By John S. Parke, CMP; President and CEO, Leadership Synergies, LLC
Nine days before I was to leave for Cuba, Fidel Castro died. A few days later, on November 28, 2016, President Elect Donald Trump tweeted, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.” This after a year President Obama spent warming relations between the two countries. The day before our departure, a colleague said, “Enjoy the Cuba trip. I’ve never felt more aware of communism than when I was there.”
I knew then that we were in for an adventure.
My anticipation was a mix of excitement and “What did I get myself into?” Would Cuba be a disappointment? Would I have spent five days on a business trip when I could have been working on all the other priorities stacking up with the New Year fast approaching? I admit I was excited to visit a country that is so close—just a short flight from Miami—yet so far away from other tropical destinations. But Cuba is not your typical island destination. In my global travel adventures, Cuba is one of the few places that still seems to be culturally, politically, and technologically suspended in the 1960s—and the Cuban people appear to be okay with that.
I was not disappointed. Cuba was everything I had heard and more—mostly good. The brand campaign for Cuba is designed around one word: “authentic.” That description is completely accurate.
HSMAI Executive T.H.I.N.K. Study Tour
The trip was designed to introduce executives from the hospitality industry to Cuba through cultural immersion as part of a unique senior-level program by Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI) Executive T.H.I.N.K. study tours. The association specializes in Sales, Marketing, and Revenue Management, and while its members are mostly hotel companies they also serve the entire hospitality business marketplace. Our group was a diverse mix of technology and hotel executives, high-profile sponsors, and business consultants. All had a common goal: to decide if and when to invest and/or grow presence in Cuba for their companies or their clients’ companies.
The group arrived at Miami airport early on a sunny Monday morning. After making our introductions to colleagues and travel partners, we proceeded through visa processing, which was mostly easy. The 25-minute flight was uneventful until most of us saw the island from the plane windows. Suddenly, everyone was quiet—mesmerized—as we descended toward Jose Marti–Havana Airport. The weather was a balmy 81 degrees Fahrenheit. In the arrival area, old videos of Cuban sports heroes play on TVs as if to say “We are proud—we are winners.”
Since our trip instructions explicitly stated, “Leave your global positioning devices at home and turn your phones off,” we didn’t know what to expect regarding security processing. But after a relatively painless 45-minute wait for luggage, our group was on a bus heading towards Havana. Our tour guide, Martha, reminded us that the Cuban people had just completed nine days of no music, alcohol, or wedding celebrations in observance of Castro’s passing. On the drive to the Melina Cohiba Hotel, we did see several couples who had just exchanged vows and were taking pictures and riding in 1950s convertibles with the brides’ white veils fluttering in the warm island breeze. Our stop at the Habanos cigar factory was as authentic as it gets. Several members of our group actually hand-rolled and smoked their own cigars in a factory that smelled like a cross between horse manure and honeysuckle.
Our adventure had begun.
This event attracted senior executives from prestigious global brands like Google, Booking.com, and Red Roof Inn. The guest list also included business thought leaders from hospitality-related consulting firms like Digital DNA Infusion, LLC and Total Customized Revenue Management. Some members of this fun and diverse group also brought guests, which added fun perspectives to our conversations.
First and foremost, this was a business trip, and the lineup of tourism-related meetings were impressive. Here’s a snapshot.
Our first presentation, given by Dr. Alejandro Delgado, Ph.D., at the School of Tourism, University of Havana, was titled “Tourism Development in Cuba.” This slide clearly set the stage for the intended impression: that Cuba tourism is growing and successful:
“International Visitor Arrivals” in 1985 were just under 500,000
compared to just under 3 million in 2012.
The overarching theme of the presentation was Cuba’s Tourism Development Plan 2030, which included data and insights in these categories:
- National and Foreign Investments
- Lodging Capacity for International Tourism
- Lodging Infrastructure
- Average Occupancy in State-Owned Accommodations
- Tourism Expenditures and Revenue
- Access by Air And Sea
- The Eight Regions for Tourism Development
- Product niches
Dr. Delgado explained that the primary remaining challenges for Cuba are:
- IT penetration in advertising, tourist information delivery, and e-business remains relatively low.
- Connectivity and high-speed Internet are still key factors that need to be consistently provided.
- Quality issues in services at hotels, restaurants, and elsewhere need to be addressed.
- Product diversification (attractions and activities) remains a focus.
This trip would not have been complete without meeting the union representing hospitality workers. Our hosts were there to inform us about the opportunities and challenges facing Cuban hotels and accommodations.
We were warmly greeted by the executives and treated to a cup of sweet tea. The entire presentation, including all the slides, was presented in Spanish. Our guide, Martha, did a wonderful job interpreting the comments from union representatives to our group of mostly non-Spanish-speaking individuals. Though there were some moments of confusion and misunderstanding, we mostly understood the presentation themes.
