Pro Cigar Festival at 10: A Decade Advancing Dominican Cigars

More than 10 years ago, Pro Cigar broadened its original mission of building harmony in the Dominican cigar industry and created a festival to raise awareness of its passion. >By Frank Seltzer

The organization Pro Cigar began 25 years ago as a way for Dominican cigar makers to help each other. Manuel Quesada, one of the founders and current vice president of the organization, puts it this way, “Pro Cigar came about for two purposes; to eliminate the ill will among Dominican manufacturers and to realize and comprehend that working together we could do a lot more than working alone. And if we helped each other in times of trouble we could all do better. But the real purpose was to establish the Dominican Republic as a country of origin for cigars.“

For the first 15 years, the group worked to promote harmony within the community of cigar makers and to work with the government to become properly recognized as the important industry it is for the Dominican Republic. The group had kicked around the idea of a festival to promote the country, its culture, and cigars but honestly it took a while before Santiago had the necessary hotels and infrastructure to accommodate people for a big party.

In 2007, the festival became a reality, although according to Pro Cigar President Henke Kelner, it was not a smashing success. “The first year only 90 people came and we lost a lot of money. But year by year it has been growing.” The idea of the festival is to limit the number of participants the goal is according to Quesada to keep it intimate. “I don’t want people to come to the festival and have to see me speaking at a podium. I want them to come and sit with me and smoke and talk and have lunch and we all talk. That is where we can tell people what we do and how we do it.” Adds Jochy Blanco, president of Tabacalera Palma, “I think this is an important event because consumers, retailers can get close to us and see our operations and learn about our different processes. Each company has different processes, how they work. Santiago is not too sophisticated—we don’t have a beach, no the ocean, and not many people know Santiago. The people here are great and you see this and our excellent food, the real culture is here inside the island.”

For the tenth anniversary, while Quesada would had liked to keep it to no more than 300 people for the festival, the number increased
slightly to 325. But that does not include the parties every night where the number of participants swelled to over 800 people. Abe Flores, of PDR Cigars—the newest member in Pro Cigar— said, “It is a very big deal, the 10th anniversary. Tickets for the banquets
were sold out in 10 minutes. We had to increase the space because we oversold and then we had to stop.”

The highlight of the celebration is the so-called white dinner (where white Guayabera shirt, or Chacabana as it is called in the Dominican Republic, is de rigueur) held at the Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración in downtown Santiago. The monument is open to the public to come and visit, but no functions are allowed at its summit on a hill overlooking the city. According to Quesada, when the association first started they wanted a dinner on its grounds. “That is the symbol of Santiago and we have to get the monument. We talked to the authorities and the government and we got the permit to hold our dinner at the monument. That small victory shows the government that we are for real, Pro Cigar is serious and we represent a group that helps it has opened the eyes of other ministers—agriculture, tourism, industry, and commerce and now we have had support in the embassies and all these government institution’s support came with that little victory.”

Guillermo Leon of La Aurora says that support has become critical. “The lobbying is part of Pro Cigar. We have been working very
well visiting ministers and we have to take care to maintain our tobacco as our important ingredient on Dominican culture.”

With 12 factories in the Dominican Republic as members of the organization, it allows the participants to see varied production processes from the fields to the factories. (All but one of the factories are around Santiago, only the large Tabacalera de Garcia factory is in La Romana to the south where the festival begins, yet Altadis—owner of the La Romana factory—proudly shows off its fields near Santiago.) Upon arrival, guests were given a special box of 12 cigars complete with a Xikar cutter and lighter. Then every night another box of 12 special cigars was handed out. So everyone received a minimum of 48 hard to get cigars. That did not include the cigars given at the factory tours. The mood was upbeat during this year’s festival despite the worry about government intervention in the form of the FDA. Sales of cigars from the Dominican Republic were up last year and Quesada said the 2015-2016 tobacco crop looked great. This year’s crop promises to be good as well even though much of it remained in the fields due to rain
earlier in the year that delayed some of the plantings. The optimism was also based on the sales figures in that while Europe was down slightly, sales to the U-S were up along with Asia where Dominicans are taking market share from Cuban cigars.

