by Bobbin Wages
Fourteen graduate students from the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration recently traveled to Havana, Cuba, and came back with ideas for global ventures.
When Clinical Professor Leonard Jackson joined the Regynald G. Washington Master of Global Hospitality Management (MGHM) program four years ago, he supported adding an overseas travel component to the curriculum. “You can’t go global just sitting in a classroom,” he says.. Cuba was selected for the first MGHM study abroad experience in 2016 because of the projected growth of American visitors. The research focus for both the 2016 and 2017 trips was on Cuba’s tourism and hospitality capacity to effectively handle this expected increase in business. Jackson cited that Cuba already ranks second in the Caribbean behind the Dominican Republic in tourism
The program’s past two cohorts have taken the 10-day trip. Fourteen students from the class of summer 2017 traveled to Cuba in May and wrapped up their projects at the end of July, just before graduation.
Jackson packed the itinerary with activities in Havana such as an interchange with the Cuban Institute of Friendship for the Peoples regarding Cuba-United States relations, a discussion with staff and owners from Rejoneo Paladar about the private restaurant industry, a dialogue with airline representatives on the area’s recent surge in tourism, an outing to world-famous night club Tropicana Cabaret Cuba and an exploration of resort operations on nearby Varadero Beach. “Every day we met with carefully selected strategic partners who could help students with their research projects,” Jackson says.
The cohort overwhelmingly references an afternoon at eatery El Jardín de los Milagros as their favorite site visit. Proprietors Guillermo and Yamila Velazquez originally ran a construction outfit that tanked in 2011. However, economic reform passed by Raúl Castro the same year allowed Cuban citizens to open some types of small businesses without government oversight, prompting the Velazquezes to switch gears and establish a restaurant. The duo repurposed former construction materials to support their rooftop garden. “They turned metal sheets and hard hats into planters and used scaffolding to hold up the larger containers, which were made out of a sink, toilet and bathtub,” student Wade Orr says. “They grow mint, chives, parsley, peppers and other produce that appear in their dishes.”
Students took Jackson’s course, Hospitality International Field Research (HADM 8300), in preparation for the trip. The class culminated in the applied research project, which tasked them with acting as business development directors for a U.S. domiciled company exploring the hospitality industry in Cuba, and ultimately proposing a venture that would work within the country’s economic, political and social constraints. “I made sure they got practice assessing whether a country is conducive to global opportunities,” Jackson says.
Christopher Walker and a classmate created a Cuban travel website similar to TripAdvisor as part of the capstone assignment. “Every hospitality attraction and museum can register to become a member,” Walker explains. “We think it’s important to create a personalized source rather than merely linking to their websites.”
Orr and his mock business partner pitched a travel agency specializing in study abroad excursions to Cuba. Orr notes that education-related treks to Cuba are especially difficult to pull off because of the country’s people-to-people travel policy, which, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, requires license holders to “ensure they maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.” In addition to that red tape, study abroad groups must rely on the government to communicate with a local travel agency before receiving final approval. In other words, coordinating study abroad to Cuba is a pain in the neck, which perhaps explains why Orr and his classmate noticed a lack of competition and a viable opportunity for their venture to flourish.
The hospitality students with an entrepreneurial mindset learned a valuable business lesson: to set up shop successfully abroad, get to know the natives. To quote the late writer Vanna Bonta, “There is no hospitality like understanding.”