Although it is not one of the most well-known hotels in Cuba, the H10 Habana Panorama stands gracefully on the corner of Third Avenue and 70th Street, satisfying hundreds of guests who arrive from around the world every month.
Being fairly new, the Panorama has a modern feel. Its 11 floors of blue glass windows look like pieces of the deep sea; its spaces are intimate and welcoming corners.
Inaugurated in 2002 along the capital's western waterfront, the four-star facility is among the 62 hotels affiliated with Cuba's Grupo de Turismo Gaviota S.A. which operates in all arenas of the leisure industry on the island.
Over almost three decades, the 164 rooms Gaviota had when it was founded in 1988 have grown to more than 26,000, making the state enterprise the country's largest tourism entity.
According to Carlos M. Latuff, executive president of the Gaviota Tourism Group, in an interview with Granma International, the company has ten international hotel chains as partners and is negotiating agreements with eight more.
He explains that, in accordance with the country's Foreign Investment Law no.118, a total of 33 contracts of international economic association have been signed, specifically related to hotel administration and sales, and one for the management of laundry facilities.
It must be emphasized that these corporations manage 86% of Gaviota's lodging capacity. Among the most outstanding are the Spanish chain H10 Hotels - which administers the abovementioned Panorama and another three - as well as Meliá Hotels International; Iberostar Hotels & Resorts; W International Hotels; Blue Diamond Hotels & Resorts; Pestana; and Valentin Hotels.
Latuff noted that the alliance with foreign companies contributes to attracting a greater number of tourists given their internationally known trademarks. The partnerships likewise allow for the use of their reservation systems, publicity, and worldwide promotional efforts, as well as their established methods and procedures in management and sales.
Additionally, these associations allow for the hiring of experienced foreign managers and training for more than 27,000 Gaviota workers, which, in the words of Latuff, constitute a tight community focused on achieving the greatest reward, which is the client's smile.
The 14% portion of the company's rooms managed exclusively by Cuban staff includes all of the Playa Hotels.
Elaine Castro greets me in the lobby of the H10 Habana Panorama. In addition to Spanish, she speaks English, French, Italian, German, plus a bit of Portuguese and Mandarin. She is fully multilingual and now, having reached her forties, is beginning a university degree program in Tourism. She confesses with a smile that her language skills are self-taught, and is grateful to the hotel for allowing her the opportunity to continue her professional development.
"Since it's something that comes easily to me, I enjoy the direct contact with clients, learning about other cultures, traditions and customs, making them feel comfortable. The staff's greatest strength lies in its professionalism, in always maintaining our dynamism and respect," she comments, noting that as one of the founding members of the Panorama workforce, she considers it a school.
In this regard, Esmirna Fundora, head of reception, notes that receiving guests, and seeing them off, implies paying attention to their preferences, complaints, doubts, and comments, and proposing entertaining itineraries.
She explains that Gaviota is distinguished by its attention to detail, which encourages clients to book repeat stays. Also emphasized are courtesy, honesty, and punctuality as values, she notes, saying, "We are a big family, since we live together the entire year, without a break, even on holidays."
On his fourth trip to Cuba, Mexican Eduardo Ortega is staying at the Panorama for the first time, and says it is a special place that has a happy air to it, adding, "No doubt, I'll be back."
Cuban Margot Martínez reports that she has received magnificent service during the eight summers she has spent in the hotel with her family, noting, "I have traveled outside of Cuba, and I can tell you that the attention we receive here is at a world class level."
Likewise, as I tour the hotel, I meet the young head of sales, Kenia I. Díaz, who has mastered the Panorama’s dynamics and reports that everything must be supervised Monday through Sunday - no easy job – adding, “I don’t have a regular time to get to work or leave, because there is always something to do.”
Administered for the last five years by H10, the city hotel has 320 rooms, in both the standard and “privilege” categories, and is permanently focused on meeting the standards maintained throughout the Spanish hotel chain outside of Cuba. As the unique H10 Panorama category name indicates, “privilege service” offers those who chose it certain benefits.
Díaz reported that Gaviota has projected a total renovation of the facility in its 2017 budget, although less ambitious improvements are made every year, especially in terms of plumbing and the replacement of fixtures.
Since the boom in tourists visiting Cuba has led to a logical increase in the cost of hotel accommodations, Díaz emphasized that the commitment to maintaining a positive price-quality relationship has become more pressing, and therefore demands more distinguished service.
She adds that new measures were recently implemented to better serve guests, such as taking coffee to tables; offering new wines as part of the buffet; and providing a la carte room service, for those who prefer to eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner in their rooms.
In an effort to guarantee personalized service, the sales expert states that knowing the most important guests and addressing them by name whenever possible, is fundamental, noting, “There are some who come every year, some up to ten times, and others, usually businesspeople, who live here for long periods of time.”
With the same point of view, public relations specialist Yennyset Folás reaffirms that it is essential to devote resources to maintenance of infrastructure; to assist the client in every way possible, and always provide courteous follow-up. “Allowing them to evaluate their stays is one of our principal means of feedback; as well as our continual work to position ourselves in social networks and on tourism web pages; and the Chef’s Dinner, held once a month for the exchange of experiences among visitors,” she concludes.
