Mon, 15 Dec 2003

Cigar lounges: Lucratively enjoyable business

Mahendra Gautama Contributor Jakarta

For aficionados, smoking a premium-brand cigar, accompanied by a quality alcoholic drink, is an experience of unrivaled enjoyment that is hard to describe.

Cigar smoking dates back centuries ago when Christopher Columbus' crew introduced the Cubans' affection for cigars to the Spanish people in the early part of the 16th century. Renowned figures like former British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill and the late Italian painter Pablo Picasso were two prominent people who smoked cigars.

Previously, the profile of cigar smokers was one of middle- aged or slightly older successful men. Starting in the early 1990s the profile shifted to include metropolitan men, and even, to a certain extent, women, in their early thirties. This exclusive segment grew in number and became a "community" that spurred the cult of cigar smoking and the establishment of cigar lounges for them to get together.

Special magazines related to the world of cigars, like Cigar Aficionado and Smoke, contributed to the forming of the cigar- smoking community and the related cult. Next to in-depth articles on quality cigars and cigar lounges, both magazines succeeded in acquiring various celebrities, like Hollywood actors as well as sportspeople, to promote and boost the image of cigars. Gala dinners followed by gatherings in cigar lounges were not the only means of promotion, which even included charity events plus subliminal advertising by having famous Hollywood actors depicted in cigar-smoking scenes.

Both magazines also changed the visual theme of cigar advertisements. When, decades ago, cigar manufacturers resorted to naked or semi-naked women for their advertisements, and even for some of the packaging, the magazines depicted some of the classiest actresses and supermodels, minus the nudity. Instead, the ambience was of success, both in the visuals as well as the copy. Success was synonymous with cigar smoking, at least in the perception of the advertisers. Names like Demi Moore, Linda Evangelista and Laura Hutton are some of the endorsing Hollywood celebrities used in cigar marketing communications.

The popularity of cigar smoking grew intensely and along with it sales of cigars in the United States increased by 40 percent almost every year, starting from the early nineties. A number of Hollywood celebrities jumped on the bandwagon. Some, like Chuck Norris and James Belushi, turned to the cigar business and became owners of fast-selling brands, while Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tony Danza opened cigar lounges that were soon packed with customers. The cult of cigar-smoking and all its paraphernalia has kept expanding ever since.

Jakarta, as one metropolis, was included in this contagious cult. Cigar lounges started to emerge and, like their counterparts in the United States and several European countries, the ones here offered coziness and the exclusive atmosphere that fitted the specific lifestyle of consumers.

Cognac and Cigar Lounge at the Dharmawangsa hotel, in its Bimasena Club, South Jakarta, is one example. Its spaciousness and the view of the swimming pool and gardens from its lounge are some plus points for cigar aficionados that crave a relaxed atmosphere enhanced by the exclusivity of a star-rated hotel.

Other luxurious cigar lounges in five-star hotels in the city are The Cellar at the Regent Hotel, La Casa Del Habano at Hotel Mandarin and Borobudur Gourmet Cigar Bar and Patisserie at Hotel Borobudur. For those preferring a cigar lounge with different surroundings and atmosphere, there is Cuba Libre Bar and Cigar Lounge, located in a building reminiscent of colonial times on Jl. Veteran, Central Jakarta.

Like all high-quality cigar lounges elsewhere in the world, those in Jakarta provide friendly and professional staff to serve their esteemed clients and also assist beginners in different aspects of cigars. Various brands of cigar are available. Topping the list are Cuban cigars, perceived as the best worldwide, and famous for their smooth drag and the good taste that comes from the meticulous blending of a variety of spices, nuts, cedar and leather. Among the numerous Cuban cigar brands, Romeo y Julieta is often referred to as the most excellent Cuban cigar that money can buy. Other top Cuban brands on offer are Cohiba, Montecristo, Partagas, Fonseca and H Upmann.

Next on the best-seller list are cigars produced in the republic of Dominica. Blended with nuts, cedar, leather and chocolate, Dominican cigars characteristically have a smoother drag than their Cuban counterparts. Famous brands include Arturo, Fuente, Ashton, Avo, Cuesta Rey, Davidoff, Griffin and Licenciados.

Jamaican cigars are also the favorite of many around the world. Their smooth drag also carries a "grassy" taste. One of Jamaica's popular brands is Macanudo. Indonesia, as a tobacco- producing country, can also be proud now, as two of its quality brands, Premium and Dos Hermanos, have placed it on the world cigar map, as well as winning the hearts of many.

Just like any cult that spreads its contagiousness all over the globe, cigar lounges, including those in Jakarta, mostly rely on the most basic, yet effective, promotion method: Word of mouth. Satisfied customers pampered by professional service, superior ambience and the products offered by cigar lounges soon turn inadvertently into the most trustworthy sales force. Of course, conventional advertising, albeit limited in volume, is used and well spent on lifestyle magazines that target the upper- class market. Although happy with the current trend, Jakarta cigar lounge owners commented that in comparison with the phenomenal cigar business, including lounges, in Europe, the United States and several other countries, the business here is still quite small.

One said the cult of cigar smoking had spread naturally and by itself in this country, but consistent marketing efforts by cigar lounge owners are needed to further its growth here. It is already a lucrative business, with everyone involved enjoying good profits. However, he added, the "enjoyment" as well as returns in running such a business will, in the near future, very likely be greater, just like the pleasure derived by cigar aficionados themselves.