Destinations

Is Cuba Meetings-Ready?

In December, President Obama announced that the United States would “normalize relations” with Cuba after more 50 years of estrangement, igniting a flurry of press about who can now travel to Cuba. Just 90 miles from Florida’s southern tip, the steeped-in-time island has tantalized would-be visitors for decades.

 

While the new policy doesn’t change who can travel to Cuba from the United States and why  — tourism is still banned — it nixes cumbersome federal licenses for certain kinds of trips, and brings U.S.-based meeting professionals one step closer toward taking their meetings to Cuba. How ready might the Caribbean nation be?

CATCHING UP

In terms of U.S.-level meeting infrastructure, planners might be dissatisfied. “It’s very early days,” said Phelps R. Hope, CMP, senior vice president of meetings and expositions for Kellen Company. Although Cuba has experienced a tourism boom in recent years —especially from Canadians traveling to the island — Hope thinks that Cuba’s accommodations, transportation options, road conditions, Internet connectivity, and even airport security are far from ready for prime time.

“It’s still very rustic,” Hope said — a better fit for adventure travelers, perhaps, than executives. “Organizing corporate meetings? It’s not happening. Hotels are three-star at best. You couldn’t work with any system good enough to make for a promotable meeting in Cuba.”

An organization that’s based in the USA must have its meeting [in Cuba] organized by a Cuban organization” — as well as its travel.

Despite Hope’s blunt assessment, the country has the raw materials to become an attractive meeting and incentive destination. José Martí International Airport is just an hour-long flight from Miami. Cuba’s cities are rich with stunning colonial architecture, evocative arts and music, and celebrated food and drink. Its more than 3,000 miles of beaches are renowned.

American Airlines and JetBlue already offer charter flights to Cuba from Florida (JetBlue brings its own mechanic on board each Cuba-bound charter flight), and many of the major U.S.-based carriers have expressed interest in adding commercial flights in the coming year. There are 61,000 hotel rooms in Cuba, a number that’s expected to grow sharply in the next few years. Technically, two-thirds of Cuban hotels are considered four- or five-star — but that rating system is country-specific. “I would say we’re 10 years away from any four- or five-star property or resort and convention-level property being built that [U.S. business travelers] would find acceptable,” Hope said.

The 780-mile-long island is home to at least two convention centers. In Havana, the Palacio de Convenciones de la Habana has 60,000 square feet of meeting space and 12 meeting rooms, as well as 174 adjacent hotel rooms. In Varadero, the Plaza America Convention Center has seven meeting rooms and a “plenary room” that can accommodate 200 people.

Mayra G. Rodriguez, a nematologist with Cuba’s National Center of Plant and Animal Health, knows Plaza America well — she’s in the midst of planning the 47th Annual Meeting of the Organization of Nematologists of Tropical America (ONTA), which will take place in Varadero on May 18–22. In an email interview with Convene, Rodriguez said that it’s an “honor” to be part of the host committee planning ONTA’s meeting; she and her colleagues expect 100 or more attendees from all over the world. Rodriguez is proud of Cuba as a meeting destination, and counts among its strengths “the professionalism of [Cuba’s] scientists, the warmth of its people, and the secure environment that allows delegates to move freely in cities with confidence.”

Larry W. Duncan, ONTA’s president and a University of Florida professor, will fly to Havana and then be bussed to Varadero for the meeting. It will be his second trip to the island nation, and he’s looking forward to it. “Varadero has one of the nicest beaches in the world,” said Duncan, who as a state employee must pay for the trip himself because of Florida’s tight restrictions on travel to Cuba. “I wonder how we get people into the talks, considering how nice the beach is.”

THE SHORT AND LONG VIEW

Because of still-existing sanctions, Duncan noted, “An organization that’s based in the USA must have its meeting [in Cuba] organized by a Cuban organization” — as well as its travel. In ONTA’s case, the firm Cubanacán Express S.A. arranged flights along with accommodation at the 490-room Meliá Varadero hotel, which has eight meeting rooms of its own.

On the ground in Cuba, Duncan said, one of the biggest things that might jar a U.S. traveler is actually an absence: connectivity. “The Internet connection is more problematic than in most places,” he said. “I think it’s an infrastructural thing.”

ONTA is one of at least 19 conferences on Cuba’s roster in 2015, according to the website for Congresses in Cuba, an arm of the travel agency Solways Cuba. Most of those meetings are scientific, agricultural, or medical in nature. Might that number grow in 2016 and beyond?

“Business goes where business is welcome,” said Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE). Koch speculates that the first U.S.-based conventions to make it to Cuba will be in the banking, agriculture, and pharmaceutical sectors. But because the country essentially has been trapped in amber for decades — and there are still sanctions in place — Koch said many uncertainties still remain.

“There’s an infrastructure [in Cuba], but to what degree could it handle an influx of travelers?” Koch said. “Let’s say that the restrictions were totally lifted. There will be this pent-up demand. Can airport facilities handle this? What about tour groups? What about Wi-Fi? What about the ability to handle payments? There’s a lot of questions that still need to be answered.”

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is associate editor of Convene.