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Los Angeles-based AmericanTours International LLC recently announced it would begin offering travel services to Cuba, making it the biggest privately-owned U.S. travel organization yet to go to Cuba. Founded in 1977, ATI serves 1 million foreign visitors to the United States annually. The company is also a preferred travel provider for 50 million American Automobile Association (AAA) members. In an ATI press release announcing its new CubATI program, AAA CEO Don Gagnon touted the “one-stop arrangements” of ATI’s Cuba Web site.

Cuba Standard editor Johannes Werner interviewed company founder and CEO Noel Irwin Hentschel in early March.

Noel Irwin Hentschel

 

AmericanTours International has been mainly an inbound tour operator.

Yes. The majority of ATI’s business has been to bring people from all over the world to North America. We bring about 1 million people a year from 70 countries to visit almost all parts of North America. But we are also the preferred provider and Internet partner for AAA and CAA, and we provide travel services for their 50 million members.

So you are inbound and domestic …

… and we’re also outbound. We are very unique, in as far as we’re the only privately-held, American-owned travel organization that does all three — inbound, domestic market and outbound.

How big is outbound within your company’s business?

Outbound is for us the newest area of growth. We believe it has tremendous opportunity for expansion because of our relationship with AAA and CAA, which offers us the opportunity to offer travel anywhere in the world. It’s strategic destinations for outbound where we believe we have an opportunity to bring new ideas to the market. It’s not the majority of our business; it’s the newest part of our business.

Is that what your Beijing office is about?

Beijing is both inbound/outbound; the Beijing office is mainly to promote the United States in China. It’s a promotional office for the Chinese market to travel to the United States, and hopefully also to Canada. But it also is an office that facilitates bringing people from the U.S. , Canada and anywhere else in the world to China.

Has your experience in China prepared you to deal with Cuba?

Since we began in 1977, one of our strengths is, we’ve put a lot of attention to understanding the diverse and unique mentalities of the countries that we work with, that we bring visitors from, or take them to. That’s what I think has prepared us best to make sure that anyone that we’re authorized to take to Cuba will have the real Cuban experience. Our forte has been to develop the products and services in taking into consideration the mentalities of both the visitor and the place they’re visiting. In China, the United States needed the approved destination status (from the government), to be able to promote tourism from China to the United States, so I did work closely with our Department of Commerce and with Chinese government officials to help make that happen. In Cuba, too, there’s a need to be able to work with both governments. In that respect, it would be similar to China, but otherwise the mentalities of the Chinese and the Cubans are completely different.

Why did you decide to get into Cuba now?

We did not decide to go into Cuba now. We’ve been waiting for the U.S. government to make it possible for U.S. visitors to travel to Cuba. We prepared to be ready for whenever that would become possible. We made the application to the [Office of Foreign Assets Control], and waited patiently to receive a license.

So you decided the Obama Administration’s “purposeful travel” is good enough?

Yes. We believe that “purposeful travel,” which will allow at least some people to visit, is good timing for us to put the resources that are necessary whenever you are working a market.

Still, this is a market limited to U.S. citizens and residents that qualify under U.S. sanctions. How do you work with that?

It’s a very, very complicated way of being able to provide services, but we only operate within what is the legal way. We’ve had to compete with companies that don’t always take that approach, but we feel strongly that’s the only way to operate. It is complicated just to even understand who is legal to go, and who isn’t, and all the elements that are required to make sure a passenger has the best experience. It is much more complicated for us to do the CubATI program than any other program. But we have experience in so many complicated markets. Hopefully, that experience will help us to ensure that the U.S. people that will meet the Cuban people will be happy and come back. But it is a lot of extra work.

Logistics — you do have an office in Miami, yet you are planning to run the Cuba program out of your office in Orlando. Help me understand this choice. You need experts in red tape. How do you go about this?

The CubATI operation is licensed to work out of both Orlando and Los Angeles. We got very experienced people, over the past 33 years, and the CubATI team is in place. They’re people who understand the dynamics, about a dozen have been involved.

But why Orlando, and not Miami?

We love Miami, but our larger operation in Florida is in Orlando. Certainly, [the Miami office] will be important for visitors coming from Miami, and Miami International Airport is the main airport for Cuba flights. Our team in Miami will be there to assist people at the airport, because that’s one of the biggest complications. The airport experience is one of the most important ones on the U.S. side. It’s important to make sure that the people are facilitated and well taken care of at the airport. But in terms of the operations, bookings and files, that is in our Orlando and Los Angeles offices, where we have a team that is dedicated more to the office, versus Miami, where the team is more outside.

Did you hire extra people for the Cuba program?

We did, and we’re in the process of hiring even more. We’re expanding the team in Orlando, Los Angeles, and perhaps Miami. That is particularly where we are looking for Cuban Americans or other Spanish speakers. I’ll be in Florida soon with our head of [human resources] to do some interviewing for CubATI. We’ve put out ads and are anxious to add to our team in Florida, and also in Los Angeles.

How many new employees?

We have about 150 employees overall. That’s part of the support, so whether they work part time or full time on Cuba, we really have a philosophy of team effort. So everyone can assist. We just appointed a new vice president of ATI South, who will be headquartered in Orlando. He is originally Argentinean, but has lived in the United States for the last 30 years, servicing visitors and the travel industry. That adds to our commitment to Florida and to CubATI, and that the experience of Cuban Americans is a very positive one. We also have about 150 tour guides that are employed by ATI.

Are you planning to use your own tour guides in Cuba?

We will be doing only what is legal both in Cuba and on the U.S. side.

What kind of programs will CubATI offer? Mostly customized itineraries?

It depends on what final decision will come back from the U.S. government. We are still waiting for the final guidelines on people-to-people [travel]. The itineraries will be those that will be approved by the U.S. government.

Are you looking at specific themes — medical, religious, cultural?

All that is authorized, we will offer. We will offer everything that is authorized in one-stop-shopping. It will be as broad as is legally possible, to accommodate requests from people here. It will be an opportunity to meet their counterparts, whether that’s religious or in medicine, humanitarian, educational or academics.

Do you have any projections for your Cuba business?

We do not know what these numbers are going to be at this stage. But a year from now, I’ll be able to tell you.

What are you looking at right now? One flight a month, one flight a week?

We’d like this to be daily departures.

It looks like you’re off to a good start.

The response has been fantastic, with people wanting to go.

Do you have a relationship with a specific charter operator?

We’re working with various of the charter service providers, so that we will be supporting their efforts, where they’re taking the greater risk of the flights. We work with various charter providers because they all operate different flights. Some will fly from Miami to Havana, others will fly Holguín to Miami or New York. With the opening of eight new airports, there will be more charter providers. CubATI will support those companies that have the legal license to be able to charter the plane. Our plan is to give them the business on a daily basis.

What’s the impact of the recent opening of eight U.S. airports to Cuba flights?

Any of the new airports enhance the experience for the American visitor here. It makes it more convenient for them, to be able to travel from their cities, as opposed to connecting.

You will include the new airports?

Yes. It’s about meeting expectations, about making the travel experience the best.


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