The Art of the Raffle


Cigar event raffles is a topic that seems to keep coming up in conversation. Jerry, Walt, Mike and I shared our favorite and least favorite prizes in a YQMA episode a month or two ago, and I used the opportunity to complain about winning baseball caps. I’m sure it was good for a few chuckles, but it probably wasn’t useful to anyone really thinking about organizing a raffle. I started thinking more seriously on the subject when a cigar rep asked me what I thought should be given out as prizes. The unnamed rep was looking for ideas that would generate some excitement, and hopefully boost attendance and sales as a result.

We’re spoiled in the Atlanta area, with an abundance of cigar shops, and calendar chock full of events. The problem with abundance like this is that there is a glut of free hats and cutters in the closets and pockets of the customers. The opportunity to win a new baseball cap just isn’t enough to motivate people into shelling out for the box over the handful of singles these days. The rough economy isn’t helping either. So what do cigar smokers hope to win from raffles, and what will keep people at the event until the last number is drawn?

The question has been percolating in my brain, and the kettle started whistling this quiet Saturday morning. Here’s what brewed up. Whether you’re putting on a raffle at your shop’s annual cigar extravaganza (many of these were written with a shop setting in mind), or organizing something small for a herf, perhaps these ideas will help energize your event.

Cutters
I hate to say it, but everyone at your event has a cutter in their pocket, and they’re not going to be excited about winning a new one. That changes if the cutter on the raffle table is something swanky like Xikar’s Mayan, or the Prometheus Cutter Y. Less expensive, but an equally good idea is to go with something different than the standard guillotine. A couple of my favorite alternatives include Xikar’s XV V cutter or their MTX Multitool cigar scissors.

Lighters
Lighters are always a winner, and here’s why. Most of them suck and we all know it. There, I said it. (I’m not talking about yours of course. The one the other guy makes.) We all know the guy who has had the same lighter in his pocket for years, but we’ve never been so lucky. Or maybe we’ve been too cheap to buy one like it. Either way, every lighter I’ve ever had has been dead inside a year, despite my best attempts to bleed it before refilling and keep the jets clean. Not to mention that lighters seem to be lost or stolen more than any other cigar gear. The chances are, even if the winner of a new lighter already has one, it’s probably breaking down or out of fuel, about to be lost in a couch cushion or nabbed by a friend with sticky fingers. Cigar smokers can go without a lot of things and still enjoy the hobby, fire is not one of them.

Ashtrays
Everybody loves a good looking ashtray. Even though I have more than my share, I still secretly hope I win that shiny one with new look. And it never hurts to have spares, especially if you have company. A friend of mine keeps four on his deck for visitors, and I’ve gotten in the habit of giving them to friends to make sure there’s an ashtray handy when I visit. I’m still surprised by how many people I talk to that use a flower pot or a coffee can when they smoke. Even an small, cheap single-person ashtray is a step up from ashing in the fern on the deck.

Humidors
Who doesn’t need more humidor space? Small humidors are cheap these days, and if you take the time to season them before the raffle, even better. The winner can put the cigars he bought and any he wins for easy transport home. And consider this, now that he has more cigar space, he’s going to want to keep it stocked. It just might increase sales.

Travel humidors are nice too, I have them in surplus because they’re so handy. But most people at the your event probably don’t have one. If they did, they’d probably be carrying it with them. In my experience, only a few people at any given event do. To put a little icing on the cake, throw a five pack of smokes in one, and you’ve got a winner.

Hats
My problem with baseball caps is I don’t wear them and I always seem to win one. And I know I’m not alone on that, especially in the Atlanta area. But a here’s a few hat ideas that haven’t been done to death yet: visors, flat caps and panama or straw hats. I saw Jonathan Drew sporting some slick looking Liga Privada visors at IPCPR, and thought, why can’t I win a hat like that at a raffle, I’d actually wear it. And I’m a little surprised that I still wear the flat cap I picked up at a Nub event a few years ago, and even though it’s a little small on me. In fact, as getting the hat did have some influence over the purchases I made that day, and I’m not a hat guy.

Shirts
The great thing about shirts is everyone wears them, and it never hurts to have a few extras in the closet. I’m always happy to win one, even though I have dozens of cigar-themed t-shirts. In nice weather, I’m a walking billboard and I’m OK with that. But before you throw a stack of t-shirts on the raffle table, look at the tag, and take a look around the shop. We both know that nobody at your event has fit into a size large in at least a decade. Anything under a size XL will be received with disappointment. You might as well include a gym membership with it.

On the subject of shirts, let’s talk about guyaberas. Everybody likes them, and almost nobody has one. (Again look around, did I call it, or did I call it?) They are more expensive, of course, but they’ll also generate more excitement. Keep in mind, they always seem to run small, so anything smaller than a 2XL is going to fit like a tourniquet your well-fed event-goers.

Other Gear
Here’s a few things I don’t often see on the raffle table that might generate some interest: draw pokers, cigar savers and cans of butane. All things people will use if they have them, but also things they don’t think of buying. And in the case of butane, you can never have too much. The triple and quadruple flame lighters that are popular these days guzzle that brand new can like it’s water.

