Marriott International's Arne Sorenson

Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson was in Cuba last week as part of the U.S. delegation during President Obama's historic visit. While there, both Marriott and Starwood Hotels and Resorts received the U.S. Department of the Treasury's approval to do business in Cuba. News Editor Johanna Jainchill sat down with Sorenson in Havana to talk about his vision for hotel development on the island.

Q: Are you looking more to convert existing properties here or develop new ones?

Arne Sorenson
Arne Sorenson

A: I think there is an opportunity for plenty of different things. The unique thing about Cuba, of course, is its history and its culture, including its complicated history with the United States. It makes it a very intriguing place to so many people. And that culture and architecture and the history of Havana particularly, but of Cuba, as well, has to be preserved. And I think most people are going to want to experience it.

I talk to a lot of Cuban government officials and Cuban businesspeople, and my advice to them is, capitalize on your advantages, which are the culture and history. Not necessarily the beaches. The beaches are beautiful, but there are a lot of beautiful beaches on lots of Caribbean islands.

Q: How much demand is there for new supply?

A: They obviously need more supply in Havana particularly. There is a strong demand: The hotels run high occupancy, and the travel arc is rising quickly. ... The U.S. has been [a] very small [percentage], but it's growing quickly, and I expect it's about to explode.

Q: Do you plan on building any beach resorts?

A: There are already a number of all-inclusive resorts in Cuba. It will be interesting to see how people settle in here, whether it's a few days in Havana and then a day or two in another city and then a few days on the beach, so a broader vacation than simply a week on the beach, or whether they decide to see the cultural sites and actually not use Cuba as a beach destination. We are interested in being in Old Havana with something that's presumably in a historical building. I think there is also opportunities for some hotels in some smaller cities and also room for meetings hotels where people can come here and hold a conference.  

Q: So you are targeting customers beyond Americans.

A: Everybody, yes. Not just Americans, but they will probably be the fastest-growing big market over the next couple years, so we have to be mindful of that.

Q: The island is lacking in truly upscale products. Is that part of your focus?

A: I think the Cubans are interested in having a bit more [of a] higher-end experience and some luxury products. I think they are interested in what we can do in the training space to help really deliver high-quality hospitality services. But I don't that's an exclusive focus of theirs. I think they understand that this place should be affordable and welcoming to lots of folks, not just luxury customers.

Q: What did Treasury approve, since there is still an embargo, and how will you operate and be in compliance?

A: I suspect part of it may be a franchise operation. We are still trying to work out those details. I think the Cubans are interested in having us come and be managers. We're going to explore to see if there's a way we can do a management contract and still be in compliance with existing legislation.

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