Should You Host Your Next Incentive in a Previously Inaccessible Location?

I was fortunate enough to be approached by CSI International to attend a fam trip to Cuba with a group of meeting and events professionals last month. Cuba is a country that many have questions about; I’m excited to share my findings about this unique destination!

Is traveling to Cuba difficult? Does it require a lot of paperwork?

Preparing to travel to Cuba was simpler than expected. There are no inoculations required for travel to Cuba. Travel visas are required but working with a DMC to obtain them was an easy process. The DMC also provided the group with detailed information on getting through customs.

Is Cuba safe?

Havana felt very safe, lively, and friendly. Locals appeared to enjoy hanging out in parks listening to music and line the streets chatting. During the day, I wandered around alone sightseeing or shopping in Old Havana and felt safe. At night, the group would walk back from venues to our hotel and noticed a palpably energetic and positive environment. The DMC I worked with in Cuba recommends taking standard travel precautions with purses/bags while walking down crowded streets or along the Malecon. However, we did not experience or witness any crime while in Havana.

Will it be hard to navigate due to language barriers?

I was surprised by the number of people speaking English in Cuba. Our tour guide rarely had to translate for us. We forget as Americans that many English-speaking countries have been vacationing to Cuba for years, so locals are quite tourist friendly.

Will I be able to use my cell phone or internet?

US cell phone companies do not provide service plans to Cuba yet. Phone calls cost about $3 a minute and sending a text cost $1. However, there are other ways to communicate while in Cuba! Ensure your hotel has Wi-Fi and use Skype and WhatsApp to stay in contact with everyone back home. Before going to Cuba, I heard many times that internet in Cuba is nonexistent or extremely slow. Though we only had access to Wi-Fi at the hotel, it worked just fine! I was able to check emails, video chat, and even stream a movie. Is it as fast as US internet? No. But it got the job done.

Are there any luxury hotels?

Luxury hotels do exist in Cuba; however, the Cuban government is heavily involved in their operation. This means that venues can change without warning. For example, a venue used in the past for receptions might no longer exist because the government stopped maintaining it. Despite this uncertainty, I had what I would consider a five-star hospitality experience in Cuba. We stayed at the Gran Hotel Kempinski Manzana La Habana. The Kempinski opened only one year ago; it was once a run-down building and is now the city’s most opulent hotel. Iberostar Grand Packard Hotel is another luxury location that opened just one week before our visit.

What is there to see/do?

Havana offers a staggering breadth of possibilities. Here are a few entertainment options for your group:

  • Take a walking tour of Old Town Havana—make sure to end at the famous El Floridita bar for a daiquiri!
  • Havana has an exciting music scene; you’ll hear it on the streets and in restaurants. I’d recommend dancing lessons for attendees, as they’ll have plenty of opportunity to put them into practice.
  • The Ernest Hemingway tour is a popular option. Visit his former private home and take a scenic drive to the local village in which The Old Man and the Sea is set.
  • Enjoy a driving tour through the city and along the Malecon in one of the iconic classic cars seen around Havana.
  • Spend the day in the neighborhood of artist Jose Fuster, known as the “Picasso of the Caribbean.” Follow this up with a few local private galleries for shopping.

How is the food?

It came as no surprise, but Cuban coffee is some of the best in the world. I looked forward to a cup every morning of my trip. Restaurant dining is a different story, however. The Cuban government runs all restaurants in the city. Very rarely will the food and service at government-owned restaurants meet expectations. Alternatively, travelers can seek out a paladar—small family-run restaurants typically operated within the owner’s home. Paladares can typically seat around sixteen guests. Keep in mind that due to ever-changing Cuban regulations, paladares are subject to change.

What will it be like working with a DMC or hotel partner?

Our experience with DMCs and hotels was excellent! Vaya Sojourns is a US-based company that has partnered with Transnico USA in Cuba to work with MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing, and exhibitions) groups. Vaya Sojourns understands the American market, so they have answers to all your Cuba questions. Transnico USA is the ground operator in Cuba; they will recommend venues, restaurants, and activities for attendees. Additionally, they understand the ever-changing government regulations. They connect groups with local, accommodating, and friendly English-speaking tour guides who are fundamental to the experience in Cuba.

Cuba is an exceptional fit for well-traveled or adventurous groups willing to immerse themselves in an unfamiliar culture. While the city has luxury hotel options perfect for a high-end incentive trip, this destination is not for everyone. Government regulations make planning a highly customized experience tricky. Allow yourself time and flexibility when planning an incentive trip to Cuba. While Cuba’s infrastructure and regulations can pose a challenge, the welcoming, hospitable people and rich, fascinating history of the country more than make up for the extra effort.

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