Since the United States and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations in December 2014, Americans have been able to visit Cuba under 12 authorized categories — among them people-to-people trips, where U.S. visitors interact with Cuban residents in daily settings on an educational basis. That was the category under which Bill Reed, FASAE, CMP, senior director of meetings and community engagement for the American Society of Hematology (ASH), organized ASH’s Executive Committee Spring Retreat in Havana this past May.
Reed had planned board retreats in off-the-beaten-path destinations and top-notch resorts. But nothing compared to his participants’ experience at the Hotel Parque Central in Havana — in a good way, he said. What’s it like for a U.S.-based organization to plan a meeting somewhere that had been off-limits to Americans for more than 50 years? Reed shared his insights with Convene:
“For this trip to Cuba, because of the unique experience that we could create, we had two other components besides the usual board retreat. We offered our board members, senior staff, and their guests and spouses the opportunity to do an extension [of the trip], where we left the city of Havana and went out into the countryside to see more of the island from a cultural perspective. There were 70 people on the board trip, and a total of 120 participants, including Cubans
“Within the time period of the board meeting, we did an educational exchange with 100 Cuban hematologists in Havana. We created a forum where we picked three hematologic diseases. First, the ASH member who is the leading authority in that particular disease talked about how outside of Cuba that disease is treated and research that is emerging in that area. Then, a counterpart from Cuba talked about how they treat patients with that disease or disorder in Cuba.
“It was really interesting for me to compare and contrast, even as a layperson, the differences. A lot of it boiled down to which drugs were available in which location in Cuba. They tend to, with some cancers, use treatments that are lower dosage over longer periods of time, whereas — especially with cancers here in the United States and everywhere else — we platoon in and try to kill it quickly with a higher dosage that has an impact on quality of life.”
“We sometimes forget in the United States that we’ve isolated ourselves from Cuba. Cubans still have relations with many countries in the world. Their scientists and physicians often attend international congresses. What was really heartwarming was to see some of the elder-statesmen hematologists from Cuba who had been to the ASH Annual Meeting before things closed for them or became more difficult. Several of them came to our [most recent] Annual Meeting at our invitation and we brought them there to experience it. One doctor in particular just gave me goose bumps when he talked about how the meeting had evolved since the last time he attended it compared to the way the meeting is today. It just underscored for me as a meeting professional the great work that we’re doing.”
1. How did the idea of holding the retreat in Cuba come up?
For this meeting, we engage the president who will serve during the year this retreat is going to take place — in this case, Charles S. Abrams, M.D. — because the content of this retreat is really future-focused, strategic, setting a course for five, 10 years down the road more than on the day-to-day activities of the board. The environment is really critical to this. We want people to feel like they’re getting away from their day-to-day activities, whether [they work] in the research lab or a clinic, to really focus on the future of ASH. We generally go to a more remote location that’s somewhat easy to get to.
The president comes up with a couple of destinations that he or she may be interested in. We research them and look at some of the realities. We were looking at destinations that were quite remote, many of which I had to look up on the map to find out where they were! Some of them didn’t even have hotels. Of course, we’ve got to keep the business of ASH moving, so the location has to have a decent conference facility or it’s just not going to work.
We were struggling with trying to find some place practical but also special. [Abrams] had a very specific idea in mind — it was right about the time when President Obama announced the loosening of relations [with Cuba]. He asked if Cuba might be a possibility. I thought, Sure! Cuba’s a lot better than a lot of these places we’ve been looking at! I was quite thrilled. I felt it would be difficult, but I knew we could do it.
2. What main takeaways about the process do you have for others considering planning an event in Cuba?
I think the thing that I would suggest to colleagues is to really think about setting the expectations correctly. With any meeting you want to do that, especially when you’re going to a developing country where there’s the opportunity for unplanned occurrences, whatever they may be, to occur.
We set the expectation. We moved the bar down low, and really explained to people: You’re not going to have internet access. You’re not going to have cellphone coverage. We’re going to be in a hotel where the power might go out, the elevator might not work, the water might not be running. We went with the mantra “Be prepared to be flexible.” We said it over and over and over again along the way.
Our members are really quite cooperative to begin with, but especially this time. They rose to the occasion, and when some minor things happened, it didn’t fluster them, because we had set the expectation correctly. In the year between when I did the site inspection and we went down as a group, the internet had become so much better. The cellphone coverage was so much better, so that the things that they were worried about — like checking in on patients and back in the lab — became a nonissue. Granted, it wasn’t at the same speed as we’ve become accustomed to, but they could do it, so it was a bonus.
