Folks who have followed me know I am not a fan of event recaps. The problem with an event recap is that it’s playing the same record every time – namely, we smoked, drank, ate, got a few photo ops, and had a good time. Therefore, folks know I try to avoid them. From my point of view, investing time and resources in going to an event also has to make good business sense these days.

Smoke Inn’s The Great Smoke has a great track record. Owner and proprietor Abe Dababneh puts on a party like nobody else. It is also worth noting, that I personally have a collaborative-partnership as a contributor to Dababneh’s radio show KMA Talk Radio. Based on the event’s reputation, the partnership, and the gathering of thirty-something cigar brands under one roof – attending the Great Smoke was a no-brainer for me. However, writing about how I smoked, drank, ate, took photo ops, and had a good time still is non-compelling at least in this author’s eyes. There are, however, some things I can write about which I think will be of interest to my readers.

The 2018 edition of The Great Smoke was the 12th annual one. The main event was held on February 10, 2018, at the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach, Florida – a new and larger venue for the event. Attendees of the Great Smoke pre-purchase a ticket in advance. When you get to the event, you receive a coupon book.  You redeem your coupons at various booths manned by brand owners or representatives of the brand. The brands range from single person operations to larger corporate cigar brands. Admission also entitles you to other amenities (food, drink, etc). Tickets range from $150.00 to $225.00. Considering you can receive 45 cigars, there is good value in attending an event.

The Calm Before the Storm – The massive Pavilion at the South Florida Fairgrounds prior to the Start of The Great Smoke 2018.

As I walked around The Great Smoke, I took advantage of the  opportunities for face time offered by four hours of significant representation of the cigar industry under one roof. I also took the time to think through some observations from an industry standpoint.

1. Altadis U.S.A. Comes Out in Full Force

If there was one company that went all-out at The Great Smoke from a strategic standpoint, it was Altadis U.S.A. There were several key decision-makers in attendance: Rob Norris (General Manager), Rafael Nodal (Product Innovation), Brad Winstead (Vice President of Sales), Eddy Guerra (New from Gurkha on the Product Management Side), Oliver Hyams, (Trade Marketing), and Joseph Fernandez (Marketing). Nodal wore two hats, for Altadis and Boutique Blends, and he had his partner Hank Bischoff and son in attendance. They weren’t just suits in attendance – I saw the whole team highly engaged with attendees.

I didn’t quite see as many decision makers from comparable large players such as Arturo Fuente, Ashton Cigars, General Cigar, Davidoff of Geneva, Drew Estate, Oliva, and Padrón Cigars. Although I should note that  Rick Rodriguez, one of the more visible personalities in the industry was present at the General Booth. This isn’t a knock on the other companies, just emphasizes my point in regards Altadis U.S.A.’s presence this year.

Granted Smoke Inn has a Casa de Montecristo lounge – a partnership it is doing with Altadis U.S.A’s parent company, I still had not seen the Altadis U.S.A. machine out in force like this at previous Great Smoke events. While we have talked a lot about management changes at Davidoff over the past eight months, Altadis has also been reworking its management structure – especially in the marketing department.

The stakeholders in attendance sent a signal to me. Altadis U.S.A. is changing its approach to how it approaches its “ground game” in the market.

2. Drew Estate Can Put on an “Event within an Event” without the Big Name

In fairness, this was an observation I had before this year’s Great Smoke. This year’s event simply validated my observation.

Smaller companies have often focused on having the face of the company at big cigar events. While Drew Estate is hardly a small company, it’s a company that co-founder Jonathan Drew has said many times is “boutique in the heart”. For many years, Jonathan Drew went heavy on the event circuit.  However, both from a personal and a business standpoint, it’s not practical for a Jonathan Drew at every event – whether store-focused or multi-vendor.

Drew Estate basically has found a way to make an event feel like an event without having to rely on one person. The pop-up ACID lounge is perhaps the best example of that. This was an experience that was provided in addition to the regular Drew Estate booth where you redeem your ticket. It’s a mobile-party spot that showcased the contemporary art and culture that Drew Estate brings to the table. This essentially created an event within the Great Smoke event. This was my first time seeing it in person – and I was highly impressed.

Add to the equation that Drew Estate’s sales teams all having engaging and unique personalities that represent the Drew Estate culture – and you have a big win/win here.

3. A Good Segment of the Cigar Industry Still Hasn’t Figured Out How to Leverage Media at a Multi-Vendor Event

Earlier this year, we broadcasted episodes of Prime Time and KMA Talk Radio live from the La Zona Palooza event in Miami. On Prime Time, we had seven different brand owners on the broadcast. That day, it was quite easy to get the La Zona Palooza brand owners on the shows. However, La Zona Palooza is more of an exception. In general, I’ve seen the process of broadcasting live from a multi-vendor event happen before – and it become a real struggle to bring guests to the broadcast table.

One can argue, KMA Talk Radio and the Cigar Dave Show are the two most successful cigar radio shows out there. KMA Talk Radio certainly is a well-respected product. However, at the Great Smoke, it was like herding sheep or pulling teeth to bring the brand owners to the broadcast table. It certainly wasn’t from a lack of effort on our end.

The problem is not the people who are there. Almost everyone is willing to come on the show, but cigar companies incur costs to do multi-vendor events, so typically there is not a large team present. Often that keeps many of the brand people supporting the event are setting up and manning the booths.

