Keeping Busy

We’re smack dab in the middle of high season but I’m taking a breather. Besides having our fourth cycle tour of the season (a 2-weeker) underway, we’ve also hosted a group of young baseball players from the USA, and we’re anxiously anticipating the arrival of a container full of motorcycles from Panama at the end of this month. The owners are sending their bikes to take part in the annual gathering of the Harlistas Cubanos and other motorcycles from Cuba & abroad in Varadero from Feb. 6-10. We’re anxious because the ship’s expected to arrive from Panama on Jan. 31 (a Friday, right before the blasted weekend). The group is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on Feb. 4 (Tuesday) and registration of their bikes is supposed to be taking place on Feb. 5 if all goes according to plan. Wait, that should say IF all goes according to plan. Because this is Cuba, and despite the best-laid plans something can always go wrong when you least expect it. But so far everything seems to be running smoothly and all the paperwork’s been delivered to the corresponding authorities, permission letters issued by our ground handler, reservations confirmed, suppliers paid. Now it’s just up to the weather, Cuban Customs, the import agency and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Is it too much to ask that they all come together to make this come off without a wrinkle for Feb. 5? I must remember to light some candles and send up my wishes for positive things to happen. Especially for the occasion I had a seamstress neighbor of mine make a new orange canvas cover made for our old event tent last week (I provided 12 meters of canvas fabric that we found in Havana for $66, and when she finished and told me she wanted to charge me less than $5 for her work, I almost fell off my chair). On the weekend I drew and cut out all the lettering for our logo (a painstaking job, by hand for all 4 sides of the tent). These are the things you do when they don’t sell event tents in Cuba. Repair, reuse.

We have 5 cycle tour groups left to go before we wrap up the group tour season the end of March. So far it’s been a good season. We had a young videographer friend of ours put together a video clip from the first three cycle tours of the season. She told me yesterday that it was the first time she’d been to Cienfuegos and loved the city. I’m hoping to get the files to PEI via a willing client for uploading the end of this month. Our dial-up connection speed here in Cuba doesn’t support video. We had a custom group of male friends do a Central Cuba trip in November and they stayed at the luxurious Iberostar Trinidad for 1 night of their tour. I secured one of only 2 dates available for them in November and planned the rest of the trip around that. We love the hotel, but man it’s hard to get group space there. And while it drives up tour costs, for some the luxury is well worth it. We had a couple of families on a smaller tour in December, and another family & friends group do the Western Cuba cycle tour for New Year’s week and we were able to treat them to a night at La Moka as part of that tour. La Moka’s another one that’s hard to secure for groups no matter how far ahead you plan. That group left some exceptionally generous tips which were much appreciated by the tour team. So far Jagua’s come through with quite a few of my waitlist requests for space in Cienfuegos which puts a smile on my face (and the tour leader’s too). We prefer to stay 2 nights in the city of Cienfuegos whenever possible on the cycle tours rather than the beach.

We sold 1913 car rental days for rentals beginning Dec. 1 to Jan. 21 (applause, applause). Rent Car VIA’s rates are much lower than the competition’s in extreme high season, and 73% of our car rentals for this period were booked with VIA followed by Cubacar, Havanautos and REX in descending order. I had to field quite a few troubleshooting calls for VIA car rentals, but I guess that’s to be expected when almost 3 out of 4 clients have chosen them as their car rental provider.

So far in January we have a 12% return rate on customer feedback. While much of it is positive and we like that, complaints for car rental services are somewhat more frequent during extreme high season due to limited availability of vehicles, glitches with maintenance, and delays in delivery. We’ve had a few people report (after the fact, note to alert clients that you should always notify us immediately if things aren’t as described in our invoice) that the rental counter functionaries charged them a mysterious $5 CUC/day damage waiver supplement for high season. It seems the rental counter functionaries are the only ones privy to this fee as it’s not in our ground handler’s contracts. One functionary returned the $50 CUC he “inadvertently” charged our client to us in cash and now it’s our problem to see how we can reimburse the client for something not paid to our agency. The other claims are pending analysis by the respective rental companies. Note to smart clients: If you’re in doubt, make sure it’s written on your rental contract and save the contract to send us at the end of the rental. Cubans love their signed & stamped paperwork. The more stamps and signatures, the better.

