March 16, 2015
Havana has long been the forbidden fruit for American vacationers and business elites alike – an off-limits cultural time warp of antique cars and cigars — situated in a beautiful climate almost within reach. To the meetings industry, it’s been mostly a moot point. But with the surprise thaw in diplomatic relations in December 2014, meetings insiders are scoping out the potential for bringing events to Cuba.
It’s no sure thing – and certainly not in the short term – but it’s worth a look at the infrastructure and other potential hurdles separating our industry from a potential new hot spot. Here’s a look at a few of the immediate challenges.
By international standards, the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana is considered fairly modern and comfortable. The unknown is whether Havana’s three airports (as well as scattered airports throughout the island) have the capacity to take on a potential influx of new travelers. Safety upgrades alone pose a challenge for Cuban airports. Many of the country’s runways and taxiways are in need of restoration. That means new signage, better lighting, pavement repairs and other improvements to come into compliance with international standards.
You’re There. Now What?
The Havana Government’s Business Construction Group has indicated that more than three-quarters of Havana’s roads alone are in poor condition and require “complex” repairs. In this industry, travel time is money, and you can’t host a successful event if attendees are stuck on the side of the road changing a tire.
And then there are cabs and other ground transportation needs to consider. While there are local Destination Management Companies (DMCs ) who can assist with the planning and delivery of a group’s ground transportation needs, do not expect the equipment to be new or even on par with traditionally expected standards in the Caribbean.
Cuba’s Existing Hospitality Industry
By and large, Cuba’s hospitality industry is a patchwork of small local operators and chains run by European companies, primarily Spanish. For example, the most notable hotel chain names for business meetings and conferences are Spain’s Melia Hotels International, Iberostar Hotels & Resorts, and Occidental Hotels and Resorts. And the smaller venues face daunting challenges, such as aging (and downright dangerous) infrastructures and incredibly restrictive bureaucracies limiting possibilities for expansion. New hotels could have a hard time breaking into the existing Havana market. By some estimates, the presence of a Five Star resort or USA brand name hotel in Havana is probably a decade or more away.
The communist regime and planned economy took a toll on Cuban society in general and employees of the commercial and services sectors in particular. This has led to a business orientation centered on production versus sales or services. However the increase in foreign investment is trying to change the bureaucratic value system to an entrepreneurial one. Through exposure to new training, employee focus is evolving in a way that soon could mean quality service. Western best management practices can produce significant results; however, hotel management practices in Cuba are constrained by a state-imposed political context.
Among the different types of restaurants in Cuba, hotel restaurants are your best bet. State-run restaurants vary widely in food quality. Restaurants that only accept American dollars are likely to have better food. Many Cuban cafes are heavily influenced by American fast food, and pizza is as common on menus as any Cuban dishes.
In all, it will be an exciting transition to watch from a meetings perspective. Cuba will almost certainly seize on this opportunity to bring in new tourism and meeting money. The questions right now involve when visitors will get there and at what degree of difficulty will they face.
Read the full article at The Meetings Magazine. Phelps R. Hope, CMP is senior vice president of meetings and expositions for Kellen. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 678-303-2962.