Hospitality Students Go Beyond Cigars and Old Cars in Cuba

On-the-ground research project helps master’s students envision tourism ventures in a largely closed economy

Editor’s note: This post is sponsored and produced by Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business. 

When Georgia State University Clinical Professor Leonard Jackson joined the Regynald G. Washington Master of Global Hospitality Management program four years ago, he lobbied to add an overseas travel component to the curriculum.

“You can’t go global just sitting in a classroom,” he says.

In an effort to avoid just another fluff study abroad excursion, Jackson selected a dynamic and unpredictable environment: Cuba. He cites the slow reforms aiming to liberalize the island nation’s command economy, its fast-growing tourism rate (ranked second in the Caribbean behind the Dominican Republic) and evolving political landscape as perfect ingredients for a rigorous applied research project.

Conducted by Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Management in the GSU Robinson College of Business, the program’s past two cohorts have taken the 10-day trip. Fourteen students from the class of summer 2017 traveled to Cuba in May and wrapped up their projects at the end of July, just before graduation.

Dr. Jackson packed the itinerary in Havana with activities such as an interchange on Cuba-U.S. relations with the Cuban Institute of Friendship for the Peoples, a discussion with staff and owners from Rejoneo Paladar about the private restaurant industry, a dialogue with airline representatives on the area’s recent surge in tourism, an outing to world-famous night club Tropicana Cabaret Cuba and an exploration of resort operations on nearby Varadero Beach.

“Every day we met with carefully selected strategic partners who could help students with their research projects,” Dr. Jackson says.

The cohort overwhelmingly references an afternoon at eatery El Jardín de los Milagros as their favorite site visit. Proprietors Guillermo and Yamila Velazquez originally ran a construction outfit that tanked in 2011.

However, economic reform passed by Raúl Castro the same year allowed Cuban citizens to open small private businesses, prompting the Velazquezes to switch gears and establish a restaurant. Because the U.S. trade embargo limits their access to both supplies and ingredients, the duo repurposed former construction materials to support their rooftop garden.

“They turned metal sheets and hard hats into planters and used scaffolding to hold up the larger containers, which were made out of a sink, toilet and bathtub,” student Wade Orr says. “They grow mint, chives, parsley, peppers and other produce that appear in their dishes.”

Students took Dr. Jackson’s Hospitality International Field Research course in preparation for the trip. The culminating research project tasked them with acting as business development directors for a U.S.-based company exploring the Cuban hospitality market. Ultimately they proposed a venture that would work within the country’s economic, political and social constraints.

“I made sure they got practice assessing whether a country is conducive to global opportunities,” Dr. Jackson says.

Christopher Walker and a classmate created a Cuban travel website similar to TripAdvisor as part of the capstone assignment.

“Every hospitality attraction and museum can register to become a member,” Walker explains. “We think it’s important to create a personalized source rather than merely linking to their websites.”

Mr. Orr and his mock business partner pitched a travel agency specializing in study abroad excursions to Cuba. He notes that  the approval process for education-related treks requires cutting through some substantial red tape, which he believes could create opportunity for those who can help simplify the process and intensify exchanges.

One might assume that Cuba’s history and uncertain political climate have engendered a sour disposition amongst locals. But Jerrica Bungcayao’s experience put that misconception to rest.

“After speaking with many citizens, I realize they believe socialism saved their country,” she says. “Cuban residents were forced to learn survival skills like organic farming and to maximize available resources.”

That experience was a valuable business lesson for Ms. Bungcayao and her travel mates: to set up shop successfully abroad, get to know the local culture.

Trevor Williams, Global Atlanta

August 21, 2017

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