Cuba's charms were on full display at the second annual Sunwing Loves Cuba event on 24MAY. Hosted at the garden-framed Arlington Estates, the event welcomed more than 210 travel advisors from across the Greater Toronto Area, as well as members of Sunwing staff, media, and supplier partners. Open Jaw had a front-row seat to hear all the juicy new developments in one of the Caribbean's hottest vacation destinations.
"The ultimate goal from an event like this is for people to walk away with a new little love and enthusiasm for the destination, Cuba," Deana Murphy - Vice President Retail Sales, told Open Jaw.
"We really want to get the message out as we really do have Cuba covered. There really is no company in the world that sends more travellers and guests to Cuba and we're very proud of that."
What's so special about Cuba that Sunwing has - for the second year in a row - hosted an entire event centred around this tropical paradise? The list is long, but a few qualities really stand out.
"The number one reason is the Cuban people, who are so warm and hospitable. They love Canadians and Canadians always feel so at home there. Cuba has always provided such amazing value for Canadian travellers. It has the highest repeat clientele out of any destination I have ever known," Murphy said.
On a recent trip to the destination, Murphy shared that she met Sunwing clients who were staying at the same resort in Holguin for their 53rd time!
"You just don't hear about these kinds of repeat customers at other destinations. It's quite unique to Cuba. I think it has to do with the variety of resorts we have. Our product team works very closely with the hoteliers and the Cuba Tourist Board and we make sure that in every destination, there's something for everyone," she said.
Between the range of properties, the diverse destinations, and the short flights, Cuba doesn't only make sense for repeat visits, but long stays, too.
"We met another client who had spent four months a year at the Club Amigo Atlantico. Cuba just has excellent value, and that is something that we and travel advisors need to promote, the long stays in Cuba. And we are seeing more and more long stays," she added.
Sunwing has also noticed a spike in group bookings, as more travellers look to explore Cuba with their friends and family.
"Group business has exploded. We are way ahead of where we normally would be for next winter. I expect a very, very strong winter," Murphy says.
A Mutual Love Affair
The Sunwing-Cuba partnership is a love affair that just keeps getting stronger. Sunwing was one of the first tour operators in Cuba and continues to be an integral part of the destination's tourism landscape.
"For the summer, we have more than 70 flights to Cuba from Canada and more than 50 per cent are from Sunwing," Lessner Gomez, Director of the Cuba Tourist Board in Toronto, told Open Jaw.
"They're a really good partner and the Canadian market is very important for us."
According to Gomez, of the 1 million arrivals to Cuba in the first four months of 2023, more than half (51%) were Canadians. Granted, this number is lower than in pre-pandemic times - when in 2021, 90 per cent of visitors were from Canada - but the Cuba Tourist Board is proud of the progress and confident of reaching its goal of 1 million Canadian visitors by the end of the year.
"Cuba is waking up again in the market. We are working with Sunwing and the other tour operators to reach 1 million visitors from Canada, like in 2019. For that, Cuba is working really hard to make improvements in quality at the hotels," Gomez said.
This includes improvements to the rooms, food, and Wi-Fi. The beaches, however, remain more beautiful than ever.
"For next winter, we're going to have Wi-Fi in the tour buses and we already have it in the catamaran in Varadero, so you can take pictures of the sunset on your excursions and share them right away. We know the importance of connectivity, especially for the young people," Gomez said.
With its new Cuba Única promotional campaign, set to launch in the coming weeks, the destination is striving to "change the mind of the Canadian market that Cuba is just sun and beaches," Gomez says.
"We are trying to show Canada that we have beautiful culture, nature, mountains, rivers, music, tobacco, and people. This summer, you will see the Única campaign on TV, videos, billboards, and this will help us better face the winter season, which is the high season for us from the Canadian market."
Here is your low-down on what else is new and buzz-worthy on the island.
Cayo Largo: An up-and-coming vacation haven in Cuba
The buzz of the evening was Cayo Largo del Sur, a small island south of the mainland that boasts 25 kilometres of pristine beaches - with a portfolio of resorts exclusive to Sunwing Travel Group's hotel division, Blue Diamond Resorts.
