Franc Jeffrey is CEO of EQ Travel, with offices in the United Kingdom and Boston, MA. He has over 25 years experience in global corporate travel. Jeffrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info, visit www.eqtravel.com.
Ask Americans what first comes to mind when you mention Cuba and you’ll usually get a simple answer. If you were born in 1950 or before you were probably glued to the news reports during those 13 days in October of 1962 and the anticipation of missiles raining down on Miami. But most U.S.-born meeting and incentive professionals are much younger and only know Cuba from their parents talking about the Cuban missile crisis or watching Ricky Ricardo from “I Love Lucy,” a show that will live forever in the black hole that is TV reruns.
One thing is certain, that tiny island 90 miles off the coast of Florida is about to undertake an unprecedented tourism boom. And like any explosion, there will be collateral damage, in this case the charm of an old-school world which may soon be washed away by a corporate tsunami. What this means for corporate meeting planners is that the clock is ticking. Now that the floodgates have been diplomatically opened, streets filled with 1950s Fords and Chevys with big fins are sure to be replaced by top-of-the-line Toyota SUVs, and billboards with paintings of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara will soon be covered over by a 30-foot Tom Brady selling Uggs.
Marriot International is one of many companies eager to do business in Cuba, especially as more Americans travel to the island. “With travel to Cuba now surging, existing Cuban hotels are full and hotel companies from other countries are racing to tie up as many of the new hotels as they can before the likes of Marriott and our U.S. competitors show up,” President and CEO Arne Sorenson said in a U.S. News & World Report interview.
“Because it’s been closed so long, there’s still a mystery about Cuba, so the time is right to experience something close to home but still off the beaten path.”
Current hotels may not have as many deluxe amenities that U.S. corporate travelers expect, but Iberostar, the Spanish-based hotel company, has a few properties in Cuba, one of which is the Hotel Parque Central, considered by some the best in Havana. Iberostar also has a five-star, all-inclusive resort in the Varadero Beach area of Cuba.
So for corporate incentive planners tired of sending their top salespeople to local golf resorts, the timing is just right. Travel restrictions have eased, allowing ferry services to Cuba, and Carnival Corp. announced that its new Fathom brand has been granted permission to cruise with U.S. travelers to Cuba in 2016. The line said it plans to provide “cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges between American and Cuban citizens.”
American, Delta and United have all expressed an interest in operating flights to Cuba and, since early July, JetBlue has operated a weekly charter from New York’s JFK to Havana — the first major airline to do so since restrictions were lifted. You also can book a hotel room or a car through sharing services such as Airbnb. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still time to enjoy perfect beaches, traditional foods and the unblemished hospitality of its people.
Planners also will find that they won’t be annoyed by people chatting on their cell phones at the table next to them while dining out, or get run over by a teenager in the street with her head down and her thumbs doing the texting tango. It’s been estimated that only 5 percent of the population has regular access to the Internet and less than 20 percent own cell phones. But all that will change quickly once telecommunication giants like Verizon and AT&T land on the Cuban shores and cell phone towers start sprouting up like trees. And it will all happen sooner than later. In early summer, 35 public Wi-Fi areas opened across Cuba. Cuban citizens are panting for technology and connectivity, and they will eventually get their wish.
Once Americans are able to travel freely to Cuba they shouldn’t think of themselves as Columbus landing on some previously undiscovered land. According to a recent article in the Miami Herald, Cuba is already the second largest tourism destination in the Caribbean, surpassed only by the Dominican Republic. Last year, Cuba received 3,001,968 stopover visitors — a 5.3 percent increase — and during the first quarter of this year the Cuban Tourism Ministry said it received a record 1.14 million travelers. The Cuban government estimates that if there were unrestricted travel from the United States, annual trips by Americans would increase by 1.5 million, generating an extra $2 billion in revenue.
It’s safe to say that much of that revenue will come in the next few years from big and splashy hotels, corporate skyscrapers, Apple stores and McDonald’s. And how soon before we start DVR-ing “Real Housewives of Havana”? The fear isn’t Cuba turning into Las Vegas but becoming another Atlantis or Dubai, where commercialism has never been reeled in, and the words “bigger is better” might as well be the national motto.
With all we know about Cuba, both past and present, and there are plenty of political warts — some Corporate Travel Management (CTM) companies may still have issues suggesting to their meeting planners and incentive clients that partaking of the old-world charm of Cuba, before it starts to vanish, is well worth their consideration. That perhaps staying in the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana might be better than holding out in order to stay in a high-rise hotel that could be in Las Vegas or Los Angeles, even though the view may still show buildings withering under decades of neglect.
Maybe it’s time to start thinking out-of-the-box, before the box gets covered in shiny paper with a neon-lit bow on top. Because it’s been closed so long, there’s still a mystery about Cuba, so the time is right to experience something close to home but still off the beaten path. And Americans have always liked a good mystery.
In some ways, the opening of Cuba to the United States, and its potential to be the next big “hot spot” for travelers, both corporate and leisure, is almost surreal. The Associated Press has reported that the U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted 72,771 Cubans en route to Florida, many taken to small rafts in order to flee an oppressive regime in a country where Choice Hotels International Inc.’s chief executive Stephen Joyce, tells The Wall Street Journal, “The minute it’s available, we’ll be down there.”
Once restriction-free travel is allowed for U.S. citizens this island nation will fast become the most popular Caribbean destination for tourism and corporate business travel. And once that happens the clock will start ticking if you want to see Cuba as it was and as it is, before everything old is new again. C&IT