Kempinski confident that Havana luxury hotel will thrive

The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana is slated to open by June.
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When redevelopment work began on the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana in 2013, the U.S. was more than a year away from normalizing relations with Cuba and more than two years from restoring direct, commercial flights to its island neighbor.

With the swearing in of a new president last month, many in the U.S. travel industry expressed concerns about the Trump administration turning back the clock with regards to Cuba. But the hotel's general manager, Xavier Destribats, said last week that few in Havana seem concerned about that possibility.

"Those planes are still flying from Miami, New York and Los Angeles," Destribats said in a phone interview from Havana. As for President Trump possibly rolling back the agreements made under the Obama administration, he said, "Nobody here is talking about it."

By opening what the hotelier is billing as Cuba's "first modern, luxury five-star" hotel -- the property is slated to open by June -- Geneva-based luxury-hotel operator Kempinski and Cuba-based developer Grupo de Turismo Gaviota appear to be making a big bet on an increase in moneyed tourists to Cuba.

While Destribats declined to say how much the project cost, the 246-room hotel is being rebuilt out of Old Havana's Manzana de Gomez building, which opened in 1917 and housed the country's first European-style shopping arcade. The hotel, which will seek room rates as high as $600 a night during peak season, will feature a 1,700-square-foot presidential suite as well as a rooftop pool, an 11,000-square-foot Resense-branded spa and a cigar lounge.

Kempinski joins a handful of international hotel brands operating in the country. Mallorca-based Melia Hotels International operates more than two dozen hotels in Cuba, while France-based AccorHotels has two properties there under its midscale Mercure brand.

Meanwhile, Starwood Hotels & Resorts and Marriott International last March each received approval from the U.S. Treasury Department to do business in Cuba. Three months later, Starwood reflagged what was then the 186-room Hotel Quinta Avenida (also owned by Grupo de Turismo Gaviota) as the Four Points by Sheraton Havana. The hotel became the first Cuba property in almost six decades to be overseen by a U.S. hotel company.

But as Kempinski charges full speed ahead, other hotel companies' intentions to follow through on plans to develop properties in Cuba remain unclear. While Starwood, which was acquired by Marriott last September, said last summer that Havana's 83-room Hotel Inglaterra would join the Luxury Collection, there were no longer any references to Hotel Inglaterra on the Luxury Collection's website as of last week.

Marriott representatives didn't respond to requests for comment from Travel Weekly last week.

Meanwhile, Mallorca-based Iberostar Hotels & Resorts, which has about a dozen properties in Cuba, said in December that it would take over management of Havana's 352-room Hotel Riviera, which was built by organized crime boss Meyer Lansky in 1957, reflagging it as the Iberostar Riviera. The property, which would be Iberostar's second in Havana after the Iberostar Parque Central, was not listed on Iberostar's website as of last week.

Destribats, who said he plans to employ a 300-member staff at the Kempinski property, admitted that the he and his team have had to get "creative" with sourcing because nothing can be brought in from the U.S.

Still, with the property's guestrooms almost completed, Destribats, a three-decade industry veteran, expressed confidence that the hotel's architecture and amenities would please the most discerning traveler.

"The quality of the hotel is incredible," he said. "You could move this to Manhattan, and people would say, 'Wow!'"

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