Building and furnishing hotels in Cuba requires partnerships, a commitment to sustainability and strict budgeting, sources said.
Editor’s note: All direct quotes are from Spanish to English translation.
HAVANA—Developing hotels in Cuba has its own set of challenges and rewards, and the architecture, design and product procurement sides of the business are no exception.
Speakers at the recent South America Hotel Investment Conference Cuba shared tips and best practices for designing, renovating and supplying hotels in the country, particularly given Cuba’s government structure, its desire to grow tourism and its commitment to sustainable building practices.
As the country focuses on tourism and fostering foreign partnerships in the areas of direct investment and management, government officials are quick to point out that those partnerships extend to the design and architecture side of the hotel business as well.
“There are a number of things necessary for the proper design of a hotel … and our experience shows that from day one, the views of the operator (are necessary),” said Jesús Lacera Linde, executive secretary, project front, for Cuba’s Ministry of Construction. “Failure to do that will give rise to a number of changes and deferrals in the execution schedule, which gives rise to cost overruns. The opinion of the future hotel manager is important to make sure the product is consistent from day 1.”
In Cuba, concrete is the primary building material for new hotels.
“In the Caribbean and in Cuba in particular, we use concrete because it’s available here—we don’t need to import supplies and materials for it, and it’s easy to work,” said Marc Fily, head of hotel development for Bouygues Construction, a France-based construction company that works throughout the Caribbean. “People here know the techniques to work with it, and the quality is good.”
This helps keep construction costs down, though developers know that other items will need to be imported, and everything factors into the final costs.
“Of course we have to import some things, like furniture and electrical installations, and that cost depends on the kind of hotel and the segment,” said Marta Acosta Fernandez, director general of Empresa de Proyectos para Industrias Varias, a Cuban construction company. “Once a design concept is in place though, you know what the cost will be. In Cuba, we have standards, and there’s a cost allocated per square meter.”
That attention to staying on budget reinforces the need for strong partnerships with operators from the start, Lacera said.
“The operator and potential contractor must sit down together to identify materials, supplies and construction methods, particularly when it comes to imports,” he said. “You have to make sure the project is financially reasonable.”
Cuba’s government is paying attention to the environmental and sustainability factors surrounding new hotel and resort development, so it’s something developers consider that early in any new project.
“There’s so much talk about environmental protection and climate change, and designers take all this into account,” Acosta said. “We want to make sure any new projects are part of the natural environment.”
She said developers are incorporating technologies into new hotel and resort projects to promote sustainability, like using gray water and solar panels.
“There’s also considerations for the façade construction, so we don’t have to use as much air-conditioning,” she said.
While much of Cuba’s plan to develop hotels and resorts concentrates on new-build projects in coastal resort destinations, plenty of focus is on established cities like Havana, where renovation of existing buildings might be a better option.
Still, challenges abound in a city like Havana where much of the once-grand architecture is crumbling in places, and many locations are protected as heritage sites.
Lacera said renovation scope often depends on two main factors.
“You can look at it from two perspectives—one is that the project is a refurbishment of an existing hotel that was maybe built 30 years ago. It’s another thing to remodel an old heritage building, as has been the case in Old Town Havana,” he said.
That location in particular means developers must be cognizant of delicate structures and heritage considerations.
Acosta said in some cases, exterior work on one facet of an historic building leads to more.
“We’ve had situations where we had to (change) a window, and then had to refurbish the entire façade,” she said. “It all depends on the level of heritage you want to maintain.”
Lacera said some development companies are using photo technology to ensure that construction can match original details as closely as possible.
Inside the hotel, renovations often focus on bringing technology and amenities up to standards, which can prove challenging as the country tries to catch up with tourism demands.