Overall the travel feedback we’ve received this season from clients who’ve chosen Cubacar, Havanautos & REX has been much more positive than for VIA. I attribute that to a combination of factors including newer vehicles, larger fleets, and better supply of replacement parts. I seems to me that most of VIA’s problems are concentrated in a few vehicle categories including the Peugeot 207 SW automatic and the Peugeot 3008 automatic as two that stand out most in my mind. The latter hybrid vehicle has a very attractive price and most of the models in their fleet should have less than a year of use, but nevertheless we’ve had a couple of clients comment about technical difficulties. For those of you who only drive an automatic car and don’t want to shell out for the Havanautos or REX automatic vehicle prices, be duly warned that selecting the above vehicles from VIA can be a “cajita de sorpresas”. If the one assigned you has any technical difficulty prior to or during the rental period, securing a replacement within the VIA fleet is no easy feat.

We have quite a few fishing packages coming up over the next months for Cayo Paredon & the Zapata Peninsula. And diving, which continues to grow in popularity. Just remember that we don’t recommend overbooking diving on Cuba’s north shore in the winter. Those darned cold fronts make it unpredictable. Other places to consider pre-booking diving in the Cuban winter: Maria la Gorda (whose transfer prices were raised to fairly astronomical levels this year, so think rental car as a less expensive alternative to get to Cuba’s westernmost tip), the Isle of Youth (who changed their minimum dive boat departure policy this year to 8 divers which I think is going to kill their dive product), Trinidad, Guajimico, Cienfuegos, Jardines de la Reina, or Santiago de Cuba. Varadero is another destination which has a good guarantee for divers when there’s inclement weather. The dive center transfers clients to the south shore to the Zapata Peninsula if diving on the north shore is cancelled. No extra charge for the transfer. We like diving in the Zapata Peninsula better than Varadero anyway.

So as the wind picks up and another cold front rolls in to Havana, I’m signing off and unless I’m feeling super-inspired, I may not be back to check in until this pace and season slows down.

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Hectic Santa-Free Holidays

The hectic holiday season is here, but for us it has absolutely nothing to do with last minute shopping, thankfully. Our office flooded a couple of weeks ago and we had a big disagreement with the building management, which I’m pretty sure has all but been smoothed over now. But it was touch & go for a few days on finding a new location for January, which had my brother all in a tizzy since we’re in the midst of our bicycle tour season and he just doesn’t have the time for a move/new set-up. While most of our reservations are made far in advance, once the extreme high season dates arrive, there are almost always last minute surprises. They began to roll in on Dec. 20. One client who arrived in Santa Clara has reserved a late model Peugeot vehicle with automatic transmission with Rent Car VIA (who has the lowest rates of the 4 rental companies for extreme high season). When she arrived, they presented her with an older Peugeot automatic model which was a lower category than the one she booked. Right away, she called me and I contacted their operations office who readily recognized the problem which was due to a breakdown in the vehicle they’d assigned to her rental. She opted not to take the downgrade they were offering and later that same day (luckily) they delivered the model she’d prepaid. One down, how many more to go? The next day while we were at our end of the year motorcycle club party, I received a call from a client who’d picked up his VIA automatic transmission Peugeot vehicle in Havana but by the time he’d arrived in Viñales it wouldn´t turn to the right. He also followed instructions and contacted us for advice. I told him to contact the rental company´s 24-hr operations line and ask for the car to be towed, and have the rental company´s functionary corroborate the fact that it was no longer operational. The next day he had a replacement car, despite the fact that when he first contacted them they said they had no automatics remaining. Then I had someone else who was supposed to pick up a Geely CK from Rent Car VIA upon his international arrival in Holguin. He called me the next day mid-morning to advise that they’d delivered a vehicle whose check engine and ABS lights were lit, and the vehicle cut out 3 times before he could even leave the parking lot. The rental counter functionary made note of the technical deficiencies on his contract and told him to go to the Hotel Bosque the next day to try and get another car. For some reason the client was told not to contact us from the airport, that there would be no one working that late at night. Wrong information, but at any rate I was still able to investigate the chain of events, establish with the airport rental counter that the car was definitely not in working order upon delivery (despite conflicting information from the rental company’s operations office), and finally in less than an hour a replacement vehicle was on its way.

