Whatever happens to the current drive to open Cuba to travel by Americans, Cuba has a major fan in Joan Werner, a 26-year veteran agent and Associate at Valerie Wilson Travel’s New York office. Aware of the travel restrictions and Cuba’s problems, Werner sees opportunity for travel agents and the industry in Cuba.
“I have been fortunate enough to have visited Cuba three times thus far and it has always been a memorable experience. The reasons to open Cuba to travel are many, including its vibrant culture and people,” Werner said in an interview with Travel Agent. She also supports efforts by the NTA and USTOA to open Cuba to U.S. visitors.
“Some of the special experiences I have had are living in the 1950’s for a week like time stood still in Cuba. Seeing and riding in vintage cars, listening and dancing to fantastic Cuban Salsa and Jazz music-like it was then and how it is now.”
The nightlife is great and plentiful, Werner says, including the famed Tropicana Nightclub. “On a given evening, I had to decide whether I was going to attend the ballet, the opera, a top baseball game or see Cuba’s leading Salsa band. It was a tough decision as visitors can enjoy lots of activities and events and see very talented artists.”
Werner notes that Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers a great opportunity to explore-Old and New Havana. “You can visit Ernest Hemingway’s home and haunts and in other parts of Cuba see the Bay of Pigs, the City of Trinidad and the Che Guevara Memorial. Also a visit to Veradero Beach is a must.”
There are an abundance of art galleries and museums to visit and there is a good choice of hotels, Werner says. “Its a vibrant culture. I have taken Salsa dance lessons, dined in some out of the way restaurants and felt very safe. I have also brought medical supplies to the island-which are very welcome.”
“I was also fascinated by Jewish life in Cuba-the remaining 1,500 Jewish population-is mostly in Havana – and to visit various synagogues. The Jewish community is active and have Bar Mitzvahs and weddings.”
Werner is also bullish on the outlook for independent agents, despite the economic down turn. “Its essential that independent agents offers specializations – not just one, but several. My expertise – or niches – include Italy, Argentina, spa travel and corporate travel to the Far East and China. Hopefully Cuba will be next.”
Independent agents affiliated with a strong agency – Valerie Wilson Travel has 14 offices in the U.S. and 225 agent associates – and a strong agency group such as Virtuoso offer real advantages, “Having the support and market clout of both really helps.” Valerie Wilson Travel is a Virtuoso member.
“Developing strong relationships with clients is basic, as is being accessible 24/7. Develop a good relationship with suppliers is also vital – as is negotiating skills and personal trust,” Werner advises.
The current downturn and recovery has seen increased price sensitivity among clients. “Professional agents must know what’s happening in the industry and be alert to changes. There is lots of economic uncertainty and last minute bookings are normal,” Werner says.
Professional agents also have to promote themselves - Werner just launched a one-page newsletter for her clients - and deliver outstanding service to be competitive. “Despite the problems the professional independent agent has great opportunity ahead. Seize it and follow your passions.”
Werner sees a welcomed turn around underway in consumer’s use of travel agents as travelers turn to agents instead of to online sources. “Professional agents who can deliver value to travelers will continue to prosper. They will tire of online shopping.”
Werner invites agents to visit Valerie Wilson Travel’s new web site at www.ValerieWilsonTravel.com. Or contact her at [email protected].