A review of a Voyage Jules Verne trip to Cuba
The first time when the Worldwide Journeys brochure arrived at my doorstep I was extremely excited. I read every page, looking at the photos and itineraries and, closing my eyes, I could imagine myself travelling in incredible places under the prestigious label of “Voyage Jules Verne” – named in 2016 the Best Specialist Tour Operator at “The Travel Awards”.
The prices were a little bit over the average price of the market for my favourite destinations but the promises in their brochure of “inspiring tours”, “packed with special touches and little extras” and “expert guides to show you the true character of each destination and take you beyond the norm” won over all my worries created by the less-than-positive reviews on tripadvisor.co.uk, dooyoo.co.uk and beyond. It was then I started to plan a VJV journey. Choosing between a Nile Cruise, a trip to Peru or Cuba, the idea of Fidel and Che’s island was my ultimate choice: “Cuba 5-Star”. The “5 Star” associated with the name of the tour was an important element in my decision.
So here I was, middle of October, with the phone in my hand, ready to book a nice Christmas present for my partner. From that point, Voyage Jules Verne failed in all and every aspects possible. So, make yourself a coffee, sit down and get ready to read the story of a “glossy brochure” travel agent ruining 7 days spent in one of the most beautiful and interesting destinations in the Caribbean.
VJV mention in their brochure and website that their, “expert staff organise every detail so you can book in complete confidence”. Sounds great but it is far from reality. The gentleman that I spoke with was more interested in reading a long script explaining that VJV doesn’t have any responsibility if Cuba will disappoint me as a destination, than in answering my questions. When I enquired regarding an upgrade to Business Class flights he tried hard to convince me that Premium Economy was better…really?! I tried to book a post-tour extension in Varadero, but the same gentleman informed me that extensions were not offered for the dates that I wanted to book. Disappointed initially, I was later frustrated when, during the tour, when I discover that 2 other couples booked with VJV a 4 day extension in the beach resort. I can’t stop wondering: is the agent working on commission and employed to bring revenues to the company or was there just to cover for a maternity leave?
The moment the money disappeared from my bank account was the last moment I heard anything about or from Voyage Jules Verne. An email with the confirmation of the booking was sent and after that total silence. No, I am lying: 2 weeks before the tour I received a second email copy-and-pasted from the first one, with the addition of the date when the tour supposed to start and some vague instructions related to our arrival. He was trying to be “transparent” and advise me to pay only the deposit and after the completion of the transaction he added that “maybe the tour will be cancelled if the minimum number of customers is not reached” but they will let me know. Is just me or was a little bit too late?
While other travel agencies (such as Gate1, Viking, Destinology, ITC) send you a wide range of useful information, timings and details of every day of the tour, VJV was as silent as the remote beaches of Cuba. I contacted them trying to get some information related the daily schedule as I was interested to book and organise some extra tours and evenings in our free time. The agent, a lovely female voice this time, assured me that I didn’t need anything, as I “will be too busy” and “the tour manager” will give me anything I wanted in Havana. Reassuringly, she ended with “no worries, the tour is very good”.
VJV fooled me again. On the positive side, they sent me home a new brochure for 2017 and 2 imitation leather luggage tags. Great deal!
As I decided to book my own flights (by the way Air France/KLM have an excellent hard and soft product for both short and long haul), VJV discount £700 from the price of the holiday per guest for the cost of the economy Virgin Atlantic flight and transfers to/from José Martí airport in Havana. I therefore paid VJV for outbound and inbound private transfers in Havana for £30 return. I knew from my previous trips to Havana that a taxi will be cheaper (around £20 return) but I wanted to save the hassle of running with my luggage in the terminal to find a driver. It’s common to hear about the long waiting time at the luggage carousel at the airport, and even Air France crew mention that in the landing PA. However, we were lucky and the luggage arrived in 20 minutes and all the formalities were smooth and quick. 50 minutes after landing we were landside, in the arrivals area looking for our transfer, as instructed by VJV: “you will be met by our representative (…) holding a Jules Verne sign”. Surprise, Surprise: nobody was waiting for us and I spent 15 minutes reading all funny names from all 5 continents on all boards waved in arrivals. On a positive note, I had 30 minutes’ time for a quick-ish smoke outside while my partner was chasing an agent inside the terminal. Finally, the local representative arrived and with a charming smile informed us that “we arrived earlier and the driver is not here”. After another 15 minutes, a taxi driver appeared we were told that the transfer was ready. From my experience when other companies offer a paid private transfer the driver assists you with the luggage; being just a taxi driver, ours was having a smoke when we were trying to fit the luggage in the car and ended with one suitcase placed in the front seat.
