President’s Day 2019 saw Smoke Inn put on its 13th annual “The Great Smoke” event. The main event was held on February 16th at the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach, Florida. This was my sixth Great Smoke event in seven years. Over the years, I have seen this event grow into one of the premier cigar events in the world. The problem I face is how do you recap an event without it being “we smoked, drank, ate, got a few photo ops, and had a good time.” Personally, I find just about every cigar event recap to be repetitive and boring. Last year, I decided to take a different spin, and look at what this event means to the industry and recap it that way. This year I decided to look at The Great Smoke and tie it into how the cigar industry executes on cigar festivals.
When it comes to The Great Smoke, the track record for this event speaks for itself and this is demonstrated by the attendance as many cigar enthusiasts come from all over the country and even some from abroad. Because of the number of people who come into town, Smoke Inn put on a series of pre and post-game events starting from Thursday, February 14th through Sunday, February 17th.
The key to the success of an event is to make it fun and compelling. Smoke Inn owner and proprietor Abe Dababneh puts on a party like nobody else. It is also worth noting that I 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.
In 2018, The Great Smoke moved into its largest venue to date at the South Florida Fairgrounds. Dababneh was a bit worried about the venue change, but once the 2018 event proved to be a success, it seemed like The Great Smoke indeed had a new home. The main event is simple. First, you purchase a ticket in advance. When you get to the venue, 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. The ticket entitles you to receive 45 cigars. In addition, admission also entitles you to other amenities (food, drink, etc). The tickets range from $150.00 to $225.00 and considering what you get in return; The Great Smoke checks the box in terms of providing excellent value for your ticket.
While I certainly “smoked, drank, ate, got a few photo ops and had a good time,” there was much more to this event.
Ultimately I think there are two main reasons to go to a cigar festival – the cigars and to meet the people behind the cigars. Events such as The Great Smoke provides both. When it comes to people from the cigar industry who are at the festival, I’ve seen a cigar festival supported by either manufacturer/brand owners, brand ambassadors, and/or sales representatives – once again The Great Smoke has fallen into this category. While the sales representatives are some of the hardest working people in the industry, many patrons to a festival want to meet the people with the “star power.” Usually, that is the person behind the brand or a popular brand ambassador.
Of the three types of people, the actual manufacturer/brand owner is the first choice. The small landscape of the cigar industry has allowed consumers to feel very connected to the manufacturers and brand owners. However, it’s not always possible for this to happen. Manufacturers and brand owners wear many hats, many spend time in Central America or the Dominican Republic, and they also have to weigh out the ROI in terms of supporting the cigar festival. Larger companies will use the brand ambassador role, but that’s not always possible – especially with smaller companies.
At the same time, I do feel the presence of a manufacturer and brand owner will ultimately contribute to the success of the event. I’ve seen many festivals crash and burn because they cannot get star power.
With The Great Smoke 2019, there seemed to be a significant increase in the star power from the year before – especially from the manufacturer and brand owners side. Some of the bigger names that I would consider to have more name-brand recognition included (and this is not a complete list, but ones who are bigger names and/or stakeholders in a major brand).
- Matt Booth, Room 101
- Robert Caldwell, Caldwell Cigar Company
- Christian Eiroa, C.L.E. Cigar Company
- Dion Giolito, Illusione
- Litto Gomez, La Flor Dominicana (Pre-Event Dinner)
- Pete and K.C. Johnson, Tatauje
- Nicholas Melillo, Foundation Cigar Company
- Rob Norris, Altadis (President)
- Jorge Padrón, Padrón Cigars
- Nish Patel & Nimesh Desai, Rocky Patel Premium Cigars
- Alec & Bradley Rubin, Alec Bradley
- Steve Saka, Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust
- Rick Rodriguez, General (Ambassador/Blender)
One notable absence long-time attendees may have noticed was Espinosa Cigars and owner Erik Espinosa. The day of The Great Smoke was Erik Espinosa Jr.’s wedding, so most of the Espinosa clan based in Florida attended the wedding that day.
One thing I’ve been critical of industry people at cigar festivals is what I term the ‘cigar industry cliques”. This is when the industry people huddle among themselves often at the expense of the consumers attending the event. I’ve seen this hurt a cigar festival as much as lack of attendance by the stakeholders. However, I will say the past two years I have not seen this a problem at The Great Smoke.
Ultimately, people come to a Cigar Festival for one main reason – the cigars. At the Great Smoke, there was no shortage of cigars and no shortage of variety.
Festivals tend to use one of two mechanisms for distributing cigars. The first way is to hand the cigars to the attendee as they walk into the festival. The second is to give out a coupon book, and attendees exchange a coupon for a cigar. As mentioned earlier, The Great Smoke uses the coupon book method. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but ultimately I favor the way The Great Smoke handled it because it encourages interaction between the manufacturers, brand owners, and consumers.
At the same time, there is a “pop up” store set up at the event. This allows consumers to purchase additional cigars and take advantage of additional promotions.
There are different categories of cigars that tend to be given out at festivals: 1) More established brands that have been on the market 2) Newer releases; 3) Debut Cigars; 4) Event Only Cigars; 5) Festival Only Cigars. While there wasn’t a “Great Smoke Festival Only Cigar,” The Great Smoke provided the other four categories. Take into account The Great Smoke had a mix of small, medium, and larger companies along with the fact that there were newer companies and established companies at The Great Smoke, there was a nice mix of cigars for all.
There were a couple of cigars launching at The Great Smoke. First was the 13th installment of the Smoke Inn MicroBlend Series. This one came from MoyaRuiz Cigars, and it is known as the Hand Gripper. It features two cigars connected like a Hand Gripper. The cigars weren’t ones that were handed out, but were available by the box at a reasonable $99.00, giving you six Hand Grippers (12 cigars).
