Ever since restrictions on travel from the U.S. to Cuba began to ease up a few years ago, the question amongst agents and operators has always been whether to send clients with certain travel expectations to Cuba now, while the destination is authentic and raw, or to wait until the infrastructure is solid enough to please affluent clients.
One fact is certain — the demand is there. In fact, the Havana Times is reporting that Cuba registered 4 million foreign tourists this year, a record number that exceeds preliminary projections of 3.7 million visitors, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
But is it smart to send the U.S. client who has been visiting the Caribbean for years, as they might be put off by Cuba’s lack of true luxury hotels? Will they come back to Cuba if they are not pleased with their first visit? Will they come back to you? Or is raw and unpolished what your clients want? Is it smarter for the experiential travel lover — even if they have to sacrifice five stars for three — to go down before the destination becomes commercialized?
At a roundtable of Millennial advisors hosted by Travel Agent in our New York City offices recently, we brought up the issue of Cuba and asked some of the agents, as well as representatives of Apple Vacations, what’s the right way to play this. Here’s what we found.
Both advisor Marla Gibbons of Skylar and Sandy Babin, vice president of marketing for Apple Vacations, said that clients should go now.
Gibbons says the window is closing before American brand names begin taking over the destination, while Babin says the experiential clients with a thirst for Cuban culture should go ASAP.
“I think generally, especially for Millennials, they want to be going to places while they’re still really unique and McDonald’s hasn’t showed up yet,” says Gibbons. “Cuba’s a really big one for us and Nicaragua too. People really want to get to those two [places], specifically.”
Babin says the clients you should be pitching Cuba to should care less about hotel product and more about cultural encounters.
“Go now,” she says. “Again, these aren’t people that want to sit on a beach, and that’s not the opportunity right now. The opportunity is to have the cultural experience. You still have to fit into one of the 12 exceptions. It’s the people-to-people trips. You have to know that you’re getting into that, and I think that [clients] want to see it now.”
Dane Steele Green, president and CEO of SteeleTravel.com, however, warns not to send those clients who are expecting top-notch hotel service.
“Where’s the luxury? Where are the luxury hotels? A lot of them are dumps,” says Steele. “The infrastructure is not there. I do say to clients, ‘Yes, you’ll get a raw experience, but I don’t think we’re ready.’ I think we need two more years. Get a Hyatt in there.”
Justin Lindblad, owner of Willing Foot Travel, says the problem will take a little longer than two years to fix and that labor costs may halt a luxury development boom.
“The problem is to build those hotels. Even in two to three years, they’re not going to be able to [build them] because they don’t pay people enough,” Lindblad contends. “It’ll take 10 years for those hotels to really get built.”
Ryan Doncsecz, group manager at VIP Vacations, Inc., instead says the main problem for the travel agent is figuring out how to effectively sell a destination where an advisor may not have tight partnerships.
“My difficulty with this destination is more or less: How do you sell it? I don’t have a lot of tour operator partners that I know carry a very distinct product for Cuba,” say Doncsecz, “besides just the very specific itinerary. Who am I going to partner with to make sure that the trip goes well?”
To add to Doncsecz’s point, Blaine Horton of The Accomplished Traveler says not being able to customize a trip for a VIP client is something that would keep him from selling travel to the island successfully.
“That’s an issue,” he notes. “I feel like all of our clients really want to have their trip customized, and it’s harder to do that with Cuba.”
Carole-Anne Hughes Wood, partner relations manager for Ultimate Jet Vacations and also co-founder of the Young Travel Professionals (YTP) networking group, says the decision is ultimately up to the client. That’s why she urges fellow agents to be perfectly clear with what their clients can expect.
“When some of our clients have expectations, I think qualifying the client and setting expectations before they even decide to make a deposit, decide to go and book, is important, especially in the case of Cuba,” she says. “Setting expectations and qualifying your client is a must.”
Joe Pike, Travel Agent Central
February 1, 2017