Irish will play their role in Cuba’s burgeoning economic revolution

Starwood Hotels & Resorts has become the first US hotel company to sign a deal with Cuba since the 1959 revolution, coming as a result of President Obama’s historic visit to the country earlier this week.

Irish will play their role in Cuba’s burgeoning economic revolution

Starwood, which employs 500 staff at its customer service hub in Cork, received permission from the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control for its plan to manage and market three iconic Havana hotels.

The properties include Hotel Santa Isabel, one of the city’s grandest hotels on Plaza de Armas, and Hotel Inglaterra, a 19th-century colonial structure on Central Park in Old Havana, both of which will join Starwood’s Luxury Collection.

Hotel Quinta Avenida, in the central Miramar area, will become a Four Points by Sheraton property.

“Starwood is very strong in Latin America,” said Jorge Giannattasio, head of Starwood’s Latin American operations. “The amount of travellers to Cuba will skyrocket with direct flights. When no one thought it was possible, we made the right argument and got the licence.”

The company plans to make a “multimillion-dollar investment to bring the hotels up to our standards.”

International visitors to Cuba rose 17% to a record 3.5 million in 2015, including a 77% increase in American tourists to 161,000.

Numbers are expected to rise even further this year with the start of up to 110 commercial flights a day from the United States, resulting from the loosening of the decades-old trade embargo between the two countries. A wave of commercial deals between Cuban and US firms are expected over the coming months, as American businesses eagerly eye opportunities on the island nation located just 90 miles south of the Florida Keys.

Starwood began operations in Cork in 1994, originally established as ITT Sheraton and creating 40 jobs.

The operation now employs over 500 at its city centre location with a remit to support the Europe, Africa and the Middle East (EAME) operating division across all levels of customer care throughout its 1,270 hotels.

“While our core business is managing direct interaction with the guests and customers on behalf of Starwood, over the years we have built up new skill sets that support web development, corporate training, rate and system support for hotels, business analytics and marketing,” says Caroline Cooney-Hurrell, vice president Customer Contact Centre, EAME.

“One of the things that makes us special is a strong culture of self-development, with everyone from the VP of operations on down having started their career on the phones, interacting with our guests. Hospitality is in our DNA.

“We are conscious that we represent our hotels and are an extension of our brands, regardless of what role we have in the company.”

On January 25, Starwood launched its first remote hub operation at Sneem in Kerry, having sourced German, French and Dutch speakers to fill operational roles.

“We are hoping that this opens up a new talent pool for us in a very competitive skills market and we were delighted to come across talented individuals who not only speak very much in-demand languages but also have great customer service skills.”

In a further development that may also indirectly impact on Irish jobs in the future, community-driven hospitality company Airbnb has announced plans to make its Cuba home and apartment rentals available to all international travellers. The company, which employs more than 500 people at its Dublin HQ, launched in Cuba last April, and has since grown to 4,000 accommodation listings across 40 cities and towns on the island.

It became the fast-growing Airbnb market in the world in 2015 following the Cuban government allowing residents to rent out their homes by joining a network of ‘casas particulares’, similar to bed and breakfasts.

“It was something that was already familiar to the culture with tens of thousands of Cubans already sharing their homes and so we felt like it wasn’t that big of a risk. All we had to do was make sure the community embraced Airbnb,” said Airbnb founder Brian Chesky. The average Airbnb booking in Cuba during 2015 yielded $250 in earnings for the host — a significant extra income in that country.

Yet another area of rich potential for global investment — in which one Irish company will be very prominent — is Cuba’s poor internet access, available to less than 5% of the population, and hampered by expensive and outdated dial-up access with few wi-fi spots. The island’s entrepreneurs will soon be able to avail of Stripe Atlas — a ‘business in a box’ solution allowing Cubans incorporate a business, open bank accounts and receive payments from around the world. An arm of Stripe, the Silicon Valley-based company owned by Limerick brothers Patrick and John Collison, Atlas was announced at the recent Mobile World Congress.

“You can’t incorporate a business in Cuba, and getting paid for digital goods is virtually impossible,” said Patrick Collison, who travelled to Cuba as part of the US delegation. Name-checked by US president Obama in one of his speeches last week, Stripe is establishing itself on the ground floor of the Caribbean island’s fledgling business boom.

“When the White House reached out to us about the role Stripe might play in this process, we jumped at the idea. As of today, Stripe Atlas will be available to entrepreneurs in one of the only countries it didn’t previously serve: Cuba. With Atlas, we aim to offer best-in-class tools to founders no matter where they’re based — from Cambodia to Cuba,” Collison said. “Since we announced Atlas, businesses from more than 185 countries have already applied for access. We’re excited to make that 186.”

From Irish-based multinationals to one spectacular US startup, John Daly says Cuba now provides the Irish with many opportunities

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