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Bacardi's Center Of Attention: New Facility In Puerto Rico Recalls Company's Roots In Cuba


April 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

CATAÑO, Puerto Rico -- It was an emotional moment for Joaquin Bacardí when he walked through the Casa Bacardi Visitor Center for the first time.

Not since he left Cuba on Oct. 1, 1959, shortly before the family's operations were confiscated by Fidel Castro, had he seen so much of their history in one place. The visitor center, which opened last week at the company's distillery outside San Juan, provides a window into the history of the Bacardi brand and the family behind the world's top-selling spirit.

The replica of the company's executive bar in Havana, with its black lacquer tables and red leather chairs, is such a perfect duplicate of the original that many longtime Bacardi employees and family members got tears in their eyes seeing it for the first time.

''It's something that throws you back 50 years,'' said Joaquin Bacardí, 66, a fourth generation descendant of founder Don Facundo Bacardí Massó and a retired master blender who spent more than 20 years with the company. 'Those were the good ol' times that we'll never see again. But this is an excellent demonstration of how even though we were expelled from Cuba, we continued living and tried to better what were were doing as a company.''

Bacardi Ltd. spent about $8 million on the project, transforming what was previously warehouse space into a virtual museum. Over the next few weeks, the visitor center will replace a tour of the company's Puerto Rican manufacturing plant.

The center is a marketing tool designed to increase the brand awareness and recognition for Bacardi rum. More than 300,000 visitors are expected to visit the facility annually. While the company doesn't expect those visits to translate directly into increased sales, there are many intangible benefits.

''You can't put a monetary value to a place like this,'' said Ruben Rodríguez, chairman and outgoing chief executive of Bacardi Ltd., which reached a record $3 billion in sales for the fiscal year that ended in March. ``People will walk away with an understanding that this product is really more than rum; it's a tradition and a spirit that's unique in the world.''


Bacardi is not the first to create a brand center to connect with its consumers. Some factory tours of consumer products companies have grown into major tourist attractions: World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Hershey's Chocolate World in Hershey, Pa., and Kellogg's Cereal City USA in Battle Creek, Mich.

At wineries in the Napa Valley of Northern California, major labels for years have used their facilities as a way to educate consumers about the product with a combination of tours, tasting rooms, seminars and even a museum at the Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery showcasing memorabilia from Francis Ford Coppola's many films.

The trend is picking up steam in the spirits business as well, where the centers are typically opening in the town where the brand was first created. Dewars World of Whisky, which is also owned by Bacardi, opened three years ago in Scotland. Diageo, the world's largest spirits company, has opened two new centers in the last five years: the Johnnie Walker Home in the Highlands of Scotland and the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

''It helps increase loyalty,'' said Zsoka McDonald, the director of North American media relations for Diageo. ``If you learn more about the brand, you're more willing to buy it next time.''


Bacardi executives believe the brand center provides a more targeted marketing approach than mass market advertising because most people who will visit the Casa Bacardi are already at least occasional customers. The company chose Puerto Rico as the home because that's where more than 50 percent of Bacardi rum is manufactured.

''It's an opportunity for people to see, touch and taste the craftsmanship that goes into our product,'' said Eduardo Sardiña, president of Bacardi's North America Region. ``Anytime you can interact directly with your consumer, it's more effective than a page in People magazine.''

But at least one industry expert isn't convinced there's any good business reason to justify the expense of such a project.

''They're monuments to vanity,'' said Tom Pirko of Bevmark, an industry consultant. ``They mean absolutely zilch to the consumer. Any money you spend on that is basically wasted. In the spirits industry, I think you're better off to leave the brand mysterious.''

That's certainly not the case at Casa Bacardi, where visitors are encouraged to explore. The walls are a virtual photo album with dozens of pictures of Bacardi family members and friends dating back to the mid-1800s. There's also a collection of original documents marking various milestones in Bacardi's more than 140-year history like trademark registrations, stock certificates and tax documents.

In one of the first rooms, visitors feel like they've stepped inside Don Facundo's first distillery in Santiago de Cuba, complete with a heated cast-iron still like the one he used to hone his secret formulas.

In a replica of the company's first office in downtown Santiago de Cuba, visitors can pull out the desk drawers and read original letters, including one from Gen. Leonard Wood to Emilio Bacardi's wife after his death. Dated Dec. 12, 1922, Wood writes: ``Santiago will never be the same without your husband. He was one of the inspiring figures of the city.''

By pressing the buttons on a plasma video screen, visitors can learn about Don Facundo's eight legacies of rum, which include fermentation, distillation, filtration, aging and blending. Then they step into oversized rum barrels, where they can smell the molasses used in making all Bacardi rums, as well as the differences between Bacardi's various aged and flavored rums.

In the executive bar, the Art Deco glass sconces on the wall and the terrazzo patterns in the tile floor are just like they were when Bob Hope and Bing Crosby visited the original in Havana. Today, this is where bartenders explain to visitors the history behind the Cuba Libre.

The world's No. 1 cocktail originated after the Spanish American War in Havana when American officers first mixed Coca-Cola with Bacardi Gold rum and toasted to a free Cuba, or a ''Cuba Libre.'' They also demonstrate other Bacardi classic cocktails, like a daiquiri and mojito, although it's not until the tour ends that visitors get a taste.

Throughout Casa Bacardi, the focus is on details. In the Bat Theater, fiber optics have been used to create the exact constellations of Feb. 4, 1862, the date Don Facundo founded the company. The facade of the first distillery has a palm tree growing through the roof, just like it did for 98 years, dying only six months before the Cuban government seized the company's assets.


Putting all this together wasn't easy, considering most of the company's early history was lost when Bacardi's operations in Cuba were confiscated in 1960 by Cuba's communist regime.

It took Pepin Argamasilla, the company's historian and coordinator of the visitor center project, years of combing storage rooms, personal collections of family members, antique stores and e-Bay. Replicas of the original still, the buildings and furniture had to be built off sketchy photos, memory and deductive reasoning.

''After more than 40 years, you come to realize that you're not going to get the vast majority back, but this gives people some sense of what it was,'' said Argamasilla, 35, a great-great-great-grandson of Don Facundo. ``This really creates an emotional home for the brand.''


Puerto Rican government officials hailed the opening of the center and Bacardi's importance to the island's economy and tourism industry. Bacardi contributes $250 million in annual tax revenue to Puerto Rico, the largest contribution of any corporate entity.

The Bacardi plant has long been one of Puerto Rico's top five tourist attractions, drawing more than 150,000 visitors a year. That number is expected to double with the opening of the new center.

''This is something that people will want to see, and it's also educational,'' said José Suárez, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. ``Rums are very important to Puerto Rico, and through Bacardi we're able to talk to our visiting tourists about the rums of Puerto Rico. It's a great partnership.''

While visitors on opening day didn't have much of a chance to listen to the guided audio tour or inspect the artifacts, many vowed to return.

''I'm very impressed, especially with the family tradition,'' said visitor Lucas Valdivieso, who was there on opening day. ``I need a couple of hours to digest it all.''

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