In the middle of all the rental car troubleshooting, I received a last minute request from a U.S. group who’d been getting the runaround from the intermediary arranger who’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to book their services for early January. I agreed to take them on, although somewhat against my better judgment this close to departure and during our busiest time of the year. I’ve secured most services but am still waiting for a quotation on their transport/extrahotel package. I was able to do a little investigative work on their booking at the Havanatur 35-year anniversary gala dinner we were invited to on Dec. 19. The intermediary who poses as a “guide” was booking their services through another agency and collecting a big chunk of cash for payment on arrival. Not much security in that modis operandi, and from all accounts the end result was a very inflated package price. Unbeknownst to me at the gala dinner they seated me beside one of the vice presidents of Havanatur where we’ve been represented in the Cuban Chamber of Commerce for over a decade now. After I asked her what department she worked in, and she told me her position I probed a little further and discovered that Havanatur has made cuts and only represents 5 foreign travel agencies now, and only three of us had been invited to their gala dinner. Presumably the other two aren’t producing sufficient sales to justify representation through their organization for much longer. We took home a plaque, a reproduction of a Cecilia Valdes painting, other miscellaneous gifts, and were enriched with a performance by a young opera group called Habana Clasicos. Their regular gig is on Friday nights @ 9 :30 at the Hotel Sevilla for anyone looking to take in some high-level cultural entertainment.

On Dec. 20 we were given Havanatur invitations to the 70th anniversary of the debut of Alicia Alonso as Giselle. The performance was at the National Theatre (the Gran Teatro is still under renovations) and didn’t disappoint. At intermission I couldn’t take my eyes off a fellow outside who may qualify for one of the biggest fashion faux pas I’ve seen to date. Zebra-striped shirt with, get this, matching zebra-striped tight pants. What was he thinking, I wondered to myself as I unsuccessfully tried to force myself to look the other way. I did think of snapping a picture but I just couldn’t do it. Tropicola and fried sweet potato chips and we were back for the second act.

On Dec. 21 my nieces were invited to our house for a sleepover. My brother’s youngest daughter is just 3 and wasn’t in our initial sleepover plans, but she made such a convincing plea that we relented and told her that we’d give it a try. As her mother was pulling her things out of the closet, Amanda instinctively knew her Mom was not altogether comfortable with letting go and she looked at her and said, “Mami, it’s ok. Don’t be scared.” Priceless, especially considering that she was really totally okay with the experience and didn’t cry one bit the whole time. After a hair, makeup & nails session with the girls in the morning we were off to take in the last day of FIART along with my husband’s ex-wife (to whom who he pointedly refers to as the mother of his children and NOT as his ex-wife) and her young son, plus their adult daughter and oldest granddaughter. We all crowded into his Peugeot Partner with the 3 oldest kids in the rear section fighting over who was going to get the stool we brought along and who was relegated to sit on the wheel wells. The kids weren’t the least bit interested in the shopping at FIART but rather dragged my husband and me down to the waterless moats where there were three big inflatable carnival attractions. He bought 5 rounds of 10-minute sessions which meant there were no kids crying to go back & do more (they were pooped and red-faced by the time they got out of there). After some cotton candy treats we called it a day. In the midst of the jumping games we received a call from a motorcycle friend whose Indian had quit in the middle of the highway. So when finally got back home after dropping off the troops, we switched cars, hooked up the trailer and headed out for a 400-km favor to bring our friend, his wife and the Indian back home to Caimito. I don’t know what he was thinking when he left home for a road trip with a Friday the 13th shirt on but both his Canadian riding companion and myself set him straight on the Fri 13/Tue 13 thing and he’s now fully convinced he must turn the shirt into a rag. They tried to force dinner on us when we got there but we still had an hour to go to get back home and had to decline. No rest for the wicked last Sunday.

Monday and Tuesday were cram days, making sure all loose ends were wrapped/tied up before the holidays. Still fielding calls from the US group who thinks I am a miracle worker. I hope I don’t disappoint, but honestly there’s only so much a girl can do with less than 2 weeks to prepare in ultra high season. Am hoping some ball games will come together for them, but still not entirely sure about that yet. One of our neighbors comes in twice a week to make lunch for us and take some of the load off. We saved the gala dinner menu to present to her on Tuesday as if that were our lunch request. She didn’t quite know what to think when my husband handed it over, and after puzzling over it for a minute finally asked us if we were out of our minds. Her speciality is home-cooked Cuban food and she didn’t even know what some of the things described on the gala menu were. Comic relief.

