I stepped out of the airport in Managua last January to weather that was literally five times warmer than it was back in New York. I boarded a plane surrounded by 15-degree weather and stepped off in low 80s. It was a welcome break from the severe grip of winter. Around me, I heard snipping, clicking and puffing noises. This wasn't unexpected. More than a dozen of us, all cigar smokers, were flown down to Nicaragua by Miami Cigar, EO Brands and My Father Cigars as part of the latest trend in cigar marketing.
In case you call a cave home, the past few years have been tough on the premium cigar business. This small sector, which generates only around $800 million a year in retail sales in the United States, has had to contend with rising taxes, the impact of the financial crisis and subsequent recession on disposable income and a rash of smoking bans that make it harder to find a place to light up. Meanwhile, competition is heating up among cigar manufacturers, especially as new companies and product lines come to market.
The hunt for an edge has led cigar companies to make the marketing process personal. In 2008, in-store cigar dinners were popular, as tobacconists sought to bring customers into the stores for special occasions to stimulate spending. Last year, sponsored lounges were the "next big thing," providing localized brand reinforcement. This year, it's travel: cigar travel.
For much less than it costs to place a single print advertisement in a major cigar publication, a cigar company can fly more than a dozen of its customers down to the factory, put them up on site or in a hotel, feed the and provide plenty of cigars to smoke. The excitement generated by these trips turns into powerful word-of-mouth marketing when the guests return to their home shops, providing a clear return on what is really a small investment.
The trips balance education and entertainment, providing insights to consumers who are eager to learn more about what they enjoy without turning the excursion into a living documentary. The details vary with the manufacturer, but a visit to the factory is always on the itinerary and a jaunt out to the tobacco fields common. Other activities may include cigar blending, rolling and tasting seminars ... and of course dinners with fellow cigar smokers and the celebrities of the industry that they have flown thousands of miles to meet.
Several companies have begun hosting these trips, including Rocky Patel and Camacho (in addition to Miami Cigar). The excursions are organized by cigar retailers, which open the trips to their customers. The cost is typically limited to the flight, with everything else covered by the manufacturer. Availability tends to be limited, and demand is usually high. I flew to visit My Father Cigars on a trip organized through De La Concha, the Manhattan tobacconist where I smoke, and Uptown Cigar, then of Kinsgton, New York.
Since it can be tough to get space on these trips, many would-be cigar travelers won't get the chance. Fortunately, there are some ways for individuals to get out to cigar country and experience the factories and tastings on a one-off basis.
Drew Estate, which makes the Liga Privada line, has "Cigar Safari," a small resort within its Esteli, Nicaragua factory complex. Guests can book their own trips to tour the Drew Estate factory, but they have a cost of $450 in addition to their flights. On the ground, they stay in individual cabanos and can take advantage of the on-property cigar lounge, bar and pool.
For cigar smokers, the opportunity to hang out with the likes of Eddie Ortega, Rocky Patel and Pepin Garcia out in the fields and on the factory floor is a rare opportunity. Market conditions have made it easier than ever to realize this fantasy, as cigar manufacturers are willing to put people on planes to goose their buying habits in a favorable direction.
The old rules don't apply to cigar marketing any more. The companies have to take extra steps to win a larger share of the consumer's wallet. For cigar smokers, this means the chance to get on a plane and develop a truly personal relationship with their favorite brands.
Disclosure: Like the other consumers on the trip, I paid for my flight, and Miami Cigar, EO Brands and My Father Cigars picked up the rest. I was invited as a consumer, not as a blogger, and chose to write about the experience. Miami Cigar has a small advertising relationship with Cigar Reader, of which I am co-founder.