And how about throwing a sticker or two into the prize bags? I can already hear you muttering, “Stickers? Seriously? You want My Little Pony dolls too?” Yes. (And NO on the dolls.) Hear me out. They’re cheap, and our travel humidors are boring without some decoration. And there’s all that space on the bumpers and back windows of our cars. I slap the ones I get on my coolador at home, and it’s starting to look like luggage that’s seen the world. Or the world of cigars, anyway.

Another thing to consider when picking your prizes is what people do when they smoke cigars. They read, they listen to music, they eat and they drink. All things that can translate into interesting raffle items. Books on cigars, CD’s of Cuban music or gift cards to acquire said items work well. (Or if you’re feeling generous, how about an iPad some lucky guy can use to read and listen to tunes while he burns one?) One of the handiest things I ever won at a raffle was a Starbucks gift card. I don’t go there often, so that $25 card turned into several months of free house coffee. And I can’t forget the Oliva pint glass I picked up a few years back. I enjoyed a tasty craft beer with it just last night. On the subject of food and drink…

Consumables
Every time a full moon falls on a weekend, a fellow who goes by the handle “Old Boar” puts together an event called The Full Moon Herf here in Atlanta. One of the things the herf is known for is its expansive raffle which includes everything from cigars, to spirits, to flavored massage oil to homemade cinnamon bread. You know what I hope to win every time I go? The homemade cinnamon bread. And the more the better. Seriously, that stuff is great, and makes killer french toast. I also cross my fingers whenever a nice bottle of spirits or a bag of good coffee beans is in the drawing.

The point is, everybody who wants one probably already has a lighter, a cutter or a baseball cap. What they win at an event may be better than what they had, but either way, something’s winding up in a box or on a shelf somewhere. At some point, participants are going to start hoping their number isn’t drawn. You’re never going to have that problem with a bottle of scotch, some good coffee or a loaf of cinnamon bread.

Combustables
Look around, what is everybody doing, and why are they here? To smoke of course! Which is why it’s so surprising that cigars don’t make up a bigger percentage of any raffle. Maybe the reason for this is it’s thought that if a rep gives away cigars, he’s taking business away from the retailer. If you do it right, this really isn’t the case. If raffle tickets are based on purchases, and you hold the raffle at the end of the event, participants have already purchased all they were planning to buy. That box of cigars they win at the end of the night won’t make any difference, and increases the chances they they’ll be back and buying at the next one.

Other Ideas
By now, someone’s reading this, thinking, “Brian, you jerk, you’re going to cost me a fortune.” Nobody’s saying raffles have be about giving away swag and expensive product. At a big event I attended a year or two ago, one of the grand prizes was Rocky Patel coming to your house and cooking you and your guests dinner. I’m not making this up. (Though I never heard how that turned out.) As I recall, to be eligible for that drawing, you had to get a special raffle ticket, which had special purchase requirements. Kind of elaborate, but it didn’t cost the owner of the shop anything. I think you get the point.

You don’t have to start taking classes from Le Cordon Bleu to prepare for the raffle, you can substitute any sort of useful task in place of playing chef. Wash a car. Raffle off a month or a year of preferred seating in the lounge. How about that locker that’s sitting empty? Times have been tough, a lot of shops have one. How about giving away use of that locker for a year? Who knows, the winner might not be willing to part with it at the end of the year, and may pay the normal locker fee to keep it. If not, you can do it again the following year. That’s a win-win that doesn’t have anyone going for their wallet.

Another thing to consider is the cost of cigars and other products that aren’t moving, especially if you’re short on humidor space. How long has that box of cigars been sitting on the shelf undisturbed? It’s taking up valuable space that could be used to hold the new highly-rated cigar that’s selling like hotcakes. A raffle is an opportunity to blow that dud out and put something there that will help pay the bills. The same goes for anything else in the shop that’s obscured from view by a fine layer of dust.

The Rules
In my experience, nothing kills the buzz at a raffle than some guy buying 18 boxes of cigars, collecting his 8000 tickets, heading home and winning everything in absentia. If you want excitement, consider using the rule “you must be present to win”. Sure, you’ll have to draw again for some items, but consider this, you get the suspense of two drawings for the price of one. The longer you keep people around, the better the event (and sales) will be. And if you have that one special customer that has to leave, have somebody that’s staying act as his proxy.

Conclusion
Hopefully some of these ideas will come in handy the next time you plan a raffle, but it goes without saying what works in one place, doesn’t necessarily work in another. I spend a lot of time in cigar shops, but I’ve never been responsible for managing one, nor have I been a representative for a cigar manufacturer, and I’d hate for anyone to think I’m telling them how to do their job. It is my hope that this will be received as something like a customer survey by anyone reading this who takes upon themselves the job of organizing a cigar event with a raffle. (We thank you for your efforts, by the way.)

And for those of you reading this who don’t run a shop or work as a cigar rep, how about telling us a little bit about your raffle experiences in the comments below? What was the best thing you ever saw up for raffle? What didn’t you like? If you were putting on one yourself, how would you do it? Who knows, your idea may influence the next cigar event in your area. (Or maybe we’ll steal it for the Atlanta market. No promises.)