Last updated: 01:38 PM ET, Sat February 13 2016

Tauck in Cuba: How a Tour Operator Learned to Navigate in a Tourism Frontier

Tour Operator | Tauck | David Cogswell | February 12, 2016

Tauck in Cuba: How a Tour Operator Learned to Navigate in a Tourism Frontier

Photo courtesy of Tauck

After operating a one-week tour of Cuba concentrated in Havana in 2012, Connecticut-based tour operator Tauck brought out a more extended tour in 2013. Bureaucratic hangups associated with licensing by the U.S. Department of Commerce forced the company to pull the tour off the market, but the company is now re-introducing an updated version of the longer program, which takes its participants on a more in-depth tour of the island.

Tauck’s one-week program, entitled “Cuba: Connecting with People,” was a hit with Tauck customers. But some wanted a more in-depth exploration of the island. For those people, Tauck introduced its 12-night/13-day “Cuba: A Cultural Odyssey.” But it didn’t happen right away.

“We’ve been running mostly the shorter program very successfully,” said Joanne Gardner, director of worldwide operations. “We had a lot of strong response from guests who wanted the longer one, so we just started up again. This brochure will be the first push for it, but it starts in the fall.”

When the brochures featuring the new tour arrive in people’s mailboxes this week, it will be the culmination of a long process of tour development.

Confronting Cuba’s Capacity Issues

The voracious demand for travel to Cuba by Americans presents an opportunity for tour operators that is hard to pass up. But the problems of operating tours to Cuba are daunting, even since President Obama began to relax restrictions on travel in late 2014. As restrictions are lifted, the underlying problems of operating tours to Cuba are revealed.

READ MORE: More US-Cuba Restrictions Relaxed, But General Tourism Still Banned

Although the loosening of restrictions in December 2014 eased the paperwork load for tour operators, the embargo is still in place and the regulations on travel to Cuba are still onerous by any standard, other than a comparison to earlier times when they were even worse.

Once a tour operator has mastered the regulatory regime for travel to Cuba, then comes the reality of operating tours on the ground. Although Cuba has been receiving tourists from other countries for a long time, the relatively sudden influx of large numbers of U.S. travelers is overtaxing the country’s infrastructure.

Cuba does not have the capacity to provide accommodations to all the Americans who want to travel there. What accommodations it does have are not at a standard of quality that American travelers are accustomed to. This presents serious problems for an upscale tour operator like Tauck.

Starting from Scratch

Tauck’s customers, many of whom have already traveled on many Tauck tours, are used to getting the best available accommodations, food, service, professionally operated touring and enriching experiences. Trying to provide those things at the accustomed level of service in Cuba is a big challenge.

“When we all first went to Cuba to discover what we were able to do, very few American tour operators were there at the time,” said Gardner. “And the infrastructure, the way people work from hoteliers to the local guides, to the restaurants, was an education. Getting up to speed and getting them to know who we are and how we operate and what guests from the U.S. expect was a challenge. We felt very comfortable with the partners we work with after about a year of operations. That’s when we purposefully decided to do a longer program, to go out to some of these destinations that were even less used to the U.S. traveler and less used to what our guests expect in terms of quality.”

READ MORE: 5 Places to Spend National Pesos for a Cheaper Cuban Holiday

Being there at the dawn of a new age for Cuba gave Tauck the opportunity to participate actively in the tourism development. In the small town of Camagüey, for example, the educational process went in two directions as the tour operator showed a hotelier how to build a hotel to meet American specifications.

“We struggled with Camagüey,” said Dawne Andrews, product manager for Cuba, “because at the time I was doing the research, there was not what we would consider a suitable hotel for Tauck guests.”

The Tauck team learned through its contacts about a new hotel that was being built called Hotel Santamaria, and sought out the people in charge.

How to Build a Hotel

"At one point I even stood in the bathtub and said, ‘I’m only five feet five, you’ve got to raise this shower head because our guests aren’t going to fit.’” - Dawne Andrews, Tauck's product manager for Cuba

“We actually met with the architect, the designers and the officials of the town of Camagüey, and said, ‘OK, this is what we need,’” said Andrews. “We talked about décor, we talked about towels. At one point I even stood in the bathtub and said, ‘I’m only five feet five, you’ve got to raise this shower head because our guests aren’t going to fit.’”

The conversations took in practically every detail of a hotel, with very little taken for granted.

“We talked about the colors of the room,” said Andrews. “We talked about the breakfasts. We talked about plates. Trying to get plates in Cuba is next to impossible. And toilet paper and silly things that.

“So we really in a sense helped design that entire hotel. And to their word, they took everything we said and would come back to us and say, ‘OK, we’ve chosen these colors. Do these work? How many pillows do you need? How many blankets do you need on the bed? Do you need a coffee maker?’

READ MORE: Three Reasons To Travel To Cuba, Now and Always

“All the intricate details that we typically take for granted in even a country like China, or India where we’re using Oberois, we truly worked with this hotel to get the hotel up and running. And now they have other groups stay there and it was phenomenal to go back and see. They’d really taken everything to heart and done everything. It was just amazing to go back and see the end result.”

Whatever the locals lacked in material advantages, they made up for in other ways.

“They have done such an excellent job in making up for the brick-and-mortar type of luxuries that our guests may be used to in other parts of the world with so much more passion and cultural enrichment,” said Gardner. “Our guest comments have been phenomenal. The feedback has been really wonderful. We’re very pleased.” 

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