In November, 2010, Spanish company Happy Cruises became an exception to the rule when it began offering cruises that feature calls in Cuba.
The Tesoros del Caribe (Treasures of the Caribbean) itinerary includes visits to Havana and Isla Paraiso, a Cuban island just off the Isla de la Juventud, as well as Cozumel, Cancun and Grand Cayman.
Hotel manager Max Rondoni is kept busy on the 800-capacity ship, M/S Gemini, overseeing all operations. He says that cruisers are loyal to the brand,
“Our passengers are very happy to be cruising on a ship that was previously in the Mediterranean and Adriatic and is now in the Caribbean, so far away from Europe. Of an average of 700 passengers, 640 are from Spain and the others are a mixture of Mexico, plus a few from Argentina and Chile. We are aiming to get more people from this part of the world as a local cruise.
“The guests have been very happy and have been enjoying the excursions in Havana, Cozumel and Grand Cayman which they have found one of the nicest ports on the route. They are very, very happy – they return on board and wish they could stay longer because they love it,” says Rondoni.
Cuba’s cruise sector is not as busy as many of its neighbours’ for a variety of reasons including the trade embargo by the United States. When Spanish company Pullmantur Cruises was bought out by Royal Caribbean, the new owners cancelled the Cuba route. However, Tropicana, Thomson and Fred Olsen continue to offer Cuba cruises to mostly European sunseekers in the winter season.
The all-inclusive Gemini, which employs people from around 30 different countries, has Havana as its home port, and according to Rondoni it is a destination which is well-appointed for cruise ships and visitors alike.
The infrastructure is very good, the system there works very well and we are very much welcomed from the government who look after us. They are very pleased because we bring the tourists into the country, where we stay for three days.
“Our route is different than any other one made by other ships going to the Caribbean. We’re the first company to do Cuba in this combination; often Cayman is a port call for ships that leave from the United States. It’s been a really good experience; people enjoy it and find it very interesting,” said the hotel manager.
Sense of intimacy
According to the high-achieving hotel expert, Happy Cruises has an advantage in that its relatively small crew and passenger capacity gives a sense of intimacy to the journeys that can be missing on the much larger ships also touring the Caribbean.
“We greet anyone on board, day or night, with a big smile and when people go home they miss that and say they must return. In my experience with ships going round the world and many years at sea, I can say that Happy Cruises has had a very fast rise and they keep the standards as well as giving a differential touch. People get to see the same crew which is very loyal to the company. I’ve worked for big companies but this is well-built and strong, and very understanding toward its employees.”
Rondoni’s career has been interesting and varied, since graduating from hotel school and first setting off on a ship in 1968, where he stayed for 15 years.
“After that I stayed 15 years on land – 10 in Los Angeles where I was maitre d’ at the Beverley Hills Hotel,” he said. Whilst there he met countless movie and music stars including Clint Eastwood and Tom Jones, amongst many others.
Following another stint at sea, he landed at Australia and fell in love with Sydney harbour where he opened up a renowned restaurant – Tom Cruise was at its opening night.
“I had a lot of success, I was very pleased, I had a lot of beautiful things in my life. Now it’s a package I carry of experience behind my shoulders. I’m pleased that I could share my experience of starting as an assistant waiter and moving up [to managerial positions].”
Service brings rewards
ondoni says that service is key to the tourism industry and that a career in the sector can bring both great satisfaction and great rewards.
“I’ve always been in the guest or hotel industry since I was 15 and I always loved it. I believe that when you have a job like this and you liaise with the public, you do it with manners, willingness and love for what you do. It can not fail you, it can only bring success. For my part, wherever I’ve worked I’ve always come out with a good satisfaction level because I’ve always tried my best to make people happy because I love to make people happy.
“I always share this with my staff – that the passengers have been dreaming of this holiday, now they are on board and it is up to us to make that dream come true, a hundred times better even. This is our goal and we achieve it; people come from so far away to join a ship and they might be tired or stressed because maybe they have had delays. But I always say it; ‘madam, sir, you are on a beautiful ship and please let us take care of you. If it was a nightmare at the beginning you will forget and this will just be a good memory. We attack with our policy; be nice, be courteous and give everything you can to make the passenger [or customer] happy.”