Lansdowne already had what most high-end resorts have--a health club and spa, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, four lighted tennis courts, several conference rooms and four restaurants, one of them overlooking its highly touted 18-hole golf course, all on 205 acres just east of Leesburg.
One thing it lacked, however, the ultimate sign of prestige and class, was its own cigar . . . a premium handrolled one worthy of the Lansdowne name.
Enter Gerard Dumont.
The 41-year-old cigar aficionado and general manager of the resort designed a cigar with Don Rene Cigars, a manufacturing company that specializes in cigars handrolled primarily by Cuban expatriates in Miami.
The result: what Dumont calls the "Lansdowne Vintage," a mild-blend cigar made with Ecuadorian wrapper leaf and Honduran and Dominican filler and binder. The 7 1/2-inch "Churchill" version sells for $8.75, and the 4 1/2-inch "Robusto" is $7.50. Since August, Dumont has sold 150.
"I wanted to create a cigar that reflected the taste, character and consistency of Lansdowne," he said recently as he showed off a photo album of his trip to Don Rene in Miami. He keeps the album on his desk near a picture of Sir Winston Churchill, his cigar-smoking hero.
Dumont is quick to point out the exclusiveness of his cigars. The tobacco is aged two to three years before it is rolled and placed in a humidor for six more months. And the label bears the Lansdowne symbol of two gold golf clubs with a blue and green shield.
"It gives them a signature," said Cliff Wollard, a retired Army colonel who runs the Leesburg Emporium at Market Station. "It's like a restaurant having a specialty meal or a hotel having their own house bottle of wine."
Most top-notch country clubs sell expensive cigars in their lounges and pro shops, but few design their own, according to cigar lovers and marketing specialists. More commonly, hotels will buy some low-end cigars in bulk and put their own label on them.
"When you make your own cigar, it's a prestige thing," said Jim Devine, head of the pro shop at Raspberry Falls Golf and Hunt Club, a public course outside Leesburg. "You're playing off everybody's egos."
Lansdowne executives said they are marketing their cigars to golfers and guests at the resort and through mailings from a database of stogie smokers from local tobacconists. At a recent event that Dumont arranged, called the Lansdowne Smoker, about 50 cigar lovers paid $75 each for a night of entertainment, food and, of course, cigars, including Lansdowne's own.
"It's got a nice, easy, light feel and taste to it," Joe Lopes, a 48-year-old New York ad executive, said as he tried one while sipping a glass of chardonnay. "It goes with the place's great food and service."
Others weren't so impressed.
"To be honest, I usually smoke better cigars than this," said John Wilcox, a 49-year-old Fairfax County marketing executive who said he spends about $1,000 a month on cigars.
"He's slumming tonight," joked his friend, Scott Holtzmann, 42, a business executive in Fairfax.
Some cigar marketers question how profitable Lansdowne's signature stogie will be, given that cigar sales are dipping.
Americans bought an estimated 280 million premium cigars in 1996, up from 164 million the year before, according to the Cigar Association of America. In 1997, sales hit 360 million as the five largest U.S. manufacturers of cigars spent $41 million on advertising and promotions.
The boom didn't last long. In 1998, sales of premium cigars started downward, a trend that analysts expect to continue this year, with a 10 percent drop in sales predicted.
"For many people, cigar smoking was a fad," said Norman Sharp, president of the Washington-based trade association. "The faddish part of the trend is over."
It was bound to crash, said Gerald Celente, of Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., because it was market-driven, not consumer-driven.
"Despite all the hype and the fancy ads, it was never going to cross over into the mainstream," Celente said. "Now, there's only a minor niche."
He doesn't hold out much hope for the Lansdowne either. "Unless it's got exceptional quality, there's so many premiums out there already, it will probably flop by the wayside," Celente said.
Lansdowne executives said they are prepared.
"We've had golf tournaments, food and wine camps and garden events, but cigars bring in a different [type] of people," said Carol Petronio, Lansdowne's director of marketing. "It's like hotels that have their own wine labels. Nine times out of 10, it's nice, but it's not going to push the revenues over the top."
CAPTION: After lighting a post-dinner cigar, Peter Pryor, above, leans back and takes in the entertainment at the Lansdowne Smoker last week. Sharon and Jed Babbin, left, celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary at the event. "We've had golf tournaments, food and wine camps and garden events, but cigars bring in a different [type] of people," said the resort's marketing director.
CAPTION: Lance Witte takes a puff on his Lansdowne Vintage at a party for cigar aficionados at the resort last week. The signature cigar was the creation of Lansdowne's general manager.