This spring, I took the A.C. Nielsen Global Trip Class during which, we traveled to Cuba. It was an amazing learning opportunity and a great experience. We were able to meet with so many interesting people, visit historical sites and current businesses, explore the culture, and also get a better understanding of where the country is headed both from a political standpoint and for business opportunities.
While we were in Cuba we had the opportunity to meet with Miguel Diaz Vargas, a Brand Manager for Havana Club 7 Rum and Nestor Valera Callada, the Director of Casa del HABANO, a company that manufactures premium cigars. Both representatives talked about working under a joint venture business model along with the limitations the companies face because of the U.S. embargo. For example, the U.S. makes up 40% of the global rum market but because of the embargo, Havana Club is not allowed to enter that portion of the market. Both men spoke of the opportunities the warming relations between the Unites States and Cuba would provide for their brands and seemed optimistic that their brands would soon be available to consumers in the United States. Nestor Valera Callada also spoke about how his company conducts market research. To develop new products for the cigar line, the company consults with their premium distributors to find out what their consumers are saying about the current products, what they are looking for in new products and their overall impressions with regard to smoking cigars. He made this comment: “The best cigar, is the cigar you like” and I think this is a very representative statement for their consumer insights and new product development ideology. After our talks, we were able to tour a cigar factory and the Havana Club Rum Museum to learn more about how the products are made and distributed.
We also had the unique opportunity to meet with some small business owners while we were in Havana. Conchita gave us a tour of her family home which she operates as a casa particular, similar to an Airbnb. Dayana Fajardo met with us on Tuesday to describe the two businesses she operates, an event planning business and a dance studio. Both women talked about the licensing process they go through and the regulations surrounding their respective business.
Dayana’s case was especially interesting because her event planning business is licensed as a
state business and the dance studio is her private business. Conchita and Dayana also discussed the social media marketing strategies and partnerships they use to promote their businesses globally. Meeting with these women was a great way to learn about private entrepreneurship in Cuba.
We had several other meetings while we were in Cuba that allowed us to gain insights into different facets of the Cuban economy, current infrastructure projects underway, the current sugar market and the tourism industry. Dr. Ernesto Dominguez López gave us a lot of information about the history of Cuba, the current Cuban economy, the perceptions that Cuban, and Cuban American people have about the U.S. embargo, and some of the opportunities that would be available if the embargo were to be lifted. Dr. López will be teaching some classes at the University of Wisconsin next fall and the UW is lucky to have him. He was a very interesting and engaging speaker with a wealth of information to share. Charles Baker spoke to us about the Port of Mariel project which is underway to develop Cuba as a hub for shipping routes to the Americas. The project has several provisions to encourage industrial and manufacturing investments meant to grow the Cuban economy. Jorge Lodos, Executive of the AZCUBA business group talked to us about the current sugar market and investment opportunities to grow sugar as a sustainable fuel source. A final growing industry in Cuba is the tourism industry which currently accounts for 3.9% of the GDP in Cuba. Dr. Alejandro Delgado Castro spoke to us about the push for more hotel rooms, through foreign investments and joint ventures, development plans for new marinas, golf courses and amusement parks, and investments in better infrastructure for services like the internet, in order to attract more tourists. He also spoke to us about the increased number of flights and cruise ships coming in to Cuba and how that is impacting the economy.
Our trip to Cuba also allowed us to get a better understanding of Cuban history and culture. Our tour guide Nataly was full of information and more than happy to answer all our questions. We got to tour Havana in vintage cars and learn about some important historical sites. We did a walking tour of Old Havana and Trinidad, a bus tour of Ceinfuegos, and visited the Che Guevara Mausoleum. We toured the estate of Ernest Hemingway and ate at La Guarida, a restaurant featured in Strawberry and Chocolate, a movie the Cuban people consider the most important film made in Cuba. We met with Rodolfo Puente Zamora, Vice President of the Baseball Cuban Federation, who is considered the best baseball player in Cuban history. He shared with us how important the sport is to the country. He explained that baseball is a source of pride for the Cuban people and kids start learning the techniques and intricacies of the game at an early age in school. We also managed to get a little relaxation time when we visited the most beautiful beach in Varadero.
This trip to Cuba was an amazing learning opportunity! I came home with a better understanding of Cuban history, the political structure and what these factors mean for current and future business endeavors. The most interesting part was seeing the transitions and changes being made to make Cuba a more attractive place for businesses with the hopes of growing the economy. Cuba has so much to offer the world, it will be interesting to see the continued development of the country. I cannot thank enough the A.C. Nielsen Center, Wisconsin School of Business and the generous donors who made this trip possible. It truly was a once in a lifetime experience and I am very grateful I was given this opportunity!