Rules are changing again for event professionals following in the literary footsteps of Ernest Hemingway to Cuba for a corporate meeting. Despite recent travel advisories, trips to the country are still allowed, according to Cuba-watchers at The Center for Responsible Travel (CREST). You just have to follow the regulations—and business events are at the top of the list of acceptable reasons to journey to the Pearl of Antilles.
The tropical island’s location 90 miles south of Florida and rich cultural traditions make it particularly attractive to American audiences. Since President Barack Obama eased restrictions on Cuban travel in 2014, the island’s hospitality industry has experienced impressive growth. The capital of Havana has transformed numerous historic buildings into modern hotels and added new resorts.
As of October 2018, the country was home to 69,000 hotel rooms, 63 percent of them with 4 or 5 stars. Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism projects that 107,900 new rooms will be added between 2016 and 2030 and more than 30,000 will leverage foreign investments.
In May of 2017, Swiss-based Kempinski Hotels opened The Gran Hotel Manzana in Havana and by the end of 2019 it will open its first boutique resort in the popular offshore key of Cayo Guillermo, part of the Jardines del Rey archipelago. In Old Havana, Spanish-based Iberostar opened Iberostar Grand Packard in late 2018 and the company acquired a new property in Trinidad that will be available soon.
In 2016, over two million visitors arrived in the Cuban capital—an increase of 26.6 percent over the previous year. “The city closed the year with a 74.9 percent occupancy rate in state-run hotels,” says Martha Honey, CREST co-founder and executive director.
The Level 3 advisory (described as reconsider travel) issued in 2017 under President Donald Trump listed 180 “prohibited entities”— including 83 hotels—tied to, or controlled by, Cuban military business conglomerate GAESA with whom U.S. citizens and companies aren’t allowed to do business. In August, 2018 the State Department softened the travel advisory to a Level 2 (exercise caution), which resulted in an increase in travel demand. CREST reported that in 2018, a total of 638,360 U.S. travelers visited Cuba, up from 620,741 in 2017.
5 Meeting-Ready Havana Hotels
Grand Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana
- Guest rooms: 246
- Meeting space: 3,725 sq. ft.
Iberostar Grand Packard
- Guest rooms: 321
- Meeting space: 5,382 sq. ft
Iberostar Parque Central
- Guest rooms: 427
- Meeting space: 5,920 sq. ft
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
- Guest rooms: 426
- Meeting space: 7,534 sq. ft
- Guest rooms: 462
- Meeting space: 13,000 sq. ft.
Regulations to Heed
“Travel to Cuba is safe and legal. However, there are certain regulations that have to be followed,” says Martha Honey, co-founder and executive director at CREST.
U.S. regulations require that all trips—work or pleasure—must fall under 12 categories of authorized travel. The category listed for planners and groups is “professional meetings.” This is translated as having work related interactions, business and educational activities.
“As long as the purpose of the visit is to attend a meeting, conference, retreat or something of the sort, it’s perfectly legal,” says Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel. “We have organized dozens of corporate retreats, quarterly business meetings, sales rewards trips and much more.”
Netflix, Spotify, General Electrics, The Young Presidents Organization, Airbnb, Engage Cuba and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are some of the companies that organized their meetings in Havana in recent years. Laverty has seen as much as a 400 percent growth each year over the last three years in U.S. companies holding events in Cuba.
Each member of a visiting group is required to keep a journal of the daily schedule to show the purpose of the trip. Generally, record-keeping is required for 5 years, says Robert Muse, a Washington Dc-based lawyer specializing in travel to Cuba.
A documented schedule, which includes meetings in the morning, work-related activities in the afternoon and a dinner or a dance class, is an example of a qualifying trip. Travel companies can help compose the agenda for travelers.
The Cuban hospitality industry is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the city of Havana on November 16 with dance performances, concerts and arts events that will go throughout the year.
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2019 also marks the return of The Havana Biennal (April 22-May 19, 2019), canceled in 2018 due to hurricane damage. For five weeks, the city will be the stage where local and International artists will showcase their works and honor Cuba’s role as a cultural landmark of the Caribbean islands.