Geneva, Friday, January 15, 11 o’clock, Hotel d’Angleterre. We have a date with Vahé Gérard, one of the city’s most famous cigar merchants. His boutique is only a stone’s throw away in the lobby of the Grand Hotel Kempinski. Before proceeding down the staircase that leads to the smoking room, he stops by the reception desk to ask for a sheet of stationery. “With this I can convince you of the magic of the Airkel system in a few seconds,” he promises.
The door of the Leopard Bar’s Cigar Lounge swings wide, and Gérard bends down to place the piece of paper on the floor. Immediately the sheet begins to glide entirely on its own to the other end of the room. “Voilà,” says Gérard with a trace of triumph in his voice. “That is Airkel!” Going over to pick up the piece of paper, which has come to rest beneath a sofa, we notice that the entire floor is perforated with thousands of small holes with air flowing out of them.
The Airkel system devised by Gérard is based on a very simple principle: every hole in the floor has a counterpart in the ceiling. Clean air flows in from beneath the floorboards, while the room air with its smoke and odors is extracted through holes in the ceiling. The result: “With this constant laminar flow 100% of the air is renewed every two minutes. That means no more garments reeking of smoke. We can finally put everyone − smokers and non-smokers alike − in the same room while completely meeting the demands of the law.
Four hotels, a restaurant, a pub and a business enterprise, all of them here in Switzerland, have already been equipped with Airkel. A dozen more projects are being considered. Obviously, people are starting to talk about us abroad as well,” explains Gérard, pulling gently on his Robusto as the smoke rises toward the ceiling. There is no noticeable draft in the room and no sound of a ventilator. As I leave two hours later, I realize that my clothes are odor-free.
The Airkel adventure begins in 2010. Vahé Gérard’s office is piled high with plans, sketches and prototypes. Air circulation experts and artisans specialized in the use of wood have conducted feasibility studies. To put his invention to the test, Gérard has even fried onions in a closed room, equipped with the Airkel system.
The international copyright was registered in November 2010, but Airkel has not revealed all its secrets (such as the air speed it generates). A license is required to install the system. It takes five or six workers to install the technical equipment, and the cost averages between 150,000 and 300,000 Swiss francs (or USD), depending on size and location. Gérard’s sister, Marie-Christine Gérard, is president of GPF Concept, which markets the Airkel system. His wife, Annie, is responsible for development and communication.
The first Airkel cigar lounge, an ultramodern glass cube, was opened in the Starling Hotel near Geneva Airport. “Vahé set off a smoke bomb in the room to demonstrate the effectiveness of Airkel,” recalls Laurent Luyat, a sports journalist for French television and a cigar-lover. “The room air was completely opaque, but two minutes later we were breathing easily.”
The amount of work necessary to install Airkel varies, depending on the place it is to be installed. At the 150-year-old Grand Hotel Park in Gstaad, the painted ceiling had to be taken down and pierced with holes before being put back up again. The manager, Thierry Kremper, is very pleased with the installation, completed in December 2013. “The place is always full; there’s not a seat to be had at the weekend. The new smoke-free environment has boosted business. Even with 30 cigar-smokers sitting down and 20 cigarette-smokers stand-ing, the ventilation system works perfectly! We can have cigar and pipe smokers side by side with no problem.”
The Cigar Lounge at the Hotel d’Angleterrewas was previously the hotel gym. The floor and ceiling had to be redone, and the armchairs and sofas were designed to block the holes in the floor as little as possible. In a small room just off the Cigar Lounge, a piece of equipment the size of two refrigerators powers the two ventilators that filter the air: one provides clean air, while the other expels the used air from the room. Gérard, who enjoys being a bit provocative, assures us that: “When the air leaves the room it’s cleaner than when it came in.”
The system is turned on at 9 o’clock in the morning and turned off after the last guest has left. The hotel’s director, Jean-Vital Domézon, has no regrets about the 250,000 Swiss francs the system cost. His Cigar Lounge has brought him a new clientele, and − a real advantage − he can receive them in the same area as the regulars at the Leopard Bar (80 seats), which adjoins the Cigar Lounge and is a venue for concerts. “Until 2008, half of our guests smoked either cigars or cigarettes. After smoking in public places was prohibited, our sales dropped. But since we reopened with the Lounge with Airkel in September 2014, I’ve been observing a phenomenon that was unimaginable only a few years back: the non-smokers accompany cigar-smokers to the Lounge!” The only restriction: the tables are clearly marked “No cigarettes please.”
A television monitor transmits the live concerts next door so that noone has to miss the performance. Domézon has also seen a positive impact on sales of fine whiskies and cognacs, and the prestigious cognac brand Louis XIII has installed two display cases. “That is the effect of Airkel,” smiles Domézon.
The Airkel effect can also be found in less-expected and more discreet places, such as the Geneva headquarters of the Swiss bank UBS. Here nothing can be too grand when it comes to receiving a wealthy international clientele. The first level of this five-story stone and glass building has reception rooms that are open for a lunch prepared by a topflight chef and kitchen team. And for just over a year now, business discussions can continue into the coffee hour in Room 29, which has an Airkel logo to the left and right of the door. In the purified air of this room of 50m2, 12 to 15 persons can enjoy a Cuban cigar from a humidor stocked by the Geneva tobacconist Gérard: Montecristo Edmundo, Cohiba Siglo IV, H. Upmann Magnum 50, etc. “It is a real plus,” says Laurent Chavanne from UBS’s marketing department. “We are the first bank to install this system. This is a multi-purpose space and thus deliberately kept quite plain. We can completely empty it to bring in tables and stage a cigar dinner.” While access to the room is normally restrict-ed to UBS clients, employees recently gained access by forming a cigar club.
Apropos cigar clubs, “This marks real progress: the feeling of being able to get together in a larger group without the inconvenience of smoky air,” says Michael Hamilos, president of the Cigar Circle Club International (CCCI) in Zurich. He comes regularly both to the Hotel d’Angleterre and to the Cigar Lounge of the Atlantis by Giardino lux-ury hotel in Zurich.
The enthusiasm for Airkel is practically unanimous. For now, the duty-free areas of airports have said “no” to Airkel zones, fearing that passengers will hang out in the cigar lounges and forget to do their shopping. “And we still have to convince the airlines to install it in their VIP lounges,” says Vahé Gérard with no real concern.
While he waits, he is targeting a group that is almost as promis-ing: private clients. “In the nineteenth century, there was a culture of having a private smoking room at home. I have already created two such rooms for private clients. In the old days, the master of the house smoked in his corner, while his wife read a book somewhere else in the house. Today they can do both in the same room.”
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2016.