty says it’s important to let your supplier partners know who you are, what your clients are like and what your event is about. He suggests bringing them gifts and making them feel as if they are invested in your event. “In Cuba, you should assume everything will go wrong,” says Laverty frankly. “Triple confirm conference rooms and meal reservations, make backup plans for altered schedules and attack all problems before they arise.” Setting expectations in advance of the event for what attendees in your group will experience during a visit to Cuba is essential. From the meeting invitation to the conference website, be upfront about lacking amenities before they even board the plane. And what about that absence of Internet and cell service in the country? Perhaps it’s just what your group needs. “While the lack of service makes doing business in Cuba a challenge, most travelers accept it as part of the throwback experience,” Laverty says. “They cherish not getting calls and emails while riding around Havana in classic Chevys and Fords.” Discovering Cuba Cuba’s history, art, music and cuisine provide a rich cultural experience for Americans. Following is a sample itinerary courtesy of Cuba Educational Travel: Walking tour of the Old City Wander through Plaza Vieja, the oldest plaza in Havana dating from the 16th century. Visit Plaza de la Catedraland where the Cathedral of Havana sits along with a statue of George Washington. The Cubans erected the statue in 1764 in an attempt to win the allegiance of the United States. Walk through the scenic tree-lined Plaza de Armas, formerly at the center of influence in Cuba. It is surrounded by some of the most historic structures in Havana as well as important monuments. Discussion with journalist Marc Frank The longest-serving foreign correspondent in Cuba, Frank writes for Reuters, Financial Times and The Economist, and is an authority on the Cuban economy. He can share insight into important economic, political and social issues on the island, as well as colorful stories from his career as an entrenched reporter. Visit Lizt Alfonso Academy This women-led dance company and school for local youth specializes in flamenco. Watch a rehearsal of the adolescent dance group, and discuss with the dancers afterward how they came to join the school and the impact it has made on them. Dinner in style Travel in small groups in Classic American autos from the 1950s to enjoy dinner at one of the city’s great paladares.