There was an air of excitement in the meeting room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near the Miami airport the night before departure. This was not a group of regular travelers bound for an island vacation. These were travel agents about to embark on a people-to-people fam trip to Cuba organized by tour operator Friendly Planet.
In her welcoming remarks, Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet, reminded them that "Cubans are very poor. They have very little in terms of material goods, but they do have a joie de vivre. They improvise. They are entrepreneurs. You, as travel agents, will appreciate them for their uniqueness."
She warned that sections of Havana "look like Dresden after the bombing in World War II, but many other neighborhoods in Havana are beautiful. So is the countryside. You will see contrasts throughout the country, and you will be in a position to explain this to your clients."
As they introduced themselves, several agents revealed personal reasons for their Cuba journey.
Gay Nagle Myers with travel agents Rosemarie Leone and Tim Welch and a ’59 Chevy.
"My wife and I are from Poland," said Andrzej Tyra who, with his wife, Janina, runs J World Travel in Philadelphia. "I see progress every year in Poland since we left. There are similarities between Poland and Cuba, and we are anxious to see what is there."
Linda Spiegler with Frosch Travel in Washington explained that her Hungarian-born father had emigrated from Hungary to Cuba in the 1920s.
"This is big for me," Spiegler said. "I am walking in my dad's footsteps on this trip. He lived and worked in Cuba for 15 years before coming to the U.S. I have photos of his time in Cuba, and I hope to find the restaurant where he worked."
Later that week, with the help of the Friendly Planet staff on the ground in Havana, Spiegler did find the restaurant.
Ellen Paderson of Smiles and Miles Travel in South Easton, Mass., put it bluntly: "I hope to sell it. I need to go and see Cuba so I can send clients. There's so much interest, but I can't sell something I haven't seen for myself."
Amy Miller, a New York-based agent and owner of Amy's Travel Discoveries, said she was "intrigued," adding, "so are my clients."
Linda Welch, owner of Blue Ash Travel in Cincinnati, already had clients eager to go but, like Paderson, wanted to experience it first.
"Managing client expectations always is important, but especially so for this destination," Welch said.
These refrains and similar ones were echoed by most of the 22 agents in the room.
Jose Marti Airport in Havana. Photo Credit: Gay nagle Myers
Cruise specialist Elaine Toms Godin of Select Sailings in Phoenix said she was eager to learn more about the setup for passenger ferry service between Florida and Cuba, a new transportation option recently approved by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
"And I can't wait for the U.S. cruise lines to start calling in Cuba," she said.
Oonagh Greaves, a Jamaican-born agent who runs Oona Global Travel in Silver Spring, Md., said she had posted a status on Facebook about her upcoming Cuba trip, and "I immediately got replies. People want to know what I find and what I think about travel to Cuba once I get back."
Her husband, Aston, a dentist who has done volunteer dental work in Jamaica, said he hoped to find a school or clinic in Cuba that needed his used dental equipment.
"I'm also a car buff and a rum collector," he said. "Cuba is the place for both."
Friendly Planet's Highlights of Havana & Varadero program included three nights in Havana at the Melia Cohiba and two nights at the all-inclusive Melia Varadero in the resort area east of the capital city.
"This is a good tour for beginners," Goldman said. "You will see and do a lot in three days in Havana and its outskirts. Varadero is primarily a resort area, but we discovered several activities where you will interact with Cuban artists, farmers and locals, a strict requirement on the people-to-people programs."
Havana’s Capitol building is undergoing renovations. Photo Credit: Gay nagle Myers
Friendly Planet spent a year planning this fam, including aspects tailored to the agent group, such as hotel site inspections.
The group was reminded several times that tourism in Cuba is still forbidden for U.S. citizens.
"Americans must come as visitors on oriented activities due to political/legal restrictions," said Jorge Mario Sanchez, a professor at the University of Havana. "We're on the cusp of change, however. We're facing an onslaught of tourists and full normalization which, when it comes, could bring up to 1 million Americans a year."
That number of tourists could seriously challenge Cuba's existing infrastructure. Havana has 40 hotels, the biggest being the Melia Cohiba, with 435 rooms, followed by the Iberostar Parque Central, with 427 rooms, and the iconic Nacional, with 426 rooms.
French President Francois Hollande was in town at the same time as the fam group, and his entourage occupied 180 rooms at the Nacional.
"We were happy he was here, but we were seriously overbooked due to his large delegation," the sales manager said.