During the day, attendees had the opportunity to visit the factory and fields of Altadis, General Cigar, Davidoff, La Flor Dominicana, De Los Reyes, Tabacalera Palma and the factories of Quesada, PDR, Tabacalera La Alianza-EPC or La Aurora. Some took advantage of going to Chateau de la Fuente to see the work of the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation with its impressive school and the newly build House of Dreams at the legendary Opus farm. If that was not their pleasure, there were options for a beach day with a catamaran cruise.

During the tours, two of the factories debuted new cigars—La Aurora with its ADN and Quesada with its 70th. As vice president of Pro
Cigar, Quesada went all out for this year’s anniversary. Once we had registered to go on their tour, we were hit with a question: what is your shoe size? Kind of an odd question from a cigar maker. We found out the answer when a mysterious beautiful leather-covered box was delivered to our hotel rooms. Inside was a pair of specially made custom deck shoes with our initials and the Quesada logo on them. They were made by a Dominican company—Quvel, which specializes in custom fit shoes. (The company also makes shoes for other manufacturers.)

But each night when the locals and dignitaries from across the country came to the parties, the Dominican culture was certainly on
display. That is not to say there was no culture at the factories since most included demonstrations by dancers or musicians marking the season of Carnival. All are treated to Dominican rum and beer with many local favorites from the Tipico dinner on Wednesday night featuring roasted pig, goat and other delights, to the upscale Monument and Centro de Espana dinners. At the Tipico dinner, we usually are treated to typical Dominican music, but for the tenth anniversary Pro Cigar came up with something different. A “hair band” provided entertainment because its members were also Pro Cigar members. With La Flor Dominicana’s Litto Gomez and Tabacalera Palma’s Jochy Blanco donning blonde wigs (and Jochy wearing his glasses to read the lyrics) providing the vocals with the backing of Raquel Quesada of Quesada and Nirka Reyes of De Los Reyes. Tony Gomez from La Flor Dominicana was on drums, Klaas Pieter Kelner from Davidoff on keyboards, Abraham Mustafa from Inetab Kaubeck on lead guitar and Abe Flores of PDR on bass, the general opinion was they should not quit their day jobs. Even Klaas Pieter’s dad, Henke Kelner at one point donned a wig and got in on the “singing”.

The monument dinner this year had more attendees than ever before— well over 800. Not all the guests were locals as Utah Jazz and LA
Lakers star Karl Malone attended because he is a big cigar fan. The setting atop the hill in Santiago offered a breathtaking view of the city below.

The finale is held at the Centro de Espana club in Santiago—an indoor locale—that was extremely important this year since Santiago experienced one of the biggest storms I had ever seen with buckets of rain coming down. Fortunately being under cover, there were no problems. The finale also included an auction of one of a kind humidors and cigars to benefit Voluntariado de Jesus con los Niño’s ( a non profit group for ill children), Hospicio San Vincente de Paul ( a retirement home for low income elders) and the Monumento a los Heroes de la Restauracion.. The auction raised over 150-thousand dollars for these charities.

For Ernesto Perez Carrillo of Tabacalera La Alianza, Pro Cigar is extremely important especially for the future, “Eventually Cuba will open and it will be good for the industry because it will create excitement for the industry. I am not afraid of competing or that Cubans will take over the market. People will have more choices and I don’t think the Cubans will be price competitive. Cuba has become a strong marketing engine. Cuba’s marketing is not only the tobacco, but the music, the rum the whole country that is unique to the industry. While our members are individual companies, I think Pro Cigar can help the country, marketing the Dominican Republic for its music, culture, rum and especially as cigar country.” Adds Kelner,” I am very proud of Pro Cigar. I am more proud of Pro Cigar than Davidoff. I created my factory with six rollers 33 years ago, but that business is the tobacco. Pro cigar is not business, it is my country, my culture and for this I feel proud of Pro Cigar.”

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