The resort offering is not new to the island, but in many ways Cayo Largo an up-and-coming destination that promises to further strengthen Sunwing's presence in Cuba. Blue Diamond is massively expanding its presence in Cayo Largo and will manage all 11 of the island’s properties.
"Cayo Largo is a destination that nobody had really flown into, but over the years, we sort of brought the destination back to life. Blue Diamond Resorts & Hotels is opening new properties and renovating some of the little villas. There are some really nice and quaint accommodations for somebody who wants to just get away," Murphy told Open Jaw.
"Some of the people that book the destination are long-stay passengers going for three, four, or six weeks. I think this is something we can really get behind and promote. Even though the internet and Wi-Fi works very well, it's a place where you can disconnect. It's very natural and very quiet. Just a real idyllic little escape on a beautiful island."
Open Jaw heard a status update on the progress of resort renovations and openings on Cayo Largo from Blue Diamond's Sabine Adolphy, General Manager, Complex Memories Miramar Havana & Starfish Monte. Memories, Grand Memories, Sanctuary at Grand Memories, and Starfish Cayo Largo are currently operating, as well as Villa Linda Mar, Villa Caprice, Villa Marina and Villa Soledad.
"We will gradually open the rest of the hotels and facilities, which will be Villa Natura, Villa Serena, Villa Coral, and the Grand Memories Cayo Largo," Adolphy said.
Sunwing flights fly into Aeropuerto Internacional Vilo Acuña located right on the island.
Until the end of May, Sunwing is offering 12 per cent commission on Cayo Largo packages for departures through 27OCT, 2023.
Travel advisors, look out for FAM trips to Cayo Largo hosted this fall by Sunwing.
A Return to Cienfugeos
Sunwing is resuming flights to Cienfuegos this year, with an exclusive resort option, the soon-to-open Melia Trinidad Peninsula.
DIY Groups for Easier Bookings
Sunwing has introduced DIY groups to help advisors simplify and speed up group bookings.
"Travel agents don't have to go and get a group quote, they can just book it in their system. They send us the booking numbers, and we increase the commission another two per cent based on those bookings," Murphy explained to Open Jaw.
"It takes some of the pressure off our groups department and gives a lot more flexibility to the agents and families, because sometimes families aren't looking for their tour conductors or their freebies, they just want to lock in a really great rate."
A New Property for Meliá Hotels & Resorts
Melia Hotels & Resorts' presence in Cuba dates back 33 years when the brand opened its first resort, Sol Palmeras, in Varadero in 1990, highlighted Martin Aragones, National Sales And Marketing Director - Canada office, Melia Hotels International. Since then, it has grown to be one of the largest resort chains in Cuba. With new openings in hot spots like Havana, Holguin, and Trinidad, Meliá will have 38 hotels across the island in eight destinations.
Aragones highlighted two new properties in the destination:
- Meliá's newest Cuba opening is the 388-room Sol Caribe Beach in Varadero, which opened its doors in early MAY 2023.
- If your clients are looking for a combination of culture, history, and beach, the soon-to-open 400-room Melia Trinidad Peninsula, exclusive to Sunwing, offers the best of both worlds. Clients fly into the Jaime Gonzalez Airport (CFG) located just outside Cienfuegos and can explore the rich colonial history of nearby Trinidad.
Iberostar Entices With Island Escapes
The newbuild Iberostar Selection Esmeralda on the idyllic Cayo Cruz is one of the brand's most recent property launches in Cuba.
"If you want to explore a new destination in a favourite of Cuba, this will be perfect for your clients," said Tabatha Bradley, Iberostar's BDM for Ontario. She also reminded advisors that Iberostar's Coral Level is available at this property for clients looking for a more intimate, boutique experience.
Another Iberostar highlight is the Iberostar Selection Holguin, which is home to the first waterpark in the eastern half of Cuba.
Selectum Hotels & Resorts is a new-to-Cuba brand that opened its first property in FEB 2023. It now operates two resorts in the destination, Selectum Family Resort Varadero and Selectum Family Resort Cayo Santa Maria.