By David E. Gumpert
Contemplate Merri Ansara's difficult situation: While the President of the United States is trying to make her business go away, the Congress of the United States is trying to expand it. So what should her strategy be? If you are Merri, you don't pin your hopes on either side. Instead, you seek a game plan that will work regardless of which side wins this latest political tug-of-war over Cuba.
Merri is the owner of Common Ground Travel, a fast-growing Cambridge, Mass., agency that specializes in travel to the communist nation. In an opening salvo in the new battle between the President and Congress, the Bush Administration last spring effectively lopped off about 20% of Merri's potential business by prohibiting travel to Cuba after this year via a popular a so-called people-to-people program that enabled members of alumni groups and other such organizations to travel to Cuba for educational purposes. Since then, the Administration has vowed to clamp down even harder.
Travel to Cuba has long been tightly regulated by a web of complex rules administered by the Treasury Dept. A handful of travel agencies, including Common Ground, have successfully earned Treasury licenses to arrange trips, mostly by groups organized by colleges, professional organizations, and religious groups that qualify under the guidelines.
The travel regulations are continually changing according to the political climate. In addition to pulling the exchange program, Treasury over the summer tightened the rules for students planning Cuba trips.
In October, Congress got in on the act, with both houses voting to strip Treasury of its role in restricting travel -- in effect opening Cuba to most Americans. While the House had previously approved such legislation, this was the first time the Senate chose to take up the politically charged issue. While an override of a Bush veto doesn't seem in the making, a compromise is possible and, if not, the possibility of a future override isn't out of the question.
Despite the wrangling and rewritten regulations, Common Ground expects to grow by more than 30% this year, in line with growth since Merri launched the business nearly four years ago. The agency expects to have helped about 2,000 Americans travel legally to Cuba by yearend.
Looking ahead, however, Merri and her business seem caught between a rock and a hard place. As the Administration's restrictions tighten, Merri's market contracts. Yet if the door to Cuba is suddenly thrown open, her status as a preferred provider, conferred by Treasury, would disappear as well, since any travel agency could presumably be able to arrange trips to Cuba.
Merri doesn't see things that way, however. She and her staff of six have spent much time envisioning all the possibilities -- from tighter restrictions to a lifting of all regulations. Regardless, she has concluded, her mission is "to educate people about the opportunity to go to Cuba." If the current tight restrictions stay in place, she notes, "There are millions of Americans who can qualify to go to Cuba, based on being professionals or students." Professionals can carry out research and students can go as part of study groups.
SENSE OF MISSION.
Should the door to Cuba swing open, Merri figures she will be better positioned than other travel agencies to take advantage of the new situation because of her agency's extensive contacts within the Cuban government and tourist infrastructure. Merri, 59, first visited Cuba in 1969, and has been back dozens of times, both as a visitor and a travel professional. She's also continuing to expand her marketing among American professional organizations -- lawyers and social workers, for example -- as well as among church and synagogue groups and universities. All are prime travel candidates, regardless of the regulatory situation. In an effort to educate prospective travelers about visiting Cuba, she has even helped launch a Cuba social club in Cambridge that holds monthly get-togethers, complete with Cuban food and music.
During her agency's assessment process, she says, "We realized our challenge as a small business has been to define viable niches…. We also realized we went into business to encourage interest in and travel to Cuba for educational and professional purposes." The bottom line, she concludes: "Entrepreneurs should do not only what they do best, but what they enjoy the most." She might also have added: no matter what the clowns in Washington are up to.