One on One: Tara Russell Talks fathom's Cuba Cruises

Tara Russell, fathom's president, as shown on a recent Seatrade panel. // Photo by Susan J. Young

It’s been nonstop action in fathom's offices since last week, when Cuba announced approval for the line's voyages from the U.S. Fathom's Cuba voyages will launch on May 1.

“Phones are flying off the hook,” says Tara Russell, fathom’s president. “Bookings are strong” and only limited space is available on the inaugural voyage. Pricing for the cruises begins at $1,800 per person double.

While that may seem hefty by Caribbean standards, "we include a variety of on-ground programs for Cuba in the ticket price for Cuba," Russell explains. Guests will receive a robust look at the island's culture, heritage and cuisine during their time ashore in three destinations --  Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

Cultural Immersion 

Fathom's culturally immersive tours are being developed under the creative supervision of Rosamaria Caballero, fathom's senior director, Cuba product, a Cuban American based in New York. She's working closely with Havana Tours. “We have fantastic art and music experiences in Havana,” Russell says. “Tours can take you to see some pretty cool sites.” 

For example, she cites "paladares," in-home restaurants operated by local Cuban entrepreneurs. “The food is fantastic,” Russell notes. "Every one of these physical locations is completely unique in the architecture, the ambience, the sights, the scenes, the smells...everything is so overwhelming," she stresses. "We feel really grateful to bring that to our travelers."

Many guests will take the included tours, but if guests prefer they can also opt for one of fathom's optional tours. Some will have limited space, simply because of their nature. For example, guests might ride around Havana and sightsee in one of the old Cuban cars from the 1950s.

Tours developed by fathom and its Cuban partners are covered under the visa approvals secured by the line. Guests can also explore on their own if they do “self-certification,” essentially paperwork submitted to the Cuban government.

Since Cuban government approval for the voyages was just granted last week and some restrictions on Cuba travel were recently eased by the U.S. government, “the beauty of this is that we’re still creating more opportunities [for touring],” says Russell, citing the fluidity of program development. But she says the line will have the tours and experiences that cover everything from the arts rums, cigars music and film.

"They'll be great opportunities to see the architecture, chances to meet with local entrepreneurs, understanding of the food and agricultural scene, and unique shopping excursions and a chance to go to all the markets," among other diversions, Russell said.

As the U.S. government has eased the requirement of only people-to-people encounters with organized tour groups, "it gives us a lot more flexibility...for a wide variety of things we can offer, which is why we still are developing those with our partners," Russell stresses.

But while guests will want unique options, Russell knows they'll also want sightseeing including iconic sites like the Tropicana. That gained fame in the 20th century as a nightclub and show palace where Carmen Miranda, Nat King Cole and Josephine Baker, among other stars, performed. 

That said, "there are other things they may not know that exist, because they're off the beaten path, so we believe it's our job to provide all of that type of opportunity," Russell says. 

Booking Insight

Booking trends?. “The beauty is that for the fathom traveler, we have a wide range of demographics – from eight to 80 and above,” she says, but also notes that guests are now falling into three main categories. Number one is what she terms “a mindful family” with children between eight and 28 that wants to create meaningful memories and needs a pretty easy, convenient solution. 

A second group consists of more seasoned travelers. These guests have likely written checks to charitable groups or are major donors, volunteers or board members for charities. They have supported causes, but now want to get in the game and get more actively involved.

“And the third is the ‘purposeful Millennial,’” says Russell. These customers live in urban areas. They're not typically the youngest Millennials; they're more in their 30s -- half with children, half without.

Of booked guests, about half are faith-based and about half not. In simple demographics, the age range is quite broad. But in psychographics, they're often similar in terms of people who want strong cultural immersion -- "to go deep," according to Russell. 

In addition, Russell says they're often people in life transitions, their kids are going off to college, they’ve lost a spouse, finished a job, they’re retiring and so on.

When the announcement was made about the Cuban government approvals last week, Russell called many trade executives to bring them the good news. Fathom works with numerous consortia, host companies and franchise groups, including Cruise Planners, Virtuoso, Signature, Nexion, Travel Leaders, World Travel Holdings,, Vacations to Go and many others.

Trade Reaction

Steve Loucks, chief communications officer, Travel Leaders Group, says the approval given fathom by the Cuban government is another step toward the ability to allow the free flow of Americans to be able to visit the island nation. “Travel Leaders Group is on record supporting efforts to normalize relations with Cuba because we believe no American should be unimpeded from traveling throughout the world,” he says.

From another perspective, “the official green light is motivating agents to focus more on this unique product and the enriching experience it provides,” says Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement and performance for CruiseOne, Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc. While the line has been taking bookings since last summer, now the voyages are a reality. 

So Daly says his agents are actively looking for potential groups that fit the product dynamics. They're also marketing to the specific niches that fathom attracts – those focused on strong cultural immersion and social impact adventure.

Fathom has a travel agent portal to provide agents with information they need, such as downloadable pdfs they can customize for client use, and puts on a series of informational Webinars. The lead-in page also has a list of frequently asked trade questions. 

Refreshed Ship

Meanwhile, Fathom’s ship, the 704-passenger Adonia, an R-class ship which last sailed for P&O Cruises, will emerge refreshed from a dry dock and wet dock prior to launching Dominican Republic voyages in April and the Cuba voyages in May. Guests can expect four-star accommodations and a sparkling, updated ship, according to Russell.

While the ship won't have a casino, it will have a spa. Onboard, guests can expect “powerful cultural immersion,” says Russell, citing Dominican and Cuban inspired cuisine and authentic Cuban bands that will sail with the line.

She says to expect a different kind of entertainment. While there won't be Broadway shows, there will be salsa and merengue dance lessons as well as classes in making Cuban cocktails or speaking Spanish.

Russell also says guests will encounter fun artists who seek to creative an interactive experience for guests and many other “playful activities” that bring out the cultural focus of the voyage.

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