On Tuesday night we were invited to spend

Noche Buena with some friends. Her kids set and decorated the festive holiday table. The cake I decided to bake at the very last minute for the occasion flopped (top layer was too hot and as I was sticking berries into the top to decorate it fell apart) so off we went to our favorite sweet shop, Fontanella. There must’ve been 40 people in line to buy cake, which were dribbling out of the bakery one or two at a time. By some strange stroke of luck no one was looking for their Dulce Tres Leches which were just sitting there on the shelf , so once again the gods were with us and we arrived more or less on time. We feasted on succulent roast pork, yucca con mojo, black beans, rice, tamales, salad, fries, cider, and turron.

And yesterday for Christmas Day we spent most of the day watching the “Kidnapped” series on a bootleg dvd set. My husband made a hearty vegetable soup. Finally, a well-deserved chance to catch up on the rest we didn’t get on Sunday. I think the only person that called to interrupt my lazy day was my brother, and it was only an afterthought to wish him a Merry Christmas. I didn’t even bother hauling my 9” bonsai Xmas tree out of the closet this year.

Cuban Summer Car Rental Adventures

Some people think working as a destination representative for a travel company in Cuba is a dream job. Sometimes it’s great, but mine is a 24/7 job and although I’m very conscientious and extremely detail-oriented, this is Cuba and despite my best efforts, services don’t always go off without a hitch. Alot of our Canadian clients mistakenly assume that Cuba’s tourism industry dies off in the summer when the Canadian geese are happily flying around northern skies. Not so. Cuba has a very large influx of Cuban-American and European visitors in July and August, so much so that the demand for many categories of rental cars is traditionally exceeded by the local supply of vehicles. Man, do we book a lot of car rentals in Cuba for the summer months. Hoping that a rental car of any category will be available last minute during high season in Cuba is a big gamble. A certain

Rental Car

segment of the Cuban-American traveling public is very wary of prepaying services, and we receive numerous messages from them wondering what guarantee they’ll have if they reserve and prepay a car rental only to arrive in Cuba and have the rental company try to pawn off a different category of vehicle or one that’s in rough condition. Some of them even have their local family members act as amateur detectives, calling the rental counters to double-check our work once the service has been confirmed and documents/instructions issued to the client. Unbeknownst to them, this is often a futile attempt to obtain information on their part since bookings and operations are handled through a central reservations office and the actual rental counters don’t usually have information on upcoming rentals until the day prior to the initiation of the service. Funnily (to me anyway), some of them even call us up at the local contact numbers we’ve provided and ask if we’re legitimate. If I were wondering about a company’s credentials and reputation the first person I’d ask probably wouldn’t be the company itself, but maybe they do it just to see if someone actually answers the phone on this end. I’m not really sure. Being one of the few companies that actually publishes unedited and real client feedback (the good, the bad and the ugly), I personally think that’s the best place for any Doubting Tom to begin research on WoWCuba before committing to services. Not only does it give a potential client an idea of what to expect from us as a company, but more importantly to compare experiences of past clients of ours with the various service providers with whom we contract services.