The group's Cuban guide, Ari, said, "Tourism is booming. We don't have enough hotels for U.S. visitors and not enough bartenders to make mojitos."
Her words rang true. Havana was brimming with Europeans, Canadians, Chinese and others, sipping those mojitos in cafes, posing in the Plaza de la Revolucion, buying Che Guevara T-shirts, riding in '59 Chevy convertibles along the Malecon and enjoying the floor show at Cafe Taverna, where an offshoot of the original Buena Vista Social Club was performing.
Other people-to-people groups were in Havana, as well.
Following a tour of the Corona cigar factory, the largest of the six government-run fabricas in Cuba, the group jostled with other Americans at the counter buying Bolivars, Cohibas, Montecristos and a dozen other legendary Cuban brands.
New regulations now permit U.S. citizens to bring home up to $400 worth of souvenirs, including $100 in cigars and rum.
The most sought-after cigar was the Splendida, the brand favored by Fidel Castro when he smoked. But tourism had taken its toll on inventory, according to Camillo, the tour guide at the factory.
"So sorry," he said. "The Chinese group that was here before you bought them all."
Meals were included in the tour, and the group dined at a mix of state-owned restaurants and paladores, privately run restaurants that have sprung up all over Cuba since 2011, 390 in Havana alone, when President Raul Castro relaxed some restrictions on ownership.
The Corona cigar factory. Photo Credit: Gay nagle Myers
"Cubans can now own restaurants, bars and cellphones," Ari said. "We can rent cars, stay in hotels and buy cars and houses if we have the money."
Most don't. The average monthly salary for government employees, who constitute 80% of the work force, is $20.
"Health care is free, our education through the university level is free, and we receive subsidies for food," Ari said.
What she left out of that equation and what impressed the fam group throughout the week was the entrepreneurial, can-do attitude of Cubans.
It was evident at Las Terrazas, a 12,000-acre lush park outside Havana, now part of Unesco's Biosphere Reserve, where the land is protected and hunting and fishing are prohibited. Founded as a model community after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, it now has a population of 1,104, complete with a school, a clinic, a cafe, artists and vendors, simple homes and a state-run hotel.
Ariel, an artist at Las Terrazas, made heavyweight hand-pressed paper from scraps of typing paper mashed into pulp, which he then wrung through an antiquated Russian washing machine. He strained the residue through a piece of screen from an old door.
"I put the remains between rags and hang it up to dry," he said. "Then I have papers, and I can paint birds."
He sold a lot of bird paintings the day the fam group visited.
The agents also met Mariela Aleman Orozco, an award-winning fashion designer whose workshop is the roof of her family home in Cardenas, a village east of Havana.
Props for her fabric designs included uncooked grains of rice, pieces of metal from a ladies' fan, leaves from her garden and wooden buttons made by her father, a carpenter.
When combined with brilliant inks that she squirts onto the fabric and blends in with her fingers, unique design patterns resulted.
After the sun dried the fabric, she collected the grains of rice to use on her next design.
"I recycle everything," she said.
The week was filled with experiences and encounters such as these. The itinerary was fast paced but allowed for some free time at the end of each day, especially at the all-inclusive Melia Varadero where the group had an hour or two to walk the beach.
Throughout the week, agents commented on unexpected lessons and encounters.
"I thought I would see more crumbling buildings than I did," said Rosemarie Leone, owner of Destinations Unlimited by RGL in Haddon Heights, N.J. "These are new vistas for me. I came here to learn how to sell Cuba. I have learned so much, but there is much more to this puzzle than we can ever know."
Santeria dancers. Photo Credit: Gay nagle Myers
Jerry Knoll, an agent with Passport 2 Travel in San Diego, while surprised at the number of decaying buildings he saw in Havana, said he could sell Cuba to specific clients "now that I have been here."
Linda Welch observed that "Cuba is so much more than old cars. We were and are ambassadors, part of something important to help dispel misunderstood perceptions to our clients."
She added: "I would come back in a heartbeat. The Cuban people are delightful."
Most agreed that the weeklong Friendly Planet program was an excellent first immersion into Cuba, with its combination of Havana and its environs with the countryside and Varadero as the culmination.
The takeaway experience was summed up well by Elias Aseff Alfonso, a colorful narrator who had explained the origin and meaning of the African-Cuban religion of Santeria to the group several days earlier.
"Enjoy my country, but don't try to understand it," he admonished.
Peggy Goldman's final word to the agents: "Now go home and sell the hell out of Cuba."