It’s not always as “simple” as building a company. In some cases, an investor needs to help form the industry they want to emerge in. This is what I am working on as a member of the Forbes Real Estate Council and an eco-friendly real estate developer.
My first visit to Cuba was in 2015, and it was love at first sight. Life in Cuba is all about passion and simplicity, and I decided I wanted that life. I wanted to give others the joy of visiting Cuba too, so I set out to support the development and expansion of infrastructure to meet the growing demands for tourism.
My husband, Jeffrey, and I are partnering with Cubans to rebuild modernized apartments in Old Havana to host tourists. We work directly with local artisans, schools and craftsmen to promote a new kind of experience for visitors that promotes eco-tourism and cultural connection. It’s a reciprocal relationship: We are learning the needs of the Cuban people as well as sharing our real estate expertise.
Here are some of the best strategies I have learned through this venture for developing real estate in an emerging economy:
1. Develop and hire local talent.
Wherever you seek to invest, work to develop and enhance the capacity of the local population. This is especially important in countries like Cuba, where international mentorship opportunities are limited. One way to connect with local talent is to host a meet-and-greet with local vendors, starting with tradespeople. Friends bring friends with them and offer collaboration and talent.
2. Build the infrastructure.
Many Cubans rent out rooms in their houses. Known as “casas particulares” or private homes, this is a cheap option for the nearly 2.7 million tourists who visited Cuba in just the first half of this year. Hotel stays are quite expensive, so the casas particulares offer a great alternative. Renting out rooms is one of the few avenues that has always been available to Cubans who wish to become entrepreneurs.
I worked with owners of casas particulares to help them enhance their properties and market their rooms more effectively. I also encouraged them to charge higher rates once these improvements were made. Short-term home rental platforms are important differentiators, and these steps can elevate a region’s short-term hospitality industry as a whole.
In the Caribbean, many landlords support renting units like these to international travelers. Owners can begin by listing one or two units on a site meant to reach these vacationers to see what traction they get. Location, location, location is especially important to tourists, so owners should be sure to highlight the unique points of their locales.b
3. Lead with heart.
Creating relationships based on trust is a key part of business development. This was especially true for my experience in Cuba, where anti-American sentiment runs high. To show my commitment to my host country, I brought books to Cuban schools and provided hard-to-find tools to local builders.
The first time we went back, I brought 500 books in four suitcases, all to donate. Books went to the grammar school my business partner, Eddy, attended as a child. I will always remember the look of pride on Eddy’s face as he shared the books with Cuban boys and girls. It was a win-win-win.
The project brought other partners to the table, creating an olive branch offering to a country where tensions between our respective governments have been very high for over 50 years. In your selected location, explore opportunities to show your commitment based on the specific needs and customs of the local population.
4. Create alliances with other entrepreneurs.
One of the things I’m happiest I did was to think outside the box to create partnerships with vendors outside the traditional scope of real estate development projects. For example, I established a connection with a local spa in Old Havana that both helped to promote a local business by highlighting its products and offered amenities that let guests to have an even better stay.
Connecting with even one local entrepreneur connects you to many others. Small, local business owners are taking risks and by supporting and leveraging them, you can help create an authentic ecosystem for tourists which benefits both tourism and the supporting infrastructure.
5. Create opportunities for people-to-people exchanges.
I created a pen pal project to connect children in Cuba and teach them about geography while having fun. We brought friends and family to visit the country, which went a long way to show Cubans that we were invested in our work there. We got to know the families of our business partners. Family is important to us and to the Cuban people and provides a common framework for building trust.
Visiting the local schools and hospitals to learn about what kinds of support they need or programs they could benefit from creates opportunities for collaboration in an area of universal need: education and health care. Then, you can angle your initiatives so that the impact is where it is most needed.
6. Collaborate to build capacity.
Companies with a social mission tend to attract customers and partners who want to help fulfill a social role. An international real estate business offers a unique platform for growth and a direct way to make a difference in the lives of a community.