On Saturday, October 21, 2023, I logged on to the Cigar Coop Website dashboard to view our website numbers. I don’t publicly disclose our numbers, but I’m proud we have very healthy and consistent traffic. I expected a little boost from the news of the Premium Cigar Association (PCA) dropping media fees and revamping the credential process. I didn’t expect the spike we got. It was one of our best days of traffic for the year. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Much has been said on media fees topic for over a decade, so I should have realized this would have interest.

When I started doing Cigar Media in 2010, I quickly learned of the friction between online media and IPCPR (which later became PCA). That’s how we became known as the “Damn Bloggers.” I’ve always thought the cause was just a few incidents with some media outlets. Except for maybe a bump and bruise along the way, Cigar Coop has had a good relationship with IPCPR, and now the PCA. One component of the friction was the controversy on whether media should pay dues to attend the PCA Trade Show. In this author’s mind, it was a loophole in the badging process that ultimately might be why Trade Show dues were eliminated.

This author’s position is the PCA did a very good job here but still has work to do. How did we get here, and what are some of the questions on this? Read on…

Why Did Media Fees Start to Begin With?

This goes back to the origins of the “Damn Bloggers.”

The story goes as follows. Back in 2010, I attended my first IPCPR Trade Show. At the time, there was no Cigar Coop, and I was working in business development for a retailer. We were in the infancy of bloggers (that is what online media was called back then) attending the Trade Show. The story goes there was a small group of bloggers who seemed to be “trick-or-treating” for free cigars and otherwise acting unprofessional. We won’t rehash the whole saga, but a controversy ensued on whether the bloggers should return.

Ultimately, the decision was made to allow the bloggers back in. Some standards were put in place. At the time, bloggers had to demonstrate their credentials. In addition, bloggers would be required to become “Internet Media” members and a membership fee was put in place that included Trade Show admission.

From everything I understand from my conversations with previous IPCPR regimes, the fee’s sole purpose was to deter what I refer to as “rogue media outlets” (i.e., the trick-or-treaters) from coming to the Trade Show.

Although there were some bumps and bruises, the Internet Media program seemed to work. Along the way, the “Damn Bloggers” became known as “Collective Cigar Media.” Yes, it was a constant source of controversy on whether media should pay or not, but in general, most of the larger Collective Media Outlets paid the dues. Along the way, Collective Cigar Media has had fewer issues with professionalism, and the quality of the content grew.

So what happened since?

Over the past few years – particularly in the post-COVID world, some outlets wishing to come to the IPCPR Trade Show found ways to bypass paying dues. The loophole was almost too easy – go to a manufacturer you were friends with and get a badge for free. Our team particularly noticed this was becoming more common over the past three years.

There was an irony. These rogue media outlets bypassing the Internet Media badge process were getting more time on the Trade Show than those media outlets following the process. This was because manufacturers were allowed on the trade show floor early and allowed to be there on the setup day, plus they were getting into the show free of charge. PCA had said media was not allowed on the floor on the setup day due to insurance issues (i.e. someone could get hurt during booth setup)

Meanwhile, there seemed to be an isolated amount of incidents involving professionalism. It was implied by the PCA (formerly IPCPR) that this problem wasn’t happening with the media outlets following the process. At the same time, the controversy about media paying just never seemed to go away.

Another thing that happened was the process for credentialing media essentially disappeared. Now, a media outlet could just apply and get in.

So what is the PCA doing about this problem of circumventing the process?

The PCA is essentially trying to solve two problems at the same time. There clearly was an unfair advantage to those bypassing the process. A solution was made to eliminate the Internet Media fee – which also solved the problem of media being upset about having to pay.

This seems like a good solution – right?

On paper, it should be a win/win, but a few things have to happen for it to work to really make this an effective process. First, they must have a process to vet media each year. One thing they will need to determine is what are the criteria for determining if someone receives media credentials. Second, they will have to have some level of enforcement against media obtaining badges outside the process. The big question will be – how effective will the PCA be in vetting and enforcing? If PCA is effective on these two things, I foresee this making a big difference.

In terms of vetting or enforcement, I do think this is going to be a challenge. It might take a couple of years to get right. I also feel this regime of the PCA Board and Executive Team can get this done.

Finally, I think they still need to reduce the number of badges a manufacturer gets. If a manufacturer needs more badges, they should have a legitimate business case to get those badges. Under the PCA’s announcement, I didn’t see any announcement on reducing badges allocated to a manufacturer. This is something I think still needs to be done.

How does all of this prevent “Trick-or-Treating”?

The idea is if the PCA puts the process in place to vet media and enforce the fact media must have a media badge, it should help enormously.

Wait a minute! Aren’t the people getting badges from manufacturers working a booth for a manufacturer?

In some cases, it is true. In other cases, it is not. But let’s be honest, how many media people are spending the whole trade show working a booth? Some have another agenda.

I’ve seen companies hire photographers to work their booths for a few hours. Then, the photographers are roaming the floor doing their own content. Intentional or not, it still created an unfair advantage for them. In other cases, I’ve seen the person getting the badge from a manufacturer just wandering the floor all day.

What about those who wear multiple hats?

It’s not uncommon to see some people wear multiple hats. We have seen some retail and even manufacturers build highly successful media and professional media outlets. My personal feeling is – like it or not, you should decide what hat you are going to wear.  If you are bringing staff who have a primary purpose of conducting media activities, then they should be required to get a media badge. Under the new rule, it won’t cost anything!

One thing that is hard to implement is telling a manufacturer who they can or can’t talk to. If there is one thing the cigar industry doesn’t like is being told what to do. Ultimately, I believe the preferred way should be to grant media time to those who have a Media badge and the PCA should be encouraging exhibitors to do the same.

Wouldn’t it be easier to raise fees on media instead of dropping the fees?

Some have advocated going the opposite way – namely charging more to media will weed out rogue media.

Putting the fees in ten years ago simply didn’t work. This led to many trying to circumvent the process. Raising the fees would ultimately encourage more people to go to manufacturers for badges.

By eliminating the fees, you have leveled the playing field. Cost is no longer a reason to go to a manufacturer for a badge – which is a good thing.

Didn’t the PCA make this change to get more media coverage?

I believe PCA wants media coverage and wants the coverage to be legitimate.  For as long as I have been covering the Trade Show, there has been no shortage of media, and under this program, I don’t feel there will be a shortage of media. It’s quite possible this program will cut down on rogue media, increase media on the floor with credentials and that might cut back overall on who is covering the show as a whole.

Shouldn’t media do its part to help the industry and pay the dues?

I’ll start this off by saying if you are a media outlet owner and you can afford to make financial contributions to the PCA, you should absolutely do it.

It’s been said that “you should pay the fee because the PCA is fighting the fight so you can do what you do.” I don’t disagree with that statement, but my question is, what about the media people who don’t go to the PCA Trade Show? What are they doing to contribute to “fighting the fight”? In general, I almost feel like media paying to attend the Trade Show to give the PCA revenue was like implementing a tea tax for those attending the Trade Show.

Personally, I have never had an issue with having to pay the dues. I understand it’s a cost to have a trade show attendee on the floor. In 2020, Cigar Coop paid its media dues even though the trade show was cancelled.

Again, I will reiterate, I believe if you can afford to make financial contributions to the PCA, you should absolutely do it. It shouldn’t be gated on whether you can attend the show or not.

Photo Credits: Cigar Coop