Ever since I entered the cigar media scene in 2010, there has been an ongoing debate on the role of media and the IPCPR (now PCA) Trade Show. It’s now 2021, and while I’ve seen progress made, I still see this debate continue to rear its ugly head from time to time. 2021 marks return of the industry’s premier convention and trade show after being forced to cancel last year’s show due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the 2021 Trade Show slated to open on July 10, this is a critical juncture for the premium cigar industry and the coverage by cigar media will be important.

The 2021 PCA Trade Show is slated to be the 88th one for the organization formerly known as International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers (IPCPR) Association, and before that Retail Tobacco Dealers of America (RTDA). It’s a show that has evolved over the past two decades. Go back 20 years ago, and RTDA Trade Shows were held in hotel rooms. Eventually this evolved to convention show floors and elaborate booths. There is a debate the booths have gotten too elaborate and too expensive, but this is a debate for another day.

Parallel to the rise of the elaborate booths on the trade show has been the rise of social media in the cigar industry. While sometimes I do think too much is made of social media’s role in the cigar industry, it still cannot be ignored. Social media has provided end consumers a unique access to the cigar industry compared to most industries. Most of the cigar industry is still a cottage industry. These are family run or very small operations. It’s very easy to engage with the cigar industry and connect with the stakeholders of the industry. The more engagement that has occurred with the industry, the more appetite to get more information grows.

And once companies started showcasing their beautiful trade show booths on social media, now the public wanted see more about the Trade Show itself. The Trade Show has created a vision of a Cigar Disneyland, but its one that is off-limits to the public. While the booths give a illusion that the IPCPR Trade Show is an Expo like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), that is simply not the case. It is a trade show where business transactions are conducted. It’s not open to the public.

At the same time the growth of the IPCPR Trade Show has led the event being the place where new products are introduced for sale. Combine this with the show’s “Expo” look and it has created another level of excitement. For years, print publications had been admitted into the Trade Show and were able to report on the new products. Like many trade shows, the footprint of media was eventually expanded to include online media.

Online media’s venture into the Trade Show a decade ago did not go too well. At that time, proper vetting of media credentials was not done, and some online media was allowed on the floor that had no business there. It wasn’t a large number, but more like one or two. While most of the initial online media conducted themselves professionally, there still was a small group that  somehow confused the Trade Show for a cigar festival. This group interrupted business by focusing on getting samples and getting photos taken with cigar personalities. Essentially this small group got the whole class punished for the media members that understood they weren’t to get in the way. This led to the debate on whether online media belonged at the show. It led to a clause in the membership for online media that prohibits online media from asking for samples. It’s an archaic rule for online media that technically still exists today.

The actions of those rogue media guys is felt year after year despite the fact that the majority of online media who cover the Trade Show has been very respectful. While many of the “those damn blogger” comments have subsided, there is this notion that media doesn’t belong at the Trade Show because ultimately it is a platform for the relationship between retailer and manufacturer doing business. I’ve heard some say media needs to give the four days of the Trade Show to the retailers and manufacturers. I’ve heard other say, “media gets press releases and that should be enough.”

The bottom line is this – there is a public that is looking to absorb information about the happenings of the trade show. The Trade Show is the most important four days of the year for the cigar industry. As a media person, folks know I think press releases are vital, but people want more than that. They want to get a vibe of the energy of the Trade Show. Online media provides a portal to that vibe – real time information as it is happening. A combination of video, photos and words combined with both product and personality coverage deliver that information. I’m personally not interested in covering the cigar industry 361 days a year, but very interested in covering it 365 days a year. I’m personally interested in having the privilege of being part of the four most important days of the year for the industry I cover.

Still online media needs to be cognizant of the relationship between retailer and manufacturer. The Trade Show would not exist without that transaction However, most media hasn’t ignored that and are very understanding when it comes to it. At the same time, most manufacturers have been welcoming to media in the booth. The criticism has come from select retailers who attend the show and those pundits that have not attended a show. The criticism is smaller than it was ten years ago, but its enough that it gets noticed.

As media people, we’ve had our share of frustrations from others interrupting our space. One thing I find frustrating is when someone interrupts my reserved time with a manufacturer to get a photo opportunity or a free cigar. It’s happened in the past and will continue to happen in the future. At the same time, I can’t lose sight of the ultimate mission – to deliver the best coverage to the audience that wants insights into an event that while not open to the public is still the most important four days of the cigar industry.

Photo Credits: Cigar Coop