How things work in Cuba [provides] my other suggestion for colleagues: Try to check your normal operating procedures at the door, because you’re going to do it differently. It’s probably true for any country outside of the United States, but especially a developing one where things happen differently. The United States has a restriction that you have to work with an agency that is licensed and bonded with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, because, as you can imagine, the U.S. government is concerned about money being sent to Cuba.
You have to pay the agency that is licensed with the Treasury Department, and they send the money to Cuba. I think we tend to micromanage who’s getting the dollars and all of that. You have to accept that culturally the way their system operates. We provide a pot of money, and we didn’t have a say as to who got what — which restaurant got this amount, how much the bus company got. That’s all done on the ground in Cuba, so you’re basically providing money for the experience and they’re parceling it out. You don’t have transparency. That made me a little uncomfortable.
3. How is the total arrived at?
Our U.S.-based agency, Distant Horizons, packaged it together — there’s an entity [based in Havana] called Havanatur, which is basically a government-style DMC, if you will. For instance, when we added some food on a coffee break, we placed the order with the agency in the United States that was down there with us. They contacted Havanatur. Havanatur contacted the hotel. We’re actually buying those dozens of cookies from Havanatur, then repurchasing it from the hotel. There are many steps along the way that really required us to think further in advance.
4. Does that add a lot more time to the process?
I have to say that another lesson for me was, normally with this meeting we have everything buttoned up — we’re ready to go 60 days out. We know who is going. In this case, planning in advance really was a waste of time, because nothing happened with your information until really about two weeks winto it. You also had a unique aspect in terms of the Cuban government. We had restaurants booked for buyouts for dinner each night, but the government can come along and take over that restaurant at any point. You don’t have the same rights as you would in the United States.
One of the restaurants was really my favorite, but the government had a dignitary coming in and wanted to entertain that dignitary in the restaurant when we had it reserved. We got bounced — you’ve just got to roll with the punches. We juggled every restaurant around, and we ended up going to this great restaurant for lunch rather than dinner. It worked out beautifully.
That was helped by everyone along the way. Like many locations, having local contacts on the ground or working with the agency that’s got these local contacts really was instrumental in us being able to execute this. Flexibility is really key there, because they’re not yet ready for the U.S. mindset when it comes to executing meetings and events and planning in advance. That might get better. It might take some time. You’re also fighting cultural forces where they don’t understand our maniacal need to plan in advance.
5. Did you need to have someone fluent in Spanish on your team?
It was helpful from the cultural exchange, the educational exchange, with the hematologists. When I first went down there, I met with the Cuban Society of Hematology. They said that they would be fine doing their presentations in English. We took them [at their word] on that. We were gearing towards doing the whole thing in English. It’s a little bit different from being able to talk in English conversationally, to making a scientific presentation in a foreign language.
About a week and a half before the meeting, they said we’d really like it if we could do simultaneous [interpretation]. You don’t necessarily get the medical expertise in the translation. We had to bring in a company that we use for other meetings in South America to do simultaneous [interpretation]. We had some challenges with the equipment, understanding the sensitivity that the Cuban government might have to what they would consider a listening device, especially the push-to-talk microphones that we used that are wireless.
Frankly, we extended courtesies to three entities in Cuba in advance in the hopes that it might expedite getting our equipment out of customs, only to learn that when we landed in Cuba there was a fourth entity that we didn’t know about. They weren’t too happy with our approach. We started the meeting without all of our equipment and eventually got it, thank goodness, but the first day of the meeting we got bits and pieces of our shipment. It was like a “MacGyver” situation, trying to figure out how could we have audio coverage.
Our Freeman AV tech came with us. We thought we had six microphones available until we actually plugged them in and the lights went out in the meeting room, which happened if you had more than two microphones plugged in.
We said two microphones plus lights is better than six microphones and no lights. Our president was given a microphone, and then we took turns being mic runners around the table. Again, by setting up the expectations, everyone was just fine with it.
6. How well did the wireless technology work?
We went with the notion that everything had to be wireless, and we arranged in advance dedicated frequencies. That, too, was more complicated than you would imagine, but luckily we started planning early where this didn’t disrupt, and frankly if you started even earlier it wouldn’t help, because nothing gets done until the zero hour down there — in a good way.
