As the economy continues to flounder and erratic retail trends continue to dominate the business press, the specialty tobacco sector can find a hint of solace knowing that the annual RTDA Trade Show continues to generate tremendous interest among manufacturers and distributors.

Yes, despite declining cigar imports over the past several years, and some tough times at the cash registers of many of the nation's neighborhood tobacco shops, manufacturers continue to adjust their product lines.

Perhaps it's really no surprise at all: when markets become tough, the need to put on a "good show" becomes that much more important. Despite the loss of some suppliers in recent years, those who return each year to the RTDA seek a bigger presence - the competition among manufacturers for your shelf space is as hot now as overall retail sales were a few years back. And so, the size of this annual buying event remains very near its peak, despite shrinking attendance. Will Tampa, with it easier access to travelers and its own cigar history, prove to be a more palatable draw to retailers this year? We'll only know when the doors to the show open on Wednesday, August 14, and finally close on Saturday, August 18.

In between, manufacturers will launch dozens of new cigar brands, pipe tobaccos, cigarettes, pipes, and accessories. What goodies lie in store? We'll see continued emphasis on better quality smokes at lower prices - from relaunches of existing brands whose high price tags rendered them obsolete before they ever had a chance, to new creations targeted specifically to the wallet of today's shoppers. Small companies will continue to lead the way with innovative new blends and shapes, while major companies will bring emerging trends to the forefront with the support of big-name line extensions and new launches.

We'll see even more box-pressed cigars. More maduros. More super-strong blends. The emergence of all-organic cigars. A re-emergence of Brazilian tobaccos. A growing fascination with the tobacco Cuba turned its back on, Corojo. Several boutique manufacturers you know are shifting production from one country to another. And, as usual, there will probably be plenty of surprises.

One thing you can count on again this year is the "show special," wholesale deals that smoke shops can take advantage of only at the show. Come armed with knowledge of what your customers are looking for in merchandise, and place orders accordingly. Trends at the retail level vary significantly according to region - some markets performing better than others. No one knows exactly what to expect the economy in the months ahead: Here in New York, we had been defying the national trend, but the slowdown has finally caught up to us too. But none of that matters when our industry is putting on its big show. I, for one, am certainly looking forward to it.

E. Edward Hoyt III