Last updated: 11:00 AM ET, Mon April 04 2016

How Obama's Cuba Visit Allowed A&K to Get Creative

Tour Operator | Abercrombie & Kent | David Cogswell | April 04, 2016

How Obama's Cuba Visit Allowed A&K to Get Creative

PHOTO: Varadero, Cuba, wound up being an excellent backup location for a tour that was waylaid by President Obama's visit to Cuba. (Photo courtesy Abercrombie & Kent)

What do you do with lemons? Everyone knows the answer to that one. Since tour operators are now in the business of providing authentic experiences, a problem that wrecks your plans could turn out to be the best thing that could happen.

Obama’s recent trip to Cuba was just such a crisis/opportunity. With the first visit to Cuba by an American president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, all bets were off for even providing accommodations in Havana, let alone operating a normal tour itinerary in the city.

The presidential visit in short destroyed nearly everyone’s plans for touring Havana at that time. The obvious reaction for a tour operator was to cancel the tours that week, count it as a write-off, notify guests as to events beyond your control and hope to reschedule them for another week. Many tour operators took that option.

The other possibility would be to go ahead and try to operate tours, even if you no longer could offer accommodations in Havana, where most Americans spend most of their time when visiting Cuba. That was the choice made by Abercrombie & Kent.

“We offered to let our guests opt out,” said Phil Otterson, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA, “but they didn’t. We went to each and every one of our guests and told them, ‘You are going to have to stay outside Havana. If you want to change the date fine.’ But they didn’t. 

Quick Thinking

A&K actually had four programs set to operate the week of Obama’s visit. It had one departure of its 10-day program, one departure of its 13-day program and two of the company’s private Signature programs. Since Havana is the staple of nearly all tours to Cuba, it appeared that they would all be derailed by Obama’s visit.

It didn’t turn out that way though.

When the news came about the disruption of their plans in Cuba, Abercrombie & Kent’s team of product managers and program directors got together to decide what to do. After much hashing, they decided to try to go ahead and operate.

“We took the tack that this is really a historic moment,” said Otterson. “People will be able to say, ‘I saw the President pass by.’ or, ‘I was there when the President came.’”

“We took the tack that this is really a historic moment. People will be able to say, ‘I saw the President pass by.’ or, ‘I was there when the President came.’”- Phil Otterson, Abercrombie & Kent

But with most of the limited number of hotel rooms in Havana co-opted by the American president’s visit, going ahead was not necessarily going to even be possible. The Cuban Ministry of Tourism had put out the word to tour operators in general that they would have to move their tour groups to Varadero, a place two and a half hours’ drive from Havana.

“Once we were informed that our hotel was going to change, we had to quickly fit in a lot of meetings with various members of the team, and we really discussed our options,” said Stefanie Schmudde, A&K’s product manager for the Americas and the Middle East.

“We tried to figure out, keeping the guest experience top of mind, if we felt we could accommodate guests two and a half hours outside of Havana, adjust the program slightly but still deliver a meaningful experience. At the end of the day we thought that we could make it work. So we decided to operate as planned.”

READ MORE: Travel To Cuba: What’s In It For Travel Agents?

Once the team decided it could go ahead, the next step was to call the guests who had signed on for the trip to tell them that the plans were off, but to also give them the option to continue with a revised program if they wanted to.

“We put a plan in place and reached out to every guest and travel agent to explain the situation,” said Schmudde. “At the time that phone calls had to go out to our guests we knew that we had been moved to Varadero, but we weren’t able to offer the revised itinerary, because our activities in Havana hadn’t been approved. Nobody understood when President Obama was going to actually be in the city and what roads would be closed. So access was still a little sketchy at the time.”

All they could say for sure was that they were going to be able to operate.

“We were able to confidently say to the guests that we know we can at least get you into Havana for one day, and we will do everything possible to deliver a program as close to what is published as possible, understanding that there would definitely be changes.”

Smaller Groups, Bigger Opportunities

For A&K’s 10-day program, which normally includes five nights in Havana, one night in Miami and three nights in Santa Clara, only six of the 24 originally booked decided to stay with the tour. Because they had then become a small group, they ended up having access to places they would not have been able to visit with the original group.

“On the first day in Havana one of the guests said to [tour director] Carin, ‘I am so happy we are here. I cannot imagine not taking this trip now.’ I think they realized that because they were in such a small group setting they were able to get access to things they probably would not have been able to get access to normally. And it was such a historic time to be in Cuba, and you could definitely feel that on the ground. So our guests came back incredibly happy.”

For the 13-day program all the guests opted to stay with the program. The itinerary starts in Holguin and traverses the entire island, ending with three nights in Havana. The Havana nights had to be moved to Varadero.

“But we were able to go to Havana for one full day of touring,” said Schmudde, “and fit in as many people to people exchanges as we could.”

The changes that had to be made to the itinerary were not much different from business as usual in Cuba.

“Any time in you travel in Cuba flexibility is needed because things can and often do change on the ground,” said Schmudde. “That’s the nature of people to people exchanges, because you are meeting with people. If their schedule changes or if they become unavailable, you have to quickly change things on the ground. Our program directors are really used to dealing with that, and we empower them to make decisions in order to better the guest experience.

“Because our program directors have such great relationships with the local guides in Cuba, they were able to quickly change things while they were there to include more activities in Havana and to add people to people exchanges that weren’t sent over on the revised itinerary.”

Pleasant Surprises

For the two private groups visiting Cuba on Signature programs, surprise! In spite of the initial announcement from the Ministry of Tourism, it turned out they were not bounced from their accommodations in Havana.

“They were actually able to stay in Havana rather than outside the city,” said Schmudde. “I think because they were smaller groups their rooms were not needed to accommodate the extra incoming groups with the President’s entourage and security staff. All of those guests decided to continue and had a fantastic time.”

Though it looked like the guests could keep their hotel reservations, A&K could not leave anything to chance.

“We confirmed every single day leading up to the trip to make sure they could definitely stay in Havana,” said Schmudde. “So they lucked out. And they had a terrific time because of it.”

Though the Havana portions of the original escorted tour itineraries had to be thrown out and rebuilt from scratch, the change also provided opportunities for unique and unforgettable experiences that could not have happened if things had proceeded normally.

Varadero is a beach town. Staying there gave the guests an opportunity for a kind of experience that is rare for American visitors.

“We stayed at the Paradisus Princesa del Mar Resort and Spa,” said Schmudde, “which was beautiful and the service was great. And that went over really well with our guests.”

READ MORE: The Year of Cuba

The guests were able to meet people outside of Havana, where most American tourists spend most of their time in Cuba, and outside of the main tourist areas. They were able to meet people who are much less accustomed to seeing Americans.

“They ended up having a fantastic people to people exchange at a paladar outside of Varadero, which woudn’t have normally been included on the itinerary,” said Schmudde.

The group went to a paladar, one of the new privately owned restaurants in Cuba, to eat lunch and there they met the owners, a father and son.

“The son proceeded to explain that this was a family business and how they got the business started and that it was really his father who got everything going. He said he considered father to be his hero and he started crying at that moment. So it was a really authentic experience. And according to Carin it was one of the most memorable moments of the trip.”

You never know how things might turn out. In the tour operator business a change in plans can be your worst nightmare. But it might also provide some of the best possible experiences for your guests, things that would have never happened if it had not been for the problem in the first place.

And if you’re a tour operator, unique, authentic experiences are what you are there to provide.

For more information on Abercrombie & Kent, Cuba

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