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April,
2006

Octoberfest at Davidoff Madison Avenue, New York City.
The Cigar Tasting...

Can it pay dividends or will it all go up in smoke?

By Joseph Finora

There are lots of reasons to host a cigar tasting. They're a good way to get patrons into your store on an otherwise slow night. You can develop a more personal relationship with those who attend. It can be a way to attract new smokers. Your relationships with manufacturers will grow. You may even get some local publicity if you have some entertainment or a prominent speaker. A roller can be on hand to show clients just how a particular cigar is constructed or you can create an opportunity to introduce a new brand or model.

Cigar smokers tend to be a curious lot. A guest speaker who can talk about the nuances of a particular tobacco or the aging process will probably help draw attendees and sell a lot more cigars. Other times it can pay to have a non-tobacco related guest highlight the night such as an author, local politician, comedian, or food or spirits expert. A guide who can explain the finer points of pairing tobacco with cognac may draw quite a crowd and great conversation and new camaraderie usually follow.

What about the negatives? For one thing, they're a lot of work. Getting the mailing list in order, notifying the guests, coordinating with a manufacturer, catering, entertainment, parking, arranging adequate space and then preparing for the unexpected - what if there's a blizzard, hurricane, or power outage the night of the tasting? These are all issues that you'll need to consider. As with any event, you'll probably be a bit anxious until it actually happens. While chances are with proper planning it will be a success, there are many items to cover.

TASTING OR EVENT?
CAO Cigars were paired with Potocki Vodka at this De La Concha Tobacconist event in New York City. Pictured are Jan-Roman Potocki, Potocki Vodka founder; Robert Dow, CAO regional sales manager; and Randy Melendi of De La Concha.
Michael Herklots, events manager for Davidoff of Geneva in New York City, argues that a tasting is one type of evening while a "cigar or store event" is quite another and the two should be treated as such. "Cigar tastings and cigar events should be separate," counsels Herklots. "A cigar tasting is specifically for sampling a cigar. The focus should be all about the cigar and not overshadowed by incredible food or an overwhelming bar."

Jonathan Osmun of North Shore Tobacco in Great Neck, N.Y. agrees. "Tastings are a great way to introduce your customers to a new brand and manufacturers usually give the retailer loads of support." Osmun adds that retailers can usually count on product manufacturers to help with nearly everything for a tasting. "They'll usually underwrite some of the costs, such as local newspaper advertising, invitations, postcards," he says, "and often can help furnish a speaker plus lots of samples and free products."

Osmun says a manufacturer will usually help get the night off to a good start by providing free samples at tastings. "Lots of smokers will attend when they hear the word 'free'," he says, only half-jokingly. "I've had people come from way out of my normal customer range for buy-two, get-one-free-specials and the like."

And it's a pretty safe bet you'll get manufacturer support. They've got something to gain as well. "Manufacturers love events," says Herklots. "Especially when they are the focus and it can result in further sales and brand awareness."

But does a smoker who comes in for a free sample convert into a good long-term client? "Some do," answers Osmun, who's had both rollers and industry speakers highlight his events, sometimes in conjunction with in-store give-aways. "In any case, it helps more people learn about your store, which can never hurt."

"Cigar tastings are helpful on many levels," says Andrew Fotos, proprietor of Atlanta's Rainwater restaurant, which hosts several tastings a year. Many of his tips can be utilized by tobacconists. "We try not to follow the norm and actually plan a full event - a four-course dinner with wine and after-dinner pairings, along with two or three cigars, each a step up from the previous as well as paired to the course of food and wine. This allows the guest to experience on every sensory level, the food, wine, and fine cigar together. When done properly each enhances the other."

Rainwater is one of only four restaurants in Atlanta that still features on-premises smoking. Most tobacconists don't have to worry about this restriction and hosting a tasting can help them exploit this advantage. Where else can cigar lovers enjoy an evening with those who share their passion without fear of social reprisal? Rainwater's smoking room seats 30 people and is highlighted by dark wood ceiling and floors, and guests can enjoy fine cigars stored in its humidor. A tobacco shop with a lounge can easily match this setting and fill a room with a group of smokers learning about and enjoying a new product as well as each other's company.

A Cusano Cigar tasting event at Davidoff Columbus Circle, New York City.
Herklots agrees. "Cigar events tend to be more social," he notes. "These are valuable tools for a store because it's putting the product directly into the consumer's hand." This is a key marketing initiative. Getting consumers to try something new is always a challenge. The fact that they've budgeted time in their schedule to attend the tasting is a very positive indication that they'll turn out to be a new customer. If it's a regular customer who comes to the tasting, be glad he's back at your store. You've demonstrated good will and have probably improved your relationship with him. Chances are he'll blossom into a better customer who either buys more items from you or buys better cigars."

Creativity is one item that can help spread the word about a tasting and help pack it with smokers. "The most important thing about hosting events is to mix it up," says Herklots. "What's the new angle or reason for someone to attend? Come up with a specific theme and then use that to sell the event." More prevalent themes used to promote tastings include the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, and Halloween. Other more tobacco-specific events can be used and manufacturers can help here as well.

"We start promotion with flyers about two to three weeks ahead of the actual tasting," says Max Bichler, manager of Boston's Cigar Masters retail shop. Bichler says their store's tastings attract from 20-40 smokers depending on how heavily they promote it. Main promotion forms consist of flyers handed to store customers and some local newspaper advertising. E-mail promotion can also be used to invite clients to a tasting. If you need to build a customer contact list, start by leaving a notebook on your counter. When clients make a purchase ask if you can add their name to your mailing list so you can contact them for upcoming events. Be sure to get their postal as well as e-mail address.

"Manufacturers provide excellent support," notes Bichler, adding that his staff is gearing to run more tastings as the year unfolds and word of their success spreads. Currently they run two per month. Past speakers have included industry heavyweights such as Jorge Padṛn and Rocky Patel, both of whom helped fill the room in separate tastings in 2005. "Manufacturers are thrilled to participate," says Bichler. "They'll almost always work out a special package for the event." Cigar Masters has also had success with cigar/wine pairings. The staff does its research itself, sampling various wines with different cigars. They then convey these results on to clients. "Tastings definitely attract new customers to the store," says Bichler.

Rocky Patel of Rocky Patel Cigars personally supports Donna and Scott Stanley at SmokeSignals, Port Jefferson, N.Y. tasting.
In addition to inviting the public, another way to position a tasting is as a special event for key clients. "Cigar events should be promoted to core customers," says Herklots, who reveals a potential flaw in holding a general tasting. "Many of these events can be used as 'rewards' for good customers. Opening it to the public can turn into an open cattle call where you might get more freeloaders than potential customers."

Luis Sanchez of La Tradicion Cubana in Miami says creative retailers can benefit from a tasting. "Last year we supplied a tasting for Youngstown Cigar Shop [Jeffersonville, Ind.]," he recalls. "Over 100 people attended. A local radio talk show host was the special guest. We roasted a pig in the parking lot and a local newspaper covered it."

La Tradicion Cubana ran the event in honor of its 10-year anniversary and used the occasion to introduce a new line, its Anniversario Series - a made-in-Miami cigar with tobacco from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Honduras.

Still not sure about hosting a tasting? Then consider Fotos' advice, "Tastings help take the experience of smoking a cigar to the next level." What tobacconist couldn't benefit from something like that?


SMOKESHOP - April, 2006