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by Matt Alderton | April 04, 2016
To Americans visiting Cuba, the island nation feels a lot like a time capsule buried in their backyard. Although they used to be intimately familiar with its contents -- Americans visited Cuba regularly and freely until 1963, when President John F. Kennedy imposed travel restrictions as part of a permanent trade embargo on the Communist country -- the passage of time has left their memory fuzzy. When President Barack Obama announced his intention to lift the 50-year-old embargo, it felt like suddenly remembering the time capsule's coordinates under the old oak tree -- and now many Americans are eager to fetch their shovels.

The travel industry, naturally, is moving as quickly as it can to get Americans there. In July 2015, for example, Carnival Corp. received government approval to take cultural cruises to Cuba under its new "Fathom" brand, which will dock in Cuba for the first time next month. American Airlines, United Airlines, and JetBlue, meanwhile, have all applied for the right to offer commercial airline service to Cuba. And just last month, both Marriott International and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide were granted permission to conduct business in Cuba; the latter already has signed deals to build at least three new hotels there.

Travel buyers are as excited as travel suppliers, suggests a March survey by travel insurance provider Allianz Global Assistance. The survey of more than 2,000 Americans found that nearly half (42 percent) would like to visit Cuba, and that over a third (35 percent) are more interested in the prospect of traveling there now that travel restrictions have been eased.

"Cuba is exploding," says Renee Radabaugh, president and managing director of Paragon Events, a 26-year-old event planning and incentive firm that three years ago launched Cultural Explorations, a division of the company dedicated to facilitating legal travel to Cuba. "In our first full year, we took over 600 travelers to Cuba. There's a lot of interest there."

Like many American travelers, incentive groups are captivated by Cuba's promise of something new and different. "We as travelers are always looking for a unique experience; we want to go somewhere other people haven't gone, and experience things we can't experience on a day-to-day basis," explains Radabaugh, who began taking groups to Cuba in 2013 under a special government license allowing group and individual travel to the country for educational purposes. "Incentive groups that want to go a fabulous five-star beach resort can go anywhere in Mexico and the Caribbean and will have a fabulous time there. But for incentive groups that want to push the envelope a little bit by giving their travelers a creative experience, Cuba is the answer."

That doesn't mean it's an easy answer, though. Despite easing of travel restrictions and interest by travel suppliers, Cuba remains a challenging destination in many respects. Allianz's survey, for example, found that even though many Americans want to visit Cuba, only 7 percent of travelers report being "very likely" to actually do so, and 70 percent report being not at all likely, citing concerns such as questionable safety (44 percent), a lack of information about travel experiences (18 percent), poor travel infrastructure (12 percent), and poor Internet/mobile connectivity (7 percent), among other reasons.

These concerns are appropriate, acknowledges Radabaugh, but not insurmountable. Incentive planners who are interested in taking groups to Cuba can do so successfully, she says, provided they keep a few important things in mind:

1. Cuba isn't ready for big groups...yet.

Tourism isn't new to Cuba. Europeans and Canadians, for instance, have been visiting the island all along. Still, the infrastructure doesn't yet exist to support a major influx of large American groups.

"What you have to realize is that the whole country of Cuba only has 60,000 sleeping rooms right now. Of that, only about 15,000 to 18,000 are hotel rooms. The other half are casa particulares, which are residence rooms. By contrast, Las Vegas has a couple of hundred thousand hotel rooms," Radabaugh says. "So the supply is certainly not keeping up with the demand."

Things are changing quickly, but planners should expect new infrastructure to come online in the form of a trickle instead of a torrent. "Cuba has a long way to go to get their infrastructure in place, and they really need to take their time," Radabaugh continues. "If they were to open the gates tomorrow and let Americans come in full force, we would be like a swam of locusts on them. They couldn't keep up. There just is not the capacity."

Groups of several thousand may not be possible yet, but groups of several hundred are. "Eighteen months ago if somebody had come to me that had 400 or 500 people, I would have said, 'No, I don't want to take you now; they're not ready.' Today, I'd say, 'OK, we can do it,'" reports Radabaugh, who typically breaks large groups into multiple smaller groups to make them more manageable. "Even though a 500-person incentive might be going, you have to break it down in such a way that people can still have a personalized experience and aren't traveling in a pack the whole time."

High demand and low supply means large groups require a longer lead time. "For 500 people I would recommend to start planning now for spring 2017," explains Radabaugh, who says small groups of 20 or so can succeed with a lead time of 60, 90, or 120 days while larger groups should plan on nine to 12 months.

Of course, seasonality plays a big role, too. "If you asked me now if you could get 150 rooms in October, it would be really, really tough," Radabaugh says. "If you wanted 150 rooms in August, I could probably get them. But that's because Cuba has the same temperature in August as Miami; it's very hot and humid."

2. Incentives are all-inclusive.

Organizing an incentive in Cuba requires a different mindset, and also a different purchasing arrangement.

"If I'm going to create an RFP in the United States I'm going to ask for [one free room for every 50 booked], three suite upgrades, free Wi-Fi, and a master account with a $100-per-person credit. If you think you're going to do that in Cuba, stop. Rethink that whole thing," Radabaugh insists. "When you buy in Cuba, you're basically buying in an all-inclusive environment. There are no comps and upgrades. You basically say, 'I want my people to go for five days and four nights; I want to include all my breakfast and lunches; I want three dinners; I want to offer them these choices for activities; and I want to give them two nights free to go and do their own activities.' Then the package gets built and handed to you. That's how it works in Cuba."

3. You shouldn't go it alone -- and can't.

Presently, incentive planners may only purchase group travel through a licensed provider in the United States, which in turn must work with a Cuban guide who will service your group. Your travel provider will supply your Cuban guide, according to Radabaugh. 

"Make sure your provider has an license, which is the license that says you can take people to Cuba," she advises. "You want to check their references and look at the types of programming they've been doing, and make sure the company gives you clear communication about what you're buying."

4. Expect culture, not convenience.

Incentive planners who take groups to Cuba can expect an experience rich in culture -- but not in convenience, cautions Radabaugh, who notes a few important considerations: Until commercial airlines begin flying to Cuba from the United States, for example, groups still must access the country primarily by charter plane, unless attendees are willing to stop first in Canada or the Caribbean. Also, Wi-Fi access is improving but still scarce. Cuban society's pace -- meals, for example, which are experiential -- is slower. Finally, credit cards generally are not accepted; Cuba is primarily cash-only.

Speaking of culture, it's important to include it in your programming, as groups for the time being can still only visit Cuba for one of 12 reasons approved by the U.S. government, including humanitarian projects, support for the Cuban people, and educational activities. To stay on the up and up, therefore, groups generally must incorporate elements of community service, cultural exchange, or education -- all of which can fit under the corporate social responsibility (CSR) umbrella.

5. Homework has never been more important.

One final word of wisdom, according to Radabaugh: Because Cuba is still in a state of transition, it's doubly important that planners do their due diligence with site visits and other risk management measures.

"People have to be really careful what they buy because there is such a pendulum-swing of available product," Radabaugh says. "You can be in a four- or five-star hotel with lovely toiletries, for example, or you can end up in a hotel that has the same mattresses they had in 1959."

Although there are some risks, the rewards are great for planners who are prepared. "It's a great time to be ahead of the curve," Radabaugh concludes. "As someone who sells incentive travel, I can tell you that incentive planners are constantly looking for the next hot destination, and we want to be the first person to offer it to our clients. Because it's unique, experiential, creative, artistic, and innovative, I think Cuba's it."