Blazing a Path Into Cuba

In May, Miami-based TOCA Event Design & Production took a group of VIPs to Havana, Cuba, for the first time. Sean Gibbons, right, president of the company, gave M&C some insights from the trip.

When did you decide to go to Cuba?
We started an initiative about a year and a half ago. With Cuba and Havana in our backyard, we figured it would be a good time to jump in.

Initially we researched hotels online and then took multiple trips there. For many properties, we were able to say yay or nay within a half hour of starting the site visit. A big thing for us was to be at a property that had sufficient WiFi available. What they were saying were four-star properties online were often 2.5 stars in our eyes. We had a lot of fun doing the research.

It is changing and it is exciting. It's only 40 minutes from here, but it's so different.

Who did you take on the trip?
The first group had about 20 VIPs and musicians from a project related to our nonprofit arm, TOCA Culture. Our group was there from Wedday, May 11, through Sunday, May 15. On Sunday we presented the Bossa Nova Symphonico concert in the morning, had a lovely Cuban lunch and then flew back to Miami.

We produced the concert for a big annual music festival there, Cuba Disco. In addition to the musicians we took from here, we took a group of VIP patrons of the project. They participated in one of the rehearsals and were at the concert.

Where did you stay?
Meliá Habana. It was up to speed and has two floors called the level floors available at a higher price, offering a private breakfast and cocktail area, free WiFi and better service.

What did the itinerary look like?
We did one day focused on classical baroque Cuba, exploring the architecture, art and cuisine. For half of that day, the tour was conducted in a string of vintage vehicles, 1950s American cars beautifully painted. We visited the Museum of Decorative Arts in an old villa, as well as the National Ballet's newly refurbished home, the Alicia Alonzo Grand Theater. We had lunch at Cafe Oriente, a state-run restaurant.

Another day was spent in the Vedado neighborhood, where the Havana Libre Hotel and the Capri Hotel are. It has a neighborhoody vibe, and we visited local markets and artists' studios. That night we enjoyed some amazing jazz clubs. There's a such a beautiful diversity of music and dance.

We also wanted to introduce our guests to the farm-to-table experience in Cuba and linked it to the agricultural history with a trip to the cigar region Viñales. On that trip, a three-hour drive each way, we had some amazing stops en route, and lunch was at a farm on a tobacco plantation. At each stop we had different music, salsa at lunch, samba at a stop on the way back, with its African-Cuban roots. Not only were we able to explore that history with the guests, but showed how it has evolved and become a popular form of music and dance. That's how we coordinated a crazy itinerary for that day.

Our goal was to give a wide introduction to Havana, maybe not what people were anticipating.

Of course we also hit El Floridita for an original daiquiri, and the original Sloppy Joe's, with its beautiful black-and-white photos of Americans from the '40s who would pop down there for the weekend.

What tips do you have for other planners considering such a trip?
Definitely do your homework and do your groundwork. Americans are just going there, and global visitors have been experiencing Cuba for decades, but a lot of the experiences were cookie-cutter. The challenge now is to go there and make your own personal contacts. People are extremely warm and extremely welcoming. They will point you in directions that will take you beyond the surface level. There are all those iconic spots, but there's also a rich undercurrent of culture, art and cuisine. The planner should take that extra step and introduce that to their clients.

Start with smaller-size groups. The infrastructure in the hotels might not be ready yet for hundreds of people. A group of 250 is massive for Cuba right now.

We are going again in the first week in November, a pure incentive for vendors of a security software company, again staying at the Meliá Habana.