The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Meeting in Cuba

Cuba meetings Deborah Elias|Cuba meeting Deborah Elias

Since Cuba opened as a destination for U.S. tourism, so too has a new market for incentive planners. While many companies talk about Cuba as a bucket-list destination for programs, it is imperative that planners go on a FAM trip to the country before taking clients. Coming off a recent visit, Deborah Elias, CSEP, CMP, CIS, president of Houston-based Elias Events, shares her takeaways.

THE GREAT

Most major carriers are now offering nonstop flights from several metropolitan hubs, including Houston; Newark, New Jersey; Charlotte, North Carolina; Orlando; and Los Angeles, which means travel time is cut in half and layovers in Miami are minimal. The airline ticket price includes health insurance, which is required by the Cuban government.

Getting a visa is an easy process and can be done at the airport (it cannot be purchased ahead of time) for a $75 fee. Of the 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba, support for the Cuban people and humanitarian projects are the most appropriate.

THE GOOD

Contrary to popular belief, Cuban food is good—but only at paladares, restaurants run by self-employers instead of the government. Most of them are in run-down buildings, but the restaurants themselves are beautifully renovated and the food selections are vast and delectable.   

Impressive tours and experiences showcase the incredible history of Cuba. Cuba Travel Services runs tours to Varadero, a gorgeous beach town about two hours from Havana, and tobacco plantations set in the mountains an equal distance away. In Havana proper, an abundance of art, culture, fantastic cars from the ’50s and of course Ernest Hemingway hangouts (with Floridita being the most popular) are ready to explore.

Accommodations include a number of large hotel chains such as Iberostar and Melia, as well as Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which is the most famous property (although its government-run restaurants are quite lacking). Intimate boutique hotels such as the Saratoga are perfect for small incentives.

THE BAD

The run-down buildings—and frankly, almost the entire city of Havana is unfortunately like this— have to be overlooked. Although these structures are an eyesore, inside many are hidden gems.

The Havana airport is also neglected, has no clubs (yet) and many of the attendants do not speak English. This will probably change as more U.S. flights are added.

THE UGLY

For the foreseeable future, the USD is not accepted anywhere, although the process of exchanging the Cuban currency (CUC, which operates at the same exchange rate) is quite easy, and multiple outlets can do this. The best place to exchange is at the airport. It is important to bring far more cash than you anticipate needing because there is absolutely no means of getting more or using credit or debit cards.