Starwood and Marriott Move on Cuba

CubaPlanners on a quest to come up with new and exciting destinations have had their eye on Cuba since late-2014 when President Obama announced plans to normalize long-strained relations between the U.S. and the Caribbean island. But by and large the idea of bringing groups to Cuba was premature.

Another milestone occurred in mid-2015 when the U.S. reestablished an embassy on the island. Timing still not right. Last month, however, the idea came tantalizingly closer to fruition when U.S. airlines were granted permission to operate numerous daily round trip flights in and out of Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.

Fast forward to this week. Timed to coincide with President Obama’s historic visit to the island—the first for a sitting U.S. President in more than 85 years—both Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and Marriott International unveil plans to operate hotels on the island, the first U.S.-based lodging companies to enter the market in nearly 60 years.

Starwood got the jump on Marriott by a day, announcing plans to convert two existing historic Havana hotels to its Luxury Collection brand as early as this year. A third Havana hotel would become part of Starwood’s Four Points by Sheraton select-service brand.

The first property slated to join Luxury Collection, the 83-room Hotel Ingleterra, dates to 1875. It will be followed in short order by the 27-room Hotel Santa Isabela, a former palace that also dates to the nineteenth century. Starwood executives speak of undertaking renovations so extensive they include “preservation” of the historic structures.

For its part, Marriott announced it has received U.S. Treasury Department authorization to operate hotels on the island, but is only beginning to identify suitable candidates. (Interesting that Marriott is in the process of trying to acquire Starwood in a $13 billion-plus stock-plus-cash deal, pushing back a last-minute competing bid by Chinese entities.)

Resourceful planners know both the renovated Ingleterra and Santa Isabela would potentially work for small high-end, senior-level meetings as well as incentive programs. The Santa Isabela’s 27 rooms include 11 suites, making it an even better fit for executive retreats and exclusives.

But for as excited as planners may be at the prospect of introducing their attendees to such a fascinating destination as Cuba, their practical side tells them there are still numerous hurdles to overcome before groups can comfortably and safely be accommodated on the island.

What about the absence of a tourism infrastructure? Suitable ground transportation? A workforce recruited and trained to generally accepted luxury standards? Access to medical and other emergency services? Purchasing and procurement? Broadband capacity? Security?

All are possible sure enough. In due time.

Photo credits:, iStock

Bruce Serlen

Bruce Serlen

Bruce Serlen is a veteran travel writer, based in New Jersey, who has written extensively on meetings management and hotel operations. Most recently, he was executive editor at Hotel Business.

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