I think everyone really had a great cultural exchange, too. Part of the people-to-people visa that you travel there on requires that you have a meaningful interaction with the Cuban people. Our educational exchange definitely qualified, but we had other types of interchanges, just on a cultural basis, with some of the activities that we had planned.
Our normal protocol is that when the meeting is going on in the morning, spouses and guests can stay in their room, they can go to the pool, they can go shopping — whatever they want to do. In Cuba, when you’re on this visa, the Cuban government requires that everyone is on a printed itinerary so that, in theory, they know exactly where you’re going to be and when, and you’re all traveling as a group so they don’t have to worry about random Americans wandering off. We planned more activities for the spouses and guests than we normally would while we were [working]. The key thing is that the itinerary needs to match what they’re doing — although we never found any sort of enforcement entity down there. I think it’s just one of those things where you decide it’s not worth the risk, so let’s just follow the rules.
7. What kinds of excursions did they go on?
I have to say the spouses and guests had the best experience of all, because while we were doing ASH business they would go to museums and meet with artists and have cooking classes in Cuban cuisine. They went to all parts of the city that our hard-working board members never got to see. In fact, we had a request on one of the last days where the board members had heard about this one village where there are a lot of artisans and they requested to go back there. We gave the spouses and guests the [option] to go back a second time, and we brought everyone and it was really thrilling.
We enjoyed great food. The restaurants are paladars [run by self-employers], and they’re sanctioned by the government to operate as free-market restaurants. They are limited on the number of seats they can have, which is determined by the government. The individual owners negotiate with the government to try to get the seating increased on a continual basis, so they can expand their business.
It was clearly evident to me between last May and this May the effect that Obama’s visit had. In many ways, the Cuban people, those that I interacted with, explained that they feel like there’s hope now. They can see the light at the end of the tunnel. In some ways, they were embarrassed by their government — that President Castro didn’t go out to the airport to meet President Obama. They love Americans.
I don’t think they’re fully prepared for the onslaught of American travelers visiting. The infrastructure needs to be addressed. Tourism has existed there forever, regardless of the U.S. policy, but they have to figure out how to accommodate a more discerning clientele that might have greater expectations. The infrastructure there is a critical component to their long-term success.
8. Were there concerns over food safety?
In certain locations, I could see where you might have that concern, but not in the restaurants we had selected — and we had looked at probably 30 restaurants before we narrowed it down to the ones that we did use. They were all high-end. We didn’t feel uneasy about that. No one got sick. The food was quite delicious.
The supply chain for produce, as an example, is broken. They have really rich soil on the island, but they don’t have the process in place to get produce from a farm in the middle of the country to the city where the people can consume it. There’s a challenge there.
They also don’t have a lot of diversity of vegetables. At almost every meal, amongst other things, we had white rice, black beans, and something like a braised cabbage. There was also a yam or sweet potato of some sort, and yucca with garlic and onions — it was all really good. They eat a large diet of meat there as well. It was also interesting to me to see how their food-rationing system still exists and how every household gets six eggs and one chicken leg and thigh for the family per month.
9. What is the currency situation?
There are two different currencies — the convertible currency and then the Cuban peso. When you’re there, you really want to find ways to use the convertible currency. That’s how we operated. When we took dollars, we’d get the convertible currency. The pesos are more limiting in what they can buy. In certain stores, some things you can only buy with the Cuban peso and other things you can buy with their convertible currency. They operate in a dual-currency environment.
What impressed me about the hospitality community is that, chances are, everyone who works in the hotel has a master’s degree. They’re highly educated. These are coveted positions, because if you think about hotels, gratuities are involved and most gratuities are in the convertible currency that goes further. So you’ve got the cream of the crop working in many positions that you don’t necessarily see in other places.
10. What’s the benefit of meeting in Cuba?
We’ve been to some pretty terrific places — resorts where you’re just pampered to death. I was taken aback by how many people thought this was the best retreat. And really, their accommodations were nice, they were lovely — but they weren’t over the top.
It underscored to me the value of providing an experience that you can’t get everywhere. People created memories that they’ll hold on to for their life. And especially [being there] at this time — the window between when things are opening up and when [Cuba becomes] commercialized. Right now, it may not be luxurious, but it’s really authentic and our people responded to that.