Cuba has not been historically known (at least not over the last five decades) as a high-end luxury destination. In fact, it’s previous lack of luxury hotels, high-end recreational venues, gourmet restaurants and so on, has been rather notorious and off-putting for a good portion of well-seasoned, upscale travellers. But with the political opening in recent years, the thawing of relations with the U.S. and the economic boost such a move has generated for the island’s tourism industry (as well as for local entrepreneurs with new boutique businesses popping up in the way of exclusive restaurants, cafes and even clubs) the island is attracting more international luxury brands than ever.
Whereas the lack of luxury products and hotels had previously prevented many refined travellers from visiting; the high-end luxury industry in Cuba is slowly but steadily growing, partly thanks to the island’s intrinsic old age glamour, partly due to the influence of the many celebrities visiting in recent years, upping the stakes in the luxury expectations of VIP visitors.
Setting precedents: the Chanel move and Guerlain
Chanel’s visit to Cuba in 2016 was not only ground-breaking in the sense of it being the first international high fashion brand to arrive in the island and host an official, very public show in Havana to present their Cruise 2017 collection. With the entire Paseo del Prado promenade acting as the runway and being taken over by models in haute couture designs inspired by Cuban 50s fashion, the whole world’s eyes turned to Cuba. The celebrity entourage Chanel brought to the island included Karl Lagerfeld himself, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, Vin Diesel, Kendall Jenner and Tilda Swinton, to name a few. For the first time, many looked at Cuba as a desirably chic destination that was very much in Vogue indeed. Ever since, many fashion brands have wanted a slice of the Cuban cake too, from Zoe Saldana posing in a photoshoot for People Espanol, to a special Cuban edition in Vogue Ukraine and Rihanna’s dazzling Vanity Fair cover, where she was seen provocatively leaning against a classic American car. This was only the beginning, the incidents that would pave the way for fashion houses like Versace and Armani, as well as luxury international hoteliers like Starwood’s “The Luxury Collection” and Kempinski to set their sights in Cuba.
A few months after Chanel’s highly publicised runway show in Havana’s lengthy Paseo del Prado promenade, another prestigious French brand moved there, but with a permanent base this time. Occupying a space that was previously theirs during the years prior to the revolution, Guerlain came back to claim its former address in the city at 157 Prado Street. The reopening of Guerlain’s first ever store in Havana (originally inaugurated in 1917) generated local acclaim and excitement, as the products on offer included something for all pockets, with perfumes ranging in price from just 5 CUC (less than a fiver in sterling) to 130 CUC (a little over £100). The elegant new boutique was revived in-keeping with its original style from yesteryear, from the furniture, to the shop’s structure and the ways products are laid out, preserving the brand’s sprit of the 1900s. For the first time in over 50 years, Havana stocks upmarket French cosmetics with a dedicated store, under one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious household names.
Demanding guests - Madonna, Paris Hilton, cast of Fast&Furious 8 and Obama
For the most distinguished visitors Havana needed to provide the most exclusive, upscale accommodation to date, which was invariably, in most cases, the award-winning Hotel Saratoga. The most exclusive boutique hotel in the island had previously hosted the likes of Beyonce and Jay Z, and as such other celebrities followed suit. In part because they trusted it to be the very best, given it was chosen by past celebrities, but mostly because quite simply nothing else compared and wasn’t up to the standards of such sky-high stars. Mick Jagger stayed here too, as did Madonna during her Cuban birthday celebration, the majority of Fast & Furious 8’s cast during their weeks filming in Havana. Obama, on the other hand, stayed with other high-ranking diplomats at the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Cuba, as his was not a holiday visit but an official state one.
But if Cuba hoped to keep hosting such elite personalities in the future, it better stepped up its luxury offering and expanded beyond the one single Saratoga hotel. And so, it has, albeit slowly but surely.
Starwood’s Cuban affair
In early 2016, Starwood made history in Cuba when it became the first U.S. hotel chain to open or run a hotel in Cuba in nearly 60 years. The American hotelier signed a letter of intent to manage a trio of hotels in March 2016 and ever since it has wasted no time in upgrading and re-branding two of their chosen Cuba hotels (both in Havana), following a multi-million-dollar investment.
Re-branding of Quinta Avenida Hotel as Four Points by Sheraton Havana
The first Cuban property the Starwood Group sank their teeth into, the former Quinta Avenida Hotel in the elegant residential neighbourhood of Miramar, has been operating as the new, upgraded and rebranded Four Points by Sheraton Havana, for over 10 months now. Ever since, the property has received rave reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor by impressed guests who have dubbed this as Cuba’s most world-class luxury hotel by international five-star standards.