The introductory slide in the presentation was:
Meeting of the National Union of Hotel and Tourism Workers of Cuba
With the US Hotel and Tourism Group
Here are some interesting workforce statistics the group reviewed for us:
- 9% have Higher Level education (more than basic required education).
- 4% have University Level education.
- 8% are 40 years or younger.
- 3% are women.
- 5% are blacks and mestizos.
This made me wonder, is this really much different from the hospitality workforce in the US? My guess is it’s pretty similar.
If you’re wondering about foreign participation, here are some key stats:
- There are 27 joint ventures, of which 5,592 rooms are operating in 14 hotels.
- There are 62 management contracts signed with 17 foreign hotel groups, representing 46.8% of the country’s rooms.
In this country, joint ventures are the gateway to establishing and running a business such as a hotel (unless you’re a Cuban citizen with lots of money).
The Cuban tourism position statement is:
The Ministry of Tourism works in the diversification of the tourist product, not only of sun and beach, but adventure tourism, nature, golf, real estate, events, health, history, culture, and sport.
A later slide stated:
Non-state activity in accommodation, gastronomy, and other services will continue to be developed as a complementary tourist offer to the state.
Translation? They need and want tourism now and in the future (especially from the US), and they were glad we were there.
Our group wanted to see hotels beyond the one we were staying in, so we took a brief tour of the NH Capri La Habana, which is less than 10 minutes’ drive to Plaza de la Revolución and only a 30-minutes walk to Capitolio Nacional in downtown Malecón, where pastel-colored houses line the waterfront.
After our tour, we took the elevators to the top floor and entered a small meeting room where we received a presentation from a representative from The Ministry of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation (MINVEC) to learn about its role in regulating, proposing, and managing foreign investment.
Despite fans whirring, it was a long day in hot meeting rooms. But it was still interesting to hear about “ Updating the Cuban Social and Economic Model.”
Near the end, the presenter stated that “the experiment started and still continues.” I thought that was an accurate summary of the evolution of tourism in Cuba.
The takeaway? Cuba is future-focused and has learned from the significant challenges along the way (that’s code for “don’t put all your eggs in the Russian oil revenue support basket”).
Before the trip, a friend who had been to Cuba in September said, “Good luck eating there—all I had were rice and beans!”
Was he ever wrong! Our other tour director, Dawn Davis (representing Academic Travel Abroad) clearly had the local connections—we ate like royalty at many unique venues. Wade Jennings, Creative Services Manager for ATA, photographed every special event and activity at places like La Moraleja, Atelier, Café Laurent, Palador Habana, La Barraca, and a closing night cabaret show at the world-famous Buena Vista Social Club.
If you go to Cuba, just use this list of restaurants as your food guide!
What Did We Learn?
Just before our final dinner, the delegates and guests gathered for a roundtable to recap the highlights, observations, and implications of the trip and to talk about Cuban tourism and hospitality. Participants were asked a series of questions to identify major points of inspiration and insight.
HSMAI, as a thought leader, how can the association leverage this event for members?
- We can provide insights into joint venture opportunities and management structures within Cuban hotels.
- We can share stories about the culture and traditions of Cuba, encourage travel here, and debunk myths.
Which experiences on this trip made the greatest impression on you?
- Looking around Revolution Square and learning about everything that has happened there
- The visit with the union representatives
- Meeting and talking with the Cuban people
- Private, non-governmental properties outperform, and tourist leaders recognize this.
- Cuba is not fully ready for mainstream US tourists (for example, there is limited Wi-Fi access).
- We need to understand the Cuban government’s perspectives and its desire to allow more privatization.
- All the 1950s cars you can’t find in the US are here!
What do you see as the implications for the hospitality industry overall?
- Cuba can become a very competitive leisure destination, one of only a few where authenticity and intrigue can still be found by many travelers, not just Americans.
What are the most important attributes of an emerging destination that should be leveraged?
- Culture (by meeting the people)
What are some marketing lessons learned?
- Proper marketing funds are needed to grow the brand image.
- Promote realistic expectations, but with a positive light.
- Convey the carefree spirit of the people.
If you were a reporter writing a headline for this trip, what would it be?
- Friendly people, amazing architecture
- Where time stood still
- This place has potential!
Finally, I asked attendees, “What are the images in your head and the feelings in your heart as you prepare to leave Cuba?”
Head: Colorful, historic, diverse, a place to return to and explore
Heart: Warm, open, hopeful, excited for the future
So the headline? A historic place with friendly people and amazing architecture—a place with great potential where time stands still!
Next time HSMAI hosts an Executive T.H.I.N.K. study tour to Cuba or anywhere else, you need to get on that plane and share the experience with your industry colleagues!