But you would think – if you have a chance to get airtime and essentially have a free infomercial for your brand, perhaps that should be part of the strategic planning to support the multi-vendor event? It emphasizes a point I have said for many years – media relations (outside advertising) are an after-thought for a good chunk of the cigar industry.

I’ve had several discussions with IPCPR about having a booth or a separate day at the Trade Show where press can ask brand owners questions in a “press conference” style.  I can tell you it will never work for one simple reason:  if its hard to get media time at a multi-vendor event like the Great Smoke, how in the world will time be made at a something as enormous as IPCPR?

While KMA Talk Radio has certainly been a part of most of the Great Smoke Events, the Great Smoke itself has been incredibly accommodating and welcoming to media. This year, Cigar Snob Magazine, Cigar Obsession and Stogie Press were in attendance. Previous years have seen outlets such as Cigar Dojo and Toasted Foot attend. When requested, I’ve found early access has never been a problem – and perhaps that could be a primer to other large events that still haven’t figured that out.

4. The Great Smoke Solidified Itself in the Upper Tier of Events

As mentioned, this year the event moved to the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach. This is an enormous setting that is used to house big events – such as County Fairs. The Great Smoke is not big enough to take over the whole fairgrounds – there were multiple events going on that day. But by far – it’s the largest venue the Great Smoke has had to date.

This is an event that started as a store event and grew into the parking lot of Smoke Inn’s West Palm Beach store. By 2015, it was moved to a German Club pavilion and eventually that was outgrown. This event that is clearly continuing to grow. It can’t compete with Cigar International’s CigarFest (which is simply massive), but manufacturers at the Great Smoke have told me that this event is now at the level of big events such as Cigar Aficionado’s Big Smoke, Rocky Mountain Cigar Festival, Smokin’ in the Carolinas, and Texas Cigar Festival.

Dababneh and Smoke Inn are masters at putting on a party, and the Great Smoke is a four-day affair. Dababneh has realized that he has a lot of out-of-towners, so it pays to keep his audience entertained since many come in early.  The festivities began with a Thursday night kickoff event sponsored by Drew Estate. Friday, there was a VIP party hosted by Nick Perdomo. If you couldn’t get to the VIP party, there was another Friday kickoff event hosted by Rocky Patel. Scott Weeks and Recluse hosted a Saturday after-party followed by the event. If that wasn’t enough, there was a Sunday brunch you could attend before leaving town.

There is a nice array of non-cigar vendors (Spirits/Beer, Sports Memorabilia, a Social Media booth, Guayabera Shirts, and a prominent adult entertainment chain). These items have helped bring this event to the upper echelon of cigar events.

The Great Smoke has  a very good food and drink selection where you can never go hungry or thirsty. This is not just a comment I am making as it really does happen! I’ve been to events where I’ve heard attendees grumble there were little to no food options. (If you were at Lite Up Charlotte’s events, you know what I’m talking about)  Not such a problem at The Great Smoke.

This event was very well-attended.  I know the VIP tickets were sold out well in advance, and when we were doing KMA Talk Radio, the other tickets were close to sold out. There does reach a point where they have to close out attendance because the vendors only have so many cigars.

5. The Big Multi-Vendor Event is Not Dead

The past eight years have seen many multi-vendor events come and go. In the Southeast, there have been ones such as Chattanooga Tweet Up, Southern Cigar Festival, and Lite Up Charlotte enjoying a short moment in the sun. This isn’t a knock on those events. For one reason or another, it’s been tough to keep these going – and raised the question, have the multi-vendor events run their course?

It’s very hard to keep interest in a multi-vendor event for a two-year period, let alone for twelve continuous years. Dababneh has realized he needs to mix things up to keep people coming back. I’ve seen many multi-vendor events fail simply because they get stale and don’t change the formula. When people are spending travel money on top of ticket prices, they want variety. The Great Smoke has done things such as a dunk tank, mechanical bull, and a free concert in the past. While this year didn’t have anything out of the ordinary, I saw the wheels turning in Dababneh’s head with ideas for next year as we were broadcasting KMA.

I’ve seen others fail because there isn’t a plan to engage the manufacturer with the consumer. There are too many multi-vendor events where the brand owners are huddling among themselves and not engaging with attendees. The good thing is that this year I sat in several booths this year at the Great Smoke and saw many companies engaging with attendees.

A big event can’t work without a mix of large, mid-size, and small companies – and the Great Smoke has done a great job here. Boutique cigar fans might not want to hear this, but the average consumer still wants to see Oliva, Fuente, Montecristo, and Padrón there. I’m not saying that there is something wrong with the smaller-boutique focused events, they provide an excellent avenue for the connoisseur/hard-core enthusiast. The problem becomes when you try to turn it into a big event – it doesn’t work.

Finally, many big events fail because its simply too much for a small business owner like a cigar retailer to handle. It cannot be underestimated how much planning has to go into such a large event. Smoke Inn putting on the 2018 Great Smoke is a great case study showing that a big multi-vendor event can work.

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Abe Dababneh, Adam Kaye, Paul DeGrocco, and A.J. Lepore for the hospitality at Smoke Inn and KMA Talk Radio for having me on this past weekend.

KMA Broadcast from The Great Smoke

You can listen to the KMA Broadcast here: