Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Sunwing loves Cuba, Cuba loves Sunwing.
And travel advisors love it when the two get together.
Almost every seat was claimed Wednesday night (May 25) at Arlington Estate in Vaughan, ON, where Sunwing, alongside the Cuba Tourist Board and hotel partners, shared their latest updates.
“We are the largest provider of tourists to Cuba in the world,” Deana Murphy, vice-president of retail sales at Sunwing Travel Group, told PAX at the event, which welcomed both agents and suppliers. “We’ve held that position for many, many years, and we're very, very proud of it.”
The lively dinner, themed “Sunwing Loves Cuba,” where a live band roamed the room to stir up enthusiasm, picked up where Sunwing’s last Cuba event at Arlington in 2022 left off.
Except this year, tables and chairs had to be added to the ballroom as 100 more people – resulting in some 250 guests (plus wait list!) – signed up for the gathering, Murphy said.
The impressive turnout made sense. Sunwing has a solid footprint in Cuba, offering flights to Havana, Varadero, Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Coco, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Manzanillo de Cuba, Camaguey and the newly-launched boutique island of Cayo Largo.
The breaking news, last night, was that Sunwing, this winter, will return to Cienfuegos, a city with colonial-era buildings on Bahía de Cienfuegos, a bay on Cuba’s south coast.
The flight schedule for that destination – and all of Sunwing’s winter routes – will be released in full next week.
Why Sunwing loves Cuba
There are many reasons why Sunwing loves Cuba, which is a 365-day destination.
As Murphy outlined on a projected slide, the country’s pristine beaches, diverse destinations, culture, history, rum, beer, and vintage cars are all standout qualities.
Flights to Cuba from gateways like Toronto and Montreal are short – depending on your final destination, it can take less than three hours to get to paradise.
“We live closer to Cuba then we do to Vancouver,” Murphy said, speaking from a Greater Toronto Area perspective.
Cuba is also a “fantastic” place to visit during the summer as it offers “amazing value for families,” she said.
READ MORE: Cuba’s Canadian arrivals see strong recovery; tourist visa going digital in Oct.
But beyond the minty mojitos, the number one thing that makes Cuba great, Murphy stressed, are the locals.
“The reason why Sunwing loves Cuba – and millions of Canadians agree – is because of the Cuban people and the warm hospitality,” Murphy said. “They are such gracious hosts.”
In between promo videos, some of Sunwing’s top hotel partners in Cuba took to the stage to share updates.
Meliá Hotels International, which runs 38 hotels in Cuba, underlined two new properties: Meliá Trinidad Peninsula (coming soon) and Sol Caribe Beach.
Meliá Trinidad Peninsula will open next fall. It's slated as the first five-star hotel in the colonial town of Trinidad, which is declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
Located a few minutes from the city and the Topes de Collantes natural park, the 400-room hotel will be for families and couples.
Sol Caribe Beach (now open) is Meliá's new hotel in Varadero. Located on the seafront and with easy access to the urban centre and shopping hubs, this hotel is for families.
Iberostar Hotels & Resorts also presented – the hotelier has nearly 20 four and five-star properties in Cuba in destinations like Havana, Varadero, Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Ensenachos, Cayo Cruz and Holguin.
Notable resorts include the 827-room Bella Vista Varadero, the 814-room Laguna Azul, 506-room Selection Ensenachos, the 46-room Coral Ensenachos (which are villas) and more.
Blue Diamond Resorts, Sunwing Travel Group’s hotel management division, highlighted the newly-opened 250-room Royalton Habana, a modern property (and first Royalton city hotel) that has views of Havana Bay, and is close to the city’s Malecón, the Paseo del Prado and Morro Castle.
There’s also the 61-room Mystique Habana, a boutique hotel near Havana’s old town, and the classic 82-room Hotel Inglaterra, located beside Alicia Alonso Theatre, home of Cuba’s national ballet.
All eyes on Cayo Largo
Significant attention was given to Cayo Largo, a small island off of Cuba’s southern coast.
As revealed last year, Sunwing Travel Group, via Blue Diamond Resorts, was granted exclusive rights by the Cuban government to run the destination’s entire hotel inventory – 11 properties, totalling 1,348 rooms – for the Canadian market as part of 10-year agreement.
READ MORE: Sunwing has taken over all 11 hotels in Cayo Largo, Cuba. What this means for guests & agents
The small resorts and villas on Cayo Largo – known for its unspoiled beaches, prime snorkeling and diving areas and sea turtle conservation centre – are set up for all kinds of audiences, from families to adults-only crowds.
