Tobacco Plus Expo was the last tobacco convention in 2020 before everything locked down. It is somehow appropriate that it is now the first to come back as well. TPE originally was scheduled for January of this year, but restrictions because of COVID forced the organizers to move the date back to May 12 through 14.
Prior to the start of the trade show there were many questions such as would many show up and could you smoke? The answer was yes to both. While the show is more than just tobacco, since it also covers Vape and CBD products, the tobacco portion this year seemed to be much bigger than years past encompassing almost a third of the floor space. While no official numbers of attendees has been released, the crowd seemed bigger than in years past. An unofficial count by the security guards at the entrance (Vegas capped the attendance at 13,000 so the guards had to count everyone going in) showed between 4-5,000 on the second day.
Also prior to the start of the show, there had been some negative publicity about some of the companies who were not attending…Villager, Drew Estate and JRE. These companies reluctance came more from the uncertainty about vaccines and what restrictions would be in place in Vegas earlier in the year when the companies had to make decisions about going. Despite a few no shows, the number of companies represented was excellent.
Davidoff, Altadis, General, Rocky Patel, Oliva, Alec Bradley and Perdomo all were represented. In addition, there were the boutiques like Caldwell, Oscar Valladares, Aganorsa, Cuevas and Dunbarton Tobacco and Trust headed by Steve Saka who said while as a small company he is not offering any specials, this does provide him the opportunity to visit with his customers. Something he feels is very important. Yet for all that, Saka did write orders.
In fact, after the first day of the convention several of the cigar companies actually ran out of order forms because of the amount of new orders being placed. Nimish Desai of Rocky Patel said while the number of new orders being placed with his company was not huge, the amounts that the accounts were buying were way up. It seemed that there was pent up demand.
The unsaid part of all the order writing is going to be how fast the orders can be turned into deliverable product. In speaking with many of the manufacturers, they all talked about the problems they were experiencing. Most everyone realizes the price of wood is skyrocketing causing the price of boxes to go up. But then there is also capacity. Last year, with many cigar factories either shut down or partially closed, there was no work for the box factories. Now with virtually all of the cigar factories back open and trying to catch up, the box factories are overwhelmed. Same for cigar band makers.
Then there seems to be a cigar boom going on now where many people are opening new factories especially in Tamboril, Dominican Republic. These new factories mean the loss of rollers from existing factories and more competition for raw materials, i.e. tobacco. And it is not just new factories taking the workers. For Altadis in La Romana, there is no competition for cigar makers from other factories, however with the resorts opening back up means there are other job opportunities for workers. All of this, coupled with the loss of rollers in Honduras where some have left for the trip north to the United States, believing this is their last chance to get in, makes staffing very complicated indeed. Many factories are trying to hire and train new rollers but that process takes time. One manufacturer worries about this current boom of new factories reflecting back on the 90s when many poor-quality smokes were produced.
But nonetheless, the companies at TPE were excited to see the renewed enthusiasm at the show and they were confident they would be able to deliver quality products even though none could guarantee timelines as the factories are operating at capacity.
It was strange being in Vegas and having to constantly wear a mask except if you are eating, drinking or smoking. The CDC change on masks did not happen until the second day of the show and word is Vegas will completely reopen shortly. But when it does other problems will remain. Like the labor problems for the cigar industry, Vegas has its own troubles. The iconic monorail connecting the convention center to hotels on the strip was still shut down during the convention. Cabs were in short supply as was Uber. One of the drivers said too many people are staying home collecting the extra unemployment insurance. Hotels are begging for workers too, another cabbie laughed as she told me about a couple leaving Caesars Palace because of lacking service to go to the Cosmopolitan where they hoped it would be better. The cabbie said all the hotels are in the same boat…not enough workers.
But at least the TPE is the beginning of a return to normal. The next tobacco trade show is the Premium Cigar Association in July, again back in Las Vegas. One can hope those on unemployment decide to get back to work by then.