Given that Canadian and European visitors currently predominate among tourists to Cuba, Díaz reported that the Panorama is interested in promoting other markets, including the Panamanian, Israeli, Korean, and Japanese. Although it is located at some distance from the city’s historic center, the hotel is in demand and boasts varied amenities including pools, bars, restaurants, event halls, a gym, beauty salon, and spa.
Many believe that Gaviota’s success lies in its complete scope of operations, which includes specialized tourist entities, ranging from travel agencies, hotels, and marinas to transportation providers and a supplier.
On the ascent, Cuba’s largest tourism enterprise group is actively undertaking investment projects, to not only expand the number of its products, but to take on associated services, as well. Its projections for growth are based on an intense marketing effort, diversification of offers, and the training of human resources, within a plan that prioritizes efficiency and comprehensive development.
In the words of Carlos M. Latuff, the Gaviota Group offers high quality products, and a novel luxury project to offer singular, impeccable accommodations, where the taste of food, gardens, and hygiene are details of the highest concern.
Located across the entire country, Gaviota’s establishments open an infinite range of opportunities for lovers of beach resorts, nature tourism, city sight-seeing, cultural tourism, and events – to offer the world some of the magic to be found in “the most beautiful land human eyes have seen,” as Christopher Columbus described the island.
Through the Gaviota Tours Travel Agency, for example, domestic airline tickets are sold, events, excursions, accommodations, transfers, and personalized assistance organized, while nautical services are available at marinas in Pinar del Río, Varadero, Cayo Santa María, Cayo Coco and Holguín, with a fleet of some 100 boats of different types.
Latuff reported that the group member company Transgaviota provides transportation for tourists, operating approximately 3,319 vehicles distributed around Havana, Varadero, Cayo Santa María, Cayo Coco, Holguín, and Santiago de Cuba; in addition to offering cars and motor scooters for rent in the country’s principal cities.
AT Comercial is the Gaviota Group supplier with branches in the capital,
Matanzas, Villa Clara, Ciego de Ávila’s northern region, and Holguín, providing food, drink, and other hotel resources, as well as managing the laundry service and leasing of linens.
With accommodations constituting the backbone of Gaviota’s operations, the company president reported that 80% of the enterprise group’s employees are directly linked to hotel services, in a diverse range of environments and locations “to facilitate the enjoyment of the fundamental attractions offered by Cuba as a destination, with guaranteed comfort for clients within and beyond the chain’s hotels.”
Thus Gaviota supports professional development and internal promotion as mechanisms to encourage staff to improve performance. It is clear that the policy has had a decisive, favorable impact on the improvement of services.
"Managers, chefs, receptionists, housekeepers, entertainers, diving instructors, chauffeurs, and restaurant staff, among others, work with the motivation to be promoted within the Group itself," Latuff explained.
At the same time, Gaviota's growth provides training in different spheres of tourism for high school and university graduates, encouraging constant cultural development, while providing employment for thousands of youth, as well as promoting economic growth in remote areas and spillover chains of production.
Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and France appear among Cuba's, and of course Gaviota's, principal emissary tourist markets. Latuff, however, notes that the domestic market also provides a significant number of clients, especially during the summer months.
For the upcoming winter high season, new promotional efforts are planned in Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia, Germany, France, and Italy, to attract visitors to the destinations where Gaviota operates.
No one loses sight of the fact, highlighted by President Raúl Castro last April in the Central Report to the 7th Communist Party of Cuba Congress, that "every hotel inaugurated is a factory," and that, over the next few years, several hotels in Cuba's most beautiful landscapes, and new options at marinas, spas, resort complexes, and golf courses will be debuted.
Carlos M. Latuff notes that Gaviota is the fastest-growing entity in Cuba's tourist industry. The statistics show that it is advancing at a sustained rate in its comprehensive development, with an annual average increase of 12.4% in its hotel capacity.
The company leader believes that the most immediate challenge is the development of new destinations, and cites the recent opening of four hotels: the Warwick Cayo Santa María and Ocean Casa del Mar, both with 800 rooms; Ocean Vista Azul, in Varadero, with 470; and Iberostar Playa Pilar, in Cayo Guillermo, with 482.
Latuff reported that during the 2016-2017 period ten new hotel facilities and complementary service providers will be launched to expand capacity by 4,107 rooms, with six openings in Havana before 2020, providing 1,160 new rooms.
Likewise, significant investment is taking place in six new hotels in Cayo Paredón Grande, for a total of 3,216 rooms; seven hotels with a total of 4,096 rooms in Cayo Cruz, Camagüey; and on Holguin's Ramón de Antilla Peninsula, three hotels with 2,070 rooms and a marina with 550 additional berths.
As I left the Hotel Panorama, doorman Luis Breña in his immaculate gray uniform bid me farewell, reminding me of the magic of his "all-terrain" responsibilities, finding solutions to all situations that may arise. He tells me, "The client must see us as discreet persons, in whom they can always trust."