Recent guests praise the impeccable, friendly service, the attention to detail throughout the hotel’s premises, the sleek and spacious modern rooms, the beautiful, immaculately kept pool (one of the largest in the city) and the overall atmosphere. Having said this, Starwood hasn’t stopped there and plans further refurbishment plans across the entire property to begin sometime this year, as well as ongoing training to staff at all levels. Attentive, accommodating staff are what make a big difference at this hotel, in a country that still has a lot to learn about customer service, particularly in state-owned hotels and restaurants.
Re-branding of Hotel Inglaterra under Starwood’s The Luxury Collection
It’s been almost a year since Starwood announced its takeover of the legendary Inglaterra, Cuba’s oldest, most legendary hotel, full of historic anecdotes and with a timeless colonial appeal. Yet, this wasn’t the grandest or most luxurious of Havana hotels by any standards; its days of glory had long gone by and its installations, although perhaps acceptable for a 3-star establishment, left a lot to be desired, especially when high room rates didn’t match the service expected. All that was left of Inglaterra was its reputation, its rich history (Churchill had been a guest) and its centric location directly overlooking Parque Central. Then, Starwood came to the rescue when it announced a full makeover of the property to include it on their “The Luxury Collection” portfolio and bring it up to five-star standards. This was in August last year, when they announced that it would reopen as the new Inglaterra, a Luxury Collection Hotel by the end of the same month. Alas, this didn’t happen then and the hotel remains being run by state-owned Cublan, though not for long.
Now Starwood, have updated and extended the expected due date for their refurbishment works at the Inglaterra Hotel, with the information on their official website stating a full re-branding and reopening date on 31st December 2018. Until then, we’ll have to wait for what will become one of the most exclusive colonial luxury hotels in the Cuban capital. But, the important thing is: it’s coming.
Opening of the Luxury Shopping Centre at Gran Manzana de Gomez
Which brings us to the situation today. The most recent opening in Cuba’s luxury industry happened only days ago, with a variety of some of the world’s most recognisable luxury cosmetic and clothing brands simultaneously opening its doors within the confines of the new Kempinski Manzana de Gomez’s shopping centre. Located on the lower ground floor of the soon-to-open luxury boutique hotel, dubbed to become Havana’s finest and knock the Saratoga off the top spot, these new boutique shops are adding much glamour and choice when it comes to the city’s availability of high-end luxury products.
Gucci, Versace, Armani, Montblanc, Lacoste, Longines, L’Occitane and more
Exclusive brands like the ones named above have now a permanent address in Havana, and they feature alongside other exclusive international and local names.
It was such a historical moment for some of these brands to have a presence in Havana, that some of their CEOs and representatives came to the island to personalyl cut the ribbon and officially open their new stores. Such was the case for Giorgio Gucci, honorary president of The Gucci Fashion House, who said upon the opening of his “Giorgio G. VIP” boutique:
“Cuba has become fashion’s paradise, that’s what I wanted to come here.”
Mr Gucci, the representative of the third generation of the Gucci dynasty also told Agencia EFE that his was a multi-brand store where products by Versace and Armani (whome he described as “great friends") were also on sale alongside his own Gucci line. He added that this was a personal enterprise he undertook after the Gucci family sold the famous brand that his grandfather founded in 1921 and for which he had been working in Cuba for several years.
Describing as positive and convenient for high-end clients to find several brands under one roof in Havana “with the finest of Europe’s luxury market”, Mr Gucci spoke of how such haute couture brands had been near impossible to find in Cuba, bar in a few scattered shops inside hotels in Havana or Varadero.
What next? The opening the Kempinski hotel and beyond
Following the inauguration of the commercial galleries on the renewed Manzana de Gomez block’s ground floor, it only remains for the Kempinski group to open their much-awaited luxury boutique hotel, the soon-to-open Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, expected to become the island’s finest, most outrageously luxurious boutique hotel. How soon will it open? It remains to be seen. Initially it was due to open at the end of last year, then it was announced the inauguration would be delayed until spring 2017…we’re already in Spring, so perhaps May 2017 will be the final date? We await any news with excitement.
Beyond Kempinski’s first ever property in Cuba, Starwood has its sights on yet another Havana hotel: the Santa Isabel in Old Havana’s centric Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square). This is the only one of Starwood’s recently acquired Cuban properties not to list in their official website (yet) which means they’re taking their time to finalise details of the takeover. Still, a letter of intent to manage the property has been signed and is only a matter of time before a more official announcement is made. The intention is to also make the Santa Isabel part of their Luxury Collection. Our eyes are peeled.