On Sunday morning I was contacted by some clients from New Zealand who’d reserved a 5-passenger vehicle for 4 days to drive from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. The car was reserved for 9 a.m. but still had not appeared at the rental counter by mid-morning. Unbeknownst to the rental counter functionary, the clients found a telephone and contacted me for advice. They were worried that the rental company wasn’t going to deliver the model they’d confirmed since the clients who were ahead of them in the rental contract lineup were upset with the rental counter for delivering a model that wasn’t what they’d reserved. I informed them that this is high season and that from mid-July on some of the rental companies (and particularly the one they selected for their rental) occasionally experience deficits in their rental fleet. It can be due to breakdown, problems with replacement parts supply (which aren’t always sourced in the country), and sometimes is simply the fault of clients who elect to return their rental vehicle after the agreed-upon date and pay a penalty to do so. I advised that if this were the case, then the rental company’s contractual obligation is to replace the vehicle they’d reserved with another of the same category or provide an upgrade. I next contacted the rental company who first indicated the vehicle they reserved was on its way, but immediately thereafter they leaked the bad news that the 5-passenger vehicle was broken and they were offering a smaller economy vehicle as a substitute. It took me just under 3.5 hours of calls back and forth between the rental counter, the rental company’s operations office, their head office, and that of our ground handler until I finally convinced them that all hell would break loose if they didn’t live up to their end of the bargain and deliver a vehicle of the same or superior category. I begged, I pleaded, I explained, and I even got a little mad with the rental company when they kept trying to force the economy car downgrade on my clients. In addition to my elevated stress levels, I probably spent $30 CUC of my cell phone credit on resolving the issue. Which comes straight out of our profits; noone compensates us for the rental company’s inadequacy or poor planning. In the end they did somehow pull a vehicle out of a hat and delivered a car large enough to get the couple and the wife’s parents plus all their luggage across the country without having to tie someone to the roof. When I was finally able to advise the clients that the larger vehicle was on its way, we also agreed that I would begin a claims process with the rental company asking them to consider refunding one of the rental days in exchange for the significant delay in delivering the vehicle. The clients had prepaid for 4 rental days, but since the 4th day was scheduled for an early return, effectively they only were going to be using the vehicle now only for 5 hours on the last day of the rental. I thought that it was reasonable to expect the rental company to extend that refund considering the circumstances, and indicated that I’d be happy to process the claim with our ground handler and the rental company, who can ultimately take up to a month to get back to us on service claims, but I am nothing if not persistent. Pshew. I thought the saga was over and that I could go on enjoying my “day off”.

Actually, my plans for Sunday morning included meeting a group of U.S. graduate students that I’d organized to visit a local agricultural cooperative. I really wanted to get some pictures of their experience there and also to say hi to their tour organizer who I’d met previously here at a Sustainable Tourism conference. While I did get the visit to the “farm” in, it was much briefer than I’d have liked and I was worried the whole time about trying to offer a viable solution to the New Zealanders transportation problem. When the clients finally were completing the rental contract, they called me back to see if the rental company couldn’t throw in the extra driver fee ($30 CUC each) for 2 additional drivers to compensate for their almost 5-hour delay in delivering the vehicle. While I totally understood that they were hot & bothered by that point, I think they were under the mistaken impression that the rental car company and myself actually have the authority to make that kind of decision, which absolutely isn’t the case. There are so many layers of bureaucracy here that sometimes it’s hard to see your way to the end of the tunnel. They called me back while I was just about to have lunch to question the rental company’s local dropoff fees, which are clearly published on our website and coincided 100% with what the rental car functionary was charging on their contract. But apparently they had misunderstood the calculation and wanted us to pay for almost half of the local fee, which definitely wasn’t part of our deal. At that point they were implying that OUR customer service was deficient and that they were going to make it known on Trip Advisor upon completion of their holiday. Sheesh. I was thinking to myself at that point that I should have just told them to accept the smaller vehicle from the get-go, that it was out of my hands, and gone on my merry way. I was speechless when I got off the phone and when I finally tried to tell my husband that they implied I’d been less than professional when I’d just dedicated half of the day to going to bat for them, I simply broke down in tears and told him that some days this job is a thankless one.

But then the very next day I received a call from a repeat Spanish gentleman who comes here year after year and stays for an extended period each time and always reserves his car rental with my husband. After a month in Cuba, he was scheduled to leave the country that night. But before he flew out he wanted to meet with Abel. When he stopped by in the afternoon he mentioned his vehicle had been vandalized while parked overnight at the private house where he was staying and that Abel had intervened on his behalf to have it replaced with a different model. After he completed the police report, the insurance covered all the damages sustained to the vehicle. He was totally thoughtful and brought a bottle of rum as a gift and (more importantly) expressed his thanks for our work on his behalf. I almost started crying again because not many people realize how many hoops we actually have to jump through to make things happen on this end. I think that the very fact that he’s visited here as often as he has in the past has made him more appreciative of the small things. And knowing that he has someone here that is looking out for his best interests is also very comforting. For me, having someone actually express that to us and take the time to personally do so meant more than he probably knows.

Beached-Whale

If anyone tries to tell you that everything always goes smoothly in Cuba, they’re either lying or very naive. But having experienced and honest intermediaries on your side to defend your interests when you most need them is a good thing. It could mean the difference between driving across Cuba in air-conditioned style or improvising in one of those Chevy Chase-style family vacations with everything but the kitchen sink tied to the roof of your rattle-trap rental car.