TORONTO — It was a perfect storm and it seemed to happen almost overnight: U.S. tour operators were suddenly clamouring for Cuba resort rooms and Iberostar had to make a choice.
“For 25 years Canada has been an important partner so we did not want to give all of our Canadian-owned rooms to U.S. tour operators. We chose to prioritize our loyal partners and we were right,” says Iberostar’s Chief Operating Officer, Aurelio Vazquez.
Two years after that sudden surge in U.S. demand, it’s back to square one as Americans once again grapple with travel restrictions to the popular Caribbean island.
But few companies welcoming guests to their Cuba resorts have time to worry about the lack of U.S. vacationers – because the markets from Canada and abroad are so strong, and growing.
Says Vazquez: “We have noticed an increase in demand from Europeans and especially from the English. So we also need more rooms to deal with them. ”
Meeting with the travel media first in Toronto and then in Montreal recently, Iberostar’s executive team spoke to Travelweek’s sister publication, Montreal-based Profession Voyages (ProfessionVoyages.com), about its plans for more resorts, in Cuba especially.
The Spanish hotel chain is growing in popularity and also expanding its resort portfolio. After announcing the redesign of its brands and its logo, the group’s management team talked about their upcoming ambitions for Cuba, including new properties that will open this November.
“The Caribbean region is key to Iberostar, specifically the markets of Mexico and Cuba,” says Vazquez. “Iberostar has a historic commitment with Cuba for 25 years, which has led us to strengthen our presence on the island: 20 new hotels in 25 years, or 7,100 rooms. In addition, in the first five months of 2018, Iberostar in Cuba has grown 8% year-over-year and we plan to add 12,000 rooms by 2020.”
Luis Jiménez, Sales and Marketing Director, Cuba, adds: “It was a difficult winter because of Hurricane Irma but all the hotels were quickly renovated. With the steady increase in direct flights from Canada, the Canadian market is the most important market for our hotels in Cuba.
“We believe there is still potential in Cuba, which is why we want to open more hotels. Cuba is an incredible destination with 1,200 kilometres of beaches and many assets for tourists, without forgetting its unique culture. It is also one of the safest destinations in the world and tourists are looking for peace during their holidays.”
Currently Iberostar has nearly 7,000 rooms in 21 hotels. In four years, the Spanish chain plans to have more than 30 hotels in Cuba. For this year, the chain will open two new hotels in November: Iberostar Grand Packard in Havana and Iberostar Holguin in Playa Pesquero.
Iberostar Holguin Hotel will be a five-star resort consisting of an adult section and a section for families. The 638 rooms will be divided into six three-storey buildings. Five categories of rooms will be available including presidential suites with sea views and private pool. There’s also a water park, four specialty a la carte restaurants, an international buffet and a beachside restaurant. WiFi will be available everywhere on the property for a small fee. The adults-only StarPrestige area will include a series of little luxe touches like L’Occitane bath products.
“We needed a hotel like that in Holguin,” said Jiménez.
Meanwhile the Iberostar Grand Packard Hotel will open in November in Havana with some 300 five-star rooms in a historic building with a beautiful swimming pool. It’s billed as an ideal hotel for clients who want to combine a city break with a seaside holiday.
“We want to push our customers to combined beach and culture holidays,” says Jiménez.
He acknowledges that the competition is fierce on the island, with the presence of many quality hoteliers. But Jiménez says he considers his competitors as friends and says it was thanks to joint efforts, that the destination has recovered quickly post-Irma and continues its development.
But when pressed about Iberostar’s competitive advantages, Jiménez mentions both location and dining.
“The hotels we have are very good. We started our establishment in Cuba very slowly because we wanted hotels very well-located. For example, in Havana, the three hotels we have are located in the best part of the city. In each destination, we really prefer to have the best, so this limits our portfolio of hotels. We could have a lot more in Cuba, that’s for sure!”
Starting in November 2018 Iberostar will also have its own food import business to supply its hotels.
If Jiménez takes the time to mention that Canada remains the chain’s top priority market in Cuba, it is because of all those requests from U.S. tour operators. Two years ago Iberostar received significant requests for room reservations but the group did not have enough capacity to accommodate both the U.S. market and the Canadian market, Iberostar’s ‘cash cow’.
“I had a few meetings with American tour operators that wanted to start working with us, with a large volume of rooms. In our hotel in Varadero, our clientele is 80% Canadian, and in the winter we are full.”
Iberostar is also forging ahead with its development in the rest of the world, with new projects including: a new 13-storey tower at its Cancun resort complex by 2019, with 154 luxury suites overlooking the turquoise waters along the shoreline, plus a new bar, restaurant and pool; a new hotel in Los Cabos; and a second Iberostar hotel in Litibu near Punta de Mita. Several more new resorts are in the works in Europe.
And by 2020 there will be more ‘Grand’ in the Caribbean, with an Iberostar Grand for families opening in the D.R. in the Bavaro region, as well as a new Iberostar Grand in Aruba.