by Leo Jakobson | June 09, 2017

Interest in Cuba as an incentive destination jumped almost immediately last year after the Obama Administration loosened the rules around American visitors to the island. But by and large, the consensus among incentive travel professionals was that the infrastructure needed for picky American program participants wasn't there yet.

That may be changing this month when 120-year-old Kempinski Hotels, a European luxury brand, opened the doors of the five-star Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana in the heart of Cuba's capital city, according to Mark Sergot, chief sales officer of Associated Luxury Hotels International (ALHI), which counts the new property as a member.

"There's now this great new five-star product in town, which is really what many of the U.S. incentive attendees and planners want," says Sergot. "There's been a tremendous amount of interest in Cuba since the relaxation of the regulations on travel," says Sergot. "With that interest there's a lot of uncertainty about what the experience is like. For Americans, Cuba is a complete unknown. I think this particular product puts Cuba in a different light."

Located in historic Old Havana -- one of a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the area -- just across the Parque Central from the country's Capitol building, the 246-room Kempinski La Habana is located in the extensively renovated Manzana de Gómez building, built 100 years ago as a European-style shopping arcade. It offers what Kempinski says are "panoramic views of the historic city centre," as well as amenities including six restaurants and bars, a rooftop pool, and the 10,800-square-foot Spa Albear by Resense and fitness facility. In fact, according to Xavier Destribats, chief operating officer -Americas and general manager of Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, it "will not only be the first of its kind in this market, but we believe it sets a new standard for the entire Caribbean." 

 

Still, one grand five-star hotel does not make an incentive destination. But Sergot says the widely held concerns about the availability of incentive-quality infrastructure are overblown.

"Cuba has been open and for sale and has had experience with incentive trips from other parts of the world for quite a long time," he notes. "Canada has had access to Cuba for years, as have our friends in the U.K. and other parts of the world. There's been an active clientele in the incentive market utilizing Cuba, so there is infrastructure on the ground."

One part of that, he notes, is Equilibrium Events, Inc. Cuba, a destination management company ALHI is working with that is affiliated with Global DMC Partners network, which includes DMCs in nearly 150 destinations ranging from Arizona to Zambia. Based in the Bahamas, it is very familiar with high-level incentive trips.  

The incentive planners who know Kempinski "have a great deal of comfort with the type of hotels they operate, with the service levels," Sergot says. "I think that adds another element of comfort: A five-star hotel company has gone in and invested, put people and infrastructure on the ground. ALHI has a comfort level in working with the property, representing it, and showcasing not only the property but the destination, I think it does add a comfort level for planners."

 

Sergot's company is comfortable enough to be planning a familiarization trip for planners to the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana in the next one to two months, he says, adding that a couple of dozen incentive planners have expressed interest, and are considering booking business. And several of his fellow members of the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI) board recently visited Cuba and came back saying they had a terrific trip, great cuisine, and a comfort level with the infrastructure.

And it doesn't take much to get American interested in visiting Havana, Sergot adds. "You start looking at the beauty and the photos, some of the architecture, the historic cars - you name it, and Cuba a very interesting destination," he adds. "When people get an opportunity to go, there will be some good experiences."