The second was a little more low-key, but Matilde Cigars showcased their new event-only Matilde Oscara Box-Press. This cigar was available in promotional five packs when attendees made a qualifying purchase.
There is some debate over whether doing a new cigar launch at a crowded event like The Great Smoke is a good thing or bad thing. Some will argue that the launch might get lost in the myriad of manufacturers and other cigars present at the event. On the other hand, this gives the attendees yet another reason to attend an event such as The Great Smoke, so I think this was a good thing.
In addition to getting cigars with your ticket and the ability to purchase cigars, many festivals also have raffle items. Raffles are ultimately judged by the quality of the items made available. The Great Smoke certainly worked with its brand partners to obtain some very good items.
One thing worth mentioning is that there are plenty of other vendors present. This ranged from spirits, sports memorabilia, coffee, and plenty more. While my focus is on the cigars, I also think it’s important to have variety at an event like this.
The timing of a Cigar Festival is always a challenging one. Typically mid-February has been the time for The Great Smoke.
If you are in any way connected with the cigar industry, you will know that the period from late January through early March tends to be very busy. National festivals such as Cuba’s Festival del Habano, the Dominican Republic’s ProCigar, and Nicaragua’s Puro Sabor (although Puro Sabor did not take place this year) are often right up against The Great Smoke. Many cigar manufacturers schedule visits to the factories and farms as this is an ideal time to take customers and retailers there. Add to the fact that the Tobacco Products Expo in Las Vegas takes place in February – and it clearly is a busy time. This year The Great Smoke was sandwiched in between Tobacco Products Expo and the concurrent Festival del Habano and ProCigar festivals.
Holding an event such as The Great Smoke is a challenge in South Florida. Pretty much from April through October it’s too hot. November and December are up against the year-end holidays. That leaves January, February, and March – January for many is also too close to the year-end holidays and March coincides with Spring Break. If I had to guess – Smoke Inn is essentially pigeon-holed into a February event.
While it might be a challenging time of the year, the industry clearly has this event on the radar and finds a way to support it. This was evidenced by the cigar industry star-power that was on-hand this year.
With a large event such as The Great Smoke, it has often a challenge finding a venue. It appears as though Smoke Inn has found a home with the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach.
The Great Smoke was born out of Smoke Inn’s West Palm Beach location in 2006. The event has achieved steady growth year after year. After several years of the event being held in the parking lot outside the Smoke Inn West Palm Beach location, the Great Smoke moved to the American German Club in nearby Lake Worth, Florida. It would remain there for three years before heading to the South Florida Fairgrounds last year.
The South Florida Fairgrounds is a massive location with plenty of events going on simultaneously – one of them being The Great Smoke. When I talked with Smoke Inn, the overall number of people who are at the facilities procured for the Great Smoke at the South Florida Fairgrounds, I was told approximately 2,500 people. This is not an inflated number. When you factor in attendees, cigar manufacturer staff, the staff for the other vendors, food staff, general TGS support staff, security, and South Florida Fairgrounds staff, it quickly adds up. The Great Smoke uses two pavilions – one for the cigar manufacturers and one for everyone else. For the most part, I found ample space. Even more important, the parking situation was good.
A nearby covered concourse located on the Fairgrounds was the spot for the Pre-Event Dinner the night earlier – which I would estimate had 200 people when you factor in support staff. It was more than ideal for a large catered dinner.
I’ve seen many multi-vendor events fail for location when they fail to secure a place that’s big enough for all people (not just attendees) and have less-than-ideal parking, so this is a big score for Smoke Inn.
The big question one may ask is “why put on a massive event like this?” Smoke Inn in the grand scheme of things is still a small business. Most of the cigar manufacturers and brand owners are small business owners. Yet it takes time and resources to support such an event. The answer I think is simple – connecting with consumers. It’s an opportunity for Smoke Inn and the cigar manufacturers to strengthen their connection. At the same time, there are many casual cigar enthusiasts out there who probably don’t know a lot of the brands there, so it’s a chance to educate consumers and promote the product.
One thing that astonishes me at each of these events is that there still are some manufacturers and brand owners who don’t get it. They simply feel they need to be there to check a box and give out a cigar. The good news is that I would put the manufacturers and brand owners at this year’s Great Smoke who fall into that category as a smaller minority, but I’ve seen the number larger at other comparable events.
Over the years, there has been an ongoing debate about whether consumers should attend the IPCPR Trade Show. One argument against them attending IPCPR is that they have festivals such as Smoke Inn’s The Great Smoke. IPCPR is a Trade Show, and The Great Smoke is a festival. In my opinion, this is not an apples to apples comparison. As a result, The Great Smoke will not be a substitute for IPCPR. It isn’t going to have the “expo” feel of the elaborate booths, and it has much, much less product being launched. IPCPR is also a trade show designed for retailers making wholesale purchases. Unfortunately, the cigar industry is quite small and bringing the elaborate booths to a festival even the size of The Great Smoke is not cost-effective. Also, without having a retailer focus it is quite difficult to launch major releases at the event.
Separating out the fact the event is not a substitute for IPCPR, The Great Smoke scores well because it brings plenty of star power with plenty of interaction; there is a wide range of product for both novice and hard-core enthusiasts; it’s in a great location at a great time of the year; there’s plenty of other events going on besides the main event; and perhaps most importantly the event doesn’t get stale as The Great Smoke changes things up from year to year. Thirteen Great Smokes in the books and this event has yet to “jump the shark”, and I’m not sure it ever will.
Special thanks to Abe Dababneh, Adam K, Paul DeGrocco, and A.J. Lepore for the hospitality at Smoke Inn and KMA Talk Radio during this event weekend.
Photo / Video Credits: Cigar Coop except where noted.