Before leaving us with the driver, the airport rep gave us the “welcome pack”: an envelope, with some hand-written information about the first meeting containing a welcome letter from Kuoni; a booking form for optional tours with very interesting options but not applicable to our tour; and extensive explanations about how we must score the tour with 9 and 10 which “means we have achieved our goal in making your holiday unique”.
Interesting, I thought, and I blamed the long flight for having some reserves related to the holiday that was about to start. The next day in the morning we and our fellow travellers spent some time trying to locate the meeting point for the Welcome briefing as the handwritten envelope mentioned “main lobby” and guess what? The hotel we had been booked into for the first three nights, Parque Central, has 2 main lobbies in two different buildings. Walking around the hotel I was wondering if Voyage Jules Verne went bust during our 10 hour flight between Paris and Havana and that was the explanation of the total lack of company presence in Havana. Later I understood that in fact Voyage Jules Verne had sold us a Kuoni tour, operated by the national tour operator Cubanacan. So, the motto of the trip according the advice of the Kuoni representative was: “Don’t blame VJV, blame Cuba!”.
Voyage Jules Verne promises, both in the brochure and website, an “authentic travel with a twist for people who love to see the world” in an “expertly planned and organised” way (https://www.vjv.com/about-us/#difference). Really? So, how do they explain the glaring differences between the glossy brochure promises and the reality in the field during our “Cuba 5-Star”? Do we need to “blame Cuba” again?
First of all, nothing was “expertly planned and organised” and the entire tour took place under a cloak secrecy, with our guide revealing the stops, sights, meal times etc., as we were travelling across the country. This gave me the feeling that the poor driver and guide were creating a tour for VJV on the go, who had forgotten what we paid for. Although the main points of day by day schedule were respected, there were too many things were missing:
In Havana, after the city tour, nobody remembered that visit to a rum factory and a “Special Event” to sample a cocktail at ‘Hemingway’s Haunt’ had been promised by VJV (https://www.vjv.com/the-americas-tours/cuba/cuba-5star-1/#itinerary). Despite the fact that the company prides itself with VJV Special Events which “enhance the experience of Jules Verne travellers”, arranging “exclusive and memorable special events, illuminating the country and peoples you are visiting”, the scheduled stop to the bar frequented by Ernest Hemingway, “El Floridita”, was replaced with an explanation where to find the place on the map. Later on in the tour, in Cienfuegos, the highlighted visit to a cigar factory was also cut without explanations. Their website does indicate that the visits to both the rum and cigar factories “may be replaced with an alternative visit” but none were offered.
VJV prides itself with a product which “encompasses (…) the conventional and the unexpected, a variety of themes and special interests – all underpinned by quality and value for money” (https://www.vjv.com/about-us/#history) using “knowledgeable local guides”. Let’s put the things straight: our “Cuba 5-Star” didn’t have a tour manager or local guides. For 7 days, a charming young lady tried skilfully to mix up a cocktail of tour manager, escort and guide. However, although she was local and knowledgeable, her expertise was limited to covering the driving time between A and B with interesting stories, local history and general information about the country. The long list of museums listed by VJV for this tour got just a very quick presentation at the entrance followed by free time. For instance it was quite frustrating in the Cuban Art Museum in Havana or Trinidad’s City Museum to see how other groups benefitted from a guide’s explanation while we were walking around trying to ready the bilingual inscriptions. If I wanted to do a “guided tour” with a guide book in my hand I would not need Voyage Jules Verne for this A good guide book is infinitely less expensive.
VJV describes itself as a creator of tours which “offer authentic travel with a twist for people who love to see the world”. To be honest in 8 days we spent more time in shops or meal provider’s places (I will not call them restaurants and you will see later why) than in cities we visited: one afternoon free in Havana, 50 minutes in Santa Clara, 10 minutes in Remedios, 30 minutes in Cienfuegos, and a late afternoon in Trinidad. You must be Speedy Gonzalez to have time for a single museum visit in these conditions. On the positive side after this tour – which was more a teaser than a real tour – I decided to go back…this time without Voyage Jules Verne.
Of course, the company will put the blame on the guide. But that charming girl was doing the job she is paid to do, a classic tour oversold by VJV; even the KUONI rep didn’t know the name of the tour we were in.
VJV mentions the struggle to organise a trip “allowing for a tour of the island whilst staying in some of Cuba’s best accommodation”. When I enquired, I was told by one of the agents that the “5-star” element of “Cuba 5-star” refers mainly to the accommodation. This was something I was happy to pay premium price for.
The reality was a little bit different. Imagine that somebody invites you for a ride in a Rolls Royce. Very exciting! But all dreams are brought down to Earth when you realise that for the promised Rolls ride, your reserved seat is in the car boot. That was exactly the situation with our “Cuba 5-Star”
All the hotels during our tour were categorised as five star. But, as you know, each 5 star hotel has its own cheap rooms, borderline 4/5 stars, at reduced prices. This is exactly where VJV booked us:
- Iberostar Parque Central Havana has two buildings: the 5 star one (with better rooms, more luxurious facilities, free WIFI, better trained staff) called the Colonial wing, and is the place where all the respectable agencies operating 5 star tours accommodate their clients. Even Kuoni have groups there. The other building “Moderno” is more modest in all aspects, a 4 star hotel used by many airlines for their night stops (Virgin Atlantic, Air France, etc.). Speaking Spanish, was easy to communicate with the staff and realise that the two wings are part of two different worlds. Accordingly, the prices are different too. So not a really five star in Havana, VJV.
- Iberostar Ensenachos in Cayo Santa Maria has 5 stars at the entrance, too. But here the differences were more visible. The 5 star part (The Grand Village) is quite far away from the central part and has its own restaurants, beach and facilities. The place where we spent 2 nights was more an all-inclusive trashy, cheap resort like the ones which can be found in the cheaper Spanish costas. It offered a continuous fight for food in the huge, canteen-like buffet area, towels left on sunbeds to reserve the places for families, cheap drinks imitating real cocktails and lame entertainment. On top of that, the rooms for our group were placed in an area used only when the hotel is overbooked and was still under renovation. As we arrived quite late, the room were only partial ready and some facilities associated with a 5 star hotels arrived the following day. The description of the hotel in VJV brochure and website with “a wide choice of restaurants” (https://www.vjv.com/the-americas-tours/cuba/cuba-5star-1/#accommodation) was not at all accurate due to the fact that only the buffet was included. If you wanted to book an “a la carte” restaurant they were not available for a 2-night stay and “The Colonial” restaurant, which was close to the idea of a 5 star, was available for a 25CUC fee. Having being made to eat the buffet in our first night, we paid for eat there for the second and it was worth it for decent food and service.
- Iberostar Grand Hotel Trinidad was the only hotel in this trip close to the idea of a 5 star. Friendly and efficient service, high standard facilities and a perfect location. Of course, that’s my opinion, but some of my fellow traveller weren’t so happy with the hotel. We were lucky enough to get a room with a beautiful terrace looking over the square and beautiful views of a magnificent sunset and sunrise. Others got a room just with a window and some of the rooms were looking over the street behind the hotel. I don’t think that is fair to pay the same amount of money and get different rooms, especially when at the reception the displayed price indicated the different grades – and prices – of the accommodations available.
If you are not adventurous enough to find your own alternatives, VJV’s “Cuba 5-Star” will leave you with the feeling that Cuban’s cuisine is a total disaster with poor quality ingredients and boring recipes. This is not at all the truth. Cuban’s cuisine is based on fresh ingredients, following the main trend of the Caribbean cooking style but with a very interesting infusion of Spanish, African and Continental touches. However, to discover the real Cuban cooking you need to walk away from the included lunches and dinner that VJV offers in the tour.
According to the VJV website, the tour has all breakfast included, 3 lunches and 3 dinners. If I ignore the morning in Cayo Santa Maria where the breakfast reminds me of a buffet in a cheap Spanish summer resort, in Havana and Trinidad the hotels provided an excellent breakfast with the expected fusion between a traditional breakfast (omelettes, sausages, cheese, cereals) and local cuisine (churros, friend bananas and amazing fresh tropical fruits.
Why do you need to include poor quality and cheap meals when is better to stay safe and just recommend a range of available restaurants? Thankfully we had internet access and we found via TripAdvisor excellent restaurants which provided a very different image of Cuban cuisine.: Habana 61 and Al Carbon in Havana , Santa Clara Libre in Santa Clara, La Redaccion in Trinidad.
SAFETY & COMFORT
This are two capital components of the “duty of care” regardless if you travel by air, on water or on land. In my more than 25 years’ experience travelling around the world, I realised that every company, no matter how strong or weak is their product, places the safety and comfort of their guests on a priority list. However, on my “Cuba 5-Star” trip, Voyage Jules Verne, being so divorced from the end product, lost somehow the control of these two elements.
When you target a market of 50+ customers and you design a tour with long drives across Cuba (4-5 hours) maybe will be a good idea to provide a coach with facilities which will cover the need for “technical stops”. This is especially important in a country where the toilet breaks are made only in places approved by the tour operator. During our trips in Cuba, some of them with 4-5 hours’ drive, we had only one stop/sector in places owned by Cubanacan. These were absolutely fine places, efficient service and adequate facilities but sometimes your bladder doesn’t agree with the beauty of landscape or the rules of the contract. Since our minibus, despite being very comfortable, didn’t have a toilet, you can imagine the rush and the queue on every stop every day. We saw on our travels smaller groups in bigger coaches with the mentioned facilities. I can understand the idea of cutting costs but when the comfort and the idea of duty of care are ignored I can’t associate this with a 5-star tour.
The scariest experience was for far in Cayo Santa Maria. To cut the story short I was verbally abused by a “merry guest”, a habitué of the establishment for an entire evening. Despite the front desk, the night shift manager and security guards being informed and observing this happening, they did very little to assist. . The next morning, the verbal and physical assault continued, again in front of the staff who found the situation “funny” making comments in Spanish without knowing that, unfortunately, I also speak the language. More frightening was finding out that the “gentleman” knew exactly the time when we supposed to be leaving the hotel and he “woke up so early” to meet us again as “planned”. The verbal and physical abuse continued on the same racist and homophobic lines, under the amused faces of the front desk and security personnel. I am a big adult and I can cope with any type of behaviour but, what really worried me was how a sensitive information, like our departure time, leaked from the Front Desk to a private guest, in particular given his violent behaviour the night before. Has anybody heard about data protection in that hotel? What else did the kind receptionists say about us? I cannot blame the aggressive guest – it was probably the poor-quality free drinks or the low standards of this “5 star all-inclusive resort”. I cannot blame the reception or security for not doing their jobs -that’s a management issue. But I cannot stop asking myself where was the “duty of care” of VJV when they decided to place guests in that hotel. Is again “cost efficiency” against “quality customer service”?
On our arrival, I received a quaint quality questionnaire from Voyage Jules Verne. Very basic questions proving again that is no interest in finding what guests find the company excels and what is clearly not working with their products. I have filled in so many questionnaires in my lifetime for airlines, hotels, cruise ships, tour operators, yet never have I seen something so basic until now. More than a genuine interest in guests’ experiences, it’s more a box-ticking exercise and pretending that they have some “post-tour” contact with their guests. Nevertheless, after my messages on social media I got a phone call from the VJV office to learn more about what had gone wrong on my holiday. The official answer from the office was the ultimate sock. To my attempts of offering a constructive feedback related to the tour, the answer was blunt if not quite rude: “…there are a number of aspects on which I feel I could challenge you…”
Voyage Jules Verne is so divorced from the end product that is very difficult for me to match the online/printed promises with the reality of my “Cuba 5-Star”. It was incredibly frustrating to realise after 8 days and more than a few thousand pounds later, that one of the reviews on VJV services was right: “just another brochure tour operator”.
One of the main rules of any hotelier, which can be applied here, is that it is more expensive and far more difficult to get new customer through your door than keeping the existing ones in. In our group, from 16 travellers, one was a repeater with 15 first timers. It’s hardly surprising that more than 80% of the first timers will not come back to VJV. It sounds to me like a dreadful waste of money and energy in putting together, printing and sending an excellent brochure and after that losing almost everything due to the poor service quality and disjunction between promises and reality.
I know that is nobody to blame but me. I was the one excited about the trip, I was the one booking and spending the money. But maybe somebody in the VJV office will realise how much you can lose if you overpromise and underdeliver. Maybe I am not their target market but before the trip to Cuba I was lining up another 3 trips with them, first one in May on the Nile, one in South America and the “palace on wheels” in India. That’s a lot of future bookings for any travel agent, coming from a market sector who invest more in holiday than the rest.
Going back to the VJV questionnaire when I was asked if I would recommend them the answer was clearly no. I don’t want anybody to experience the frustration of realising the difference between the printed/online materials and the real tour. It’s sad that after a week, in an amazing country like Cuba, the only memories that deserved to be shared with friends and family are the excellent flights both ways and the meals, drinks and excursions that we planned and did independently. In the official answer VJV replayed to my comments with an incredible sentence: “As I said, I do not agree with some of your sentiments…” Really? A serious customer service provider knows that the feed-back is a gift and you always say “thank you”.
When I was asked if I would book with VJV in the future, the answer was easy: NO. The resolution of VJV was the perfect reason to don’t book again: “we would like to offer you a 5% discount from any of our tours and this offer would have a two-year validity”. Really? Did VJV ever heard about the fact that in customer recovery never ever assume customer needs. That’s a very poor customer retention strategy. Was easier and cheaper if they were ready to accept the feedback, stop blaming the locals and change something in the future to make the trip a real 5-Star Cuba.
I still keep the brochure on my desk which is a bad sign. However, on a positive side, other offers, magazines and brochures arrive daily at home and Voyage Jules Verne is going lower and lower in my “to do in 2017” pile.