Selling Cuba: Tour Ops Share Tips

by Maria Lenhart
Selling Cuba: Tour Ops Share Tips

This is part two of a two-part series on the Cuba tour market

While interest in visiting Cuba is at an all-time high and travel restrictions have eased, selling the destination and qualifying clients still takes extra care, according to tour operators who offer programs.

Here are their tips –and observations—for travel agents who want to sell the island nation.

Get the training
While taking advantage of destination training is always helpful, it is especially important in the case of Cuba, said Tom Popper, owner of InsightCuba. The tour operator offers webinars for agents, one-on-one counseling and a proprietary guidebook on travel to Cuba.

“It’s important to learn everything you can about Cuba, so you can set the proper expectations for clients,” Popper said. “The level of detail is great, but it’s not hard to get the basics down.

“What happens is you create a strong bond with your client when you provide knowledge about a confusing destination.”

Who is the client?
While most clients booking an escorted tour to Cuba are not radically different from those who book escorted tours to other destinations, Cuba does draw a broader spectrum, according to Pam Hoffee, vice president of sales and operations for the Globus Family of Brands.

“It attracts a slightly younger demographic, including some people who would not ordinarily book an escorted tour,” Hoffee said. “It’s because they can’t just go on their own.

“However, there are a lot of similarities—people who are interested in a learning experience go for our tours.”

Clients looking for a relaxed Caribbean island experience with plenty of free time should not be encouraged to visit Cuba, she added. Instead, they will encounter a full schedule of sightseeing and cultural experiences.

“When you go to Cuba, you are not traveling as a tourist,” Hoffee said. “These are active, on-the-go trips and people should expect to be busy the entire time.”

Interested in culture
Clients with an interest in Cuba tend to be intrigued with the culture of the island as well as its history of contentious relations with the U.S., according to Popper.

“Most of our clients are over 50 and want to see a place that they’ve been told for years that they can’t see,” he said. “They want to meet the Cuban people and are often surprised at how welcoming the people are. It’s a complete reversal of what they may have expected.”

Latour, which offers several Cuba programs, including one with an LGBT focus, has found the destination appeals to a broader demographic than some agents might suppose, said Richard Krieger, president of Latour and the Isramworld Portfolio of Brands.

Along with sophisticated travelers who are looking for something new, Krieger said Cuba draws “young people looking to explore an off-the-beaten path destination as well as families looking to expose their children and grandchildren to a culturally rich and very unique country. It’s really a wide range.”

Not five-star, but not cheap
While Cuba tends to attract sophisticated, well-traveled consumers who may be accustomed to high-end travel, clients need to be forewarned that they will not find five-star conditions, Hoffee said.

“Hotels in Cuba are clean and comfortable, but this is not a luxury destination,” she said. “The people are warm and friendly and will make you feel at home, but they can’t provide you with a luxury experience.”

For many sophisticated consumers, including those accustomed to luxury, the allure of visiting Cuba outweighs its lack of five-star hotels, said Robert Drumm, president of Alexander + Roberts.

“We’re finding that those on our Cuba tours are willing to sacrifice some of the comforts of a five-star hotel for the cultural milieu,” he said.

At the same time, Drumm said agents may also need to explain to clients that a quality Cuba travel experience does not come cheap.

“A lot of times people think that Cuba should be inexpensive because it’s nearby and is relatively undeveloped in a Western sense,” Drumm said “But providing an engaging, in-depth experience is not cheap.

“For instance, we have two guides on every trip—one to make sure the trip is operating as it should and a local guide to bring people closer to the society they are visiting.”

Air service issues
While not a huge obstacle, clients need to be aware that if they are traveling to Cuba from a U.S. gateway, it will involve an air charter, said Popper.

“There are projections that next year we will start to see commercial flights, but right now the charter companies have all the landing rights,” he said.

“So typically you will need to fly to Miami and then check in with a charter company,” he added. “It involves two separate flights and can be time-consuming.”

See Cuba before it changes
Among the many selling points for Cuba is awareness that the country is bound to lose some of its uniqueness once diplomatic relations normalize and travel restrictions and the trade embargo are lifted, according to Popper.

“People view Cuba as a special place that has yet to be impacted by globalization, so they want to see it now,” he said.

“While I don’t think we’re going to see McDonalds and Starbucks on very corner for a long while, the impact of large numbers of Americans visiting Cuba will be enormous.”

Related Story:
Relaxed Restrictions Prompt New Cuba Tours

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