The on-island brands include Memories, Grand Memories (opening soon), Sanctuary and Starfish, in addition to several rows of villas and cottages.
Cayo Largo’s Vilo Acuna Airport (CYO) began receiving non-stop Sunwing flights from Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City last year.
But with Blue Diamond now running the show, Sunwing has set out to improve the quality of the properties – the company, notably, received an exclusive import license for the island, which allows it to fly in brand-name products.
Jazmin Jimenez, business development manager for Central, Eastern, Northern Ontario and Atlantic Canada at Sunwing, recently accompanied travel agents on a FAM to Cayo Largo.
She said the destination, including Sirena beach, was “absolutely stunning.”
“It’s a small island, you can get around everywhere by scooter, car and even a trolley…It’s very safe,” Jimenez told PAX.
Near Cayo Largo’s marina, there’s a big stage, and during the week, shows are held for all the resorts, she explained.
“Cayo Largo is for someone who wants a very laid-back destination, who is interested in going out on their own, to explore different beaches…and unplug completely,” Jimenez said.
(PAX, in fact, is in Cayo Largo this week, exploring the island with the Sunwing team. Stay tuned for our report!)
Aiming for 1 million+
Spotted last night was Lessner Gomez, director of the Cuba Tourist Board in Toronto, who told PAX that Cuba has already received more than 500,000 Canadian visitors this year.
“We think, this year, we’re going to receive more than one million," Gomez said.
Cuba lifted all COVID-related travel restrictions in early 2022, and the country used its tourism downtime to renovate many hotels.
Internet is also now free at all hotels in Cuba, eliminating the pay-per-use scratch cards that were once required in pre-pandemic times.
Gomez said the plan is to offer at least 75 flights per week from Canada to Cuba this summer, which is an increase from 2022, and close to 2019 levels.
Cuba’s hotels are also keeping up with food supply, Gomez said, noting that local markets are now selling fresh produce directly to hotels.
“At buffets, you may find really organic papayas or bananas,” he said.
Cuba’s current marketing campaign, “Unica Cuba,” which launched last year, leans into promoting local culture, history, traditions, beaches, nature, safety, and most importantly, people as the best ambassadors of Cuban tourism.
Also something to keep on the Cuba radar: Coraland Music Fest, an annual electronic music festival hosted by Blue Diamond Resorts in Cayo Santa María, which took place earlier this month in Cayo Santa María.
Hot deals & bonus commission
Sunwing is currently running several Cuba promotions.
The “Sunwing Loves Cuba” event, on now, offers savings of up to 60 per cent off per person. Book by June 4, 2023 for travel by Oct. 31, 2023. Some Toronto departures start from $595.
As part of Travel Agent Month, Sunwing is paying 12 per cent commission on all eligible Cayo Largo bookings made between May 2- 31, 2023 for getaways from May 5, 2023 to Oct. 27, 2023.
Sunwing also has “Do It Yourself Groups.” The tour operator doesn’t quote group pricing within 60 days. But with this program, agents can book “groups” in regular reservations, at regular prices, send their booking numbers to email@example.com and receive an additional two per cent commission (terms and conditions apply).
The WestJet takeover
PAX asked Deana Murphy about WestJet’s recently-completed takeover of Sunwing, and for now, there’s isn’t much to report.
“Right now, it’s business as usual," she said.
Murphy, in fact, is joining Sunwing’s tour-op executive team to meet the WestJet Vacations staff today (May 25), and make formal introductions.
“Everything is very, very new,” Murphy said. “But what I can tell you is that we're extremely excited. It's a win-win for everyone as we grow the brands.”
Will the Sunwing booking experience look different for agents this winter?
“Definitely not,” Murphy said. “Our winter program is already contracted and pretty much complete. It will be the same.”
A smoother winter
Murphy also touched on challenges Sunwing faced last winter, which included last-minute pullouts in some markets and commission recalls after winter storms hit parts of Canada.
“It was a very, very tough time for every company,” Murphy told PAX. “We had a near-perfect 15 to 17 years in Central Canada [where routes in Saskatchewan were suspended] and it was the first time we had any issues.”
In the aftermath of last winter’s holiday travel chaos, Sunwing “did a lot to make it up to people,” Murphy noted.
“We knew we let people down. We did six weeks of bonus commission, putting additional millions of dollars into travel agents’ pockets. We protected and saved the vast majority of groups and bookings.”
She said Sunwing’s relationships with the travel trade are “strong.”
“We're looking forward to a much smoother season,” she said. “And hopefully Mother Nature will cooperate too.”
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