Can ‘Cannatourism’ Go High-End? These Entrepreneurs Say Yes – Forbes

Luxury cannabis experiences seem to be a growing trend.

Winona Grey

“Cannabis has finally grown beyond the era of excess,” declared a recent press statement from Cloth & Flame, an Arizona-based corporate and private events company. “It can now be tastefully enjoyed by adults.”

The brand’s director of business development, Tracy McGinnis, expanded on this theme during a recent interview in which she described Cloth & Flame’s new “Verde Series,” which hosts elegant outdoor, cannabis-infused dinners. “We wanted to launch an event that was really one of its kind, in that it was elevated and high-end,” McGinnis said.

“What we saw happening [with the increasing legalization of marijuana] was a lot of people throwing stoner parties, where the goal was just to get people as high as possible.”

So, will Verde’s and other companies’ high-end efforts succeed? Can cannabis escape its persistent image of giggling college kids passing joints around someone’s living room? An increasing number of cannabis tourism and experiential companies are betting the answer is yes. Consider:

·     Cannabis-infused tours are being hosted by travel agencies like Front Row Travels – with (pre-pandemic) trips to Jamaica and South Africa; Higher Way Travel, offering “glamping” tours of California’s Emerald Triangle; and Emerald Tours, advertising “weed and wine” experiences plus visits to cannabis farms.

·     In fact, weed is giving California’s wine country a run for its money in both cultivation and tourism. Wine Spectator’s June 30 cover story examined the competition between cannabis growers and vintners. What the magazine found, executive editor Jeffery Lindenmuth shared in an email, was that the wineries’ reaction to their region’s explosion of cannabis cultivation and tours is “mixed.”’ Some grape growers,” Lindenmuth wrote, “cite limited resources and potential changes to the wine country landscape as problem areas.” Other, “see cannabis as a “complementary crop.”

·     “Consumption lounges” are springing up in the seven or so states legal for them, including – no surprise – Nevada. These lounges are essentially bars, sans alcohol – where consumers can legally smoke or vape products they purchase in an adjoining dispensary. Cannaffornia Connection is a 100-acre desert complex scheduled to open August 21 in Imperial Valley at California’s southernmost tip.

·     Former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson’s retail cannabis company, Tyson Ranch, is working on a cannabis-friendly resort in the Southern California town of Desert Hot Springs. Previous news reports have described plans for 412 acres of cultivation facilities, a hotel, glamping and more. A groundbreaking for a 40-acre marijuana farm, with Tyson attending, took place there in 2019. Currently, Chief of Staff Gary Trock reported in an email, the project is “thriving.” He wrote: “Obviously, COVID made construction on certain things difficult and there are always changing restrictions as everyone navigates the new world we live in, but we were not severely impacted.” Further news about the project, he said, will come later this year.

Returning to those Verde Series cannabis-infused dinners, McGinnis, the business development director, emphasized that her company is not a licensed dispensary; so its next elegant outdoor dining event — set for September 25-26 in the wilds of Sonoma, Arizona – must observe strict rules.

Tables set for an elegant Verde Series dinner.

Winona Grey

Rule one is that the 80 attendees’ $200 ticket price does not pay for the cannabis served. Instead, a “private individual” McGinnis won’t name has donated the weed, purchased from Arizona-based Cooper State Farms. What’s more, Verde dinners aren’t just about getting high. The entire dinner’s cannabis content, in fact, chalks up a modest 10 mg. of THC. “We wanted these events to be accessible to people who have maybe never even tried cannabis or maybe dabbled in it lightly,” McGinnis explained.

Rule two mandates that the evening’s main chef, Phoenix’s Nick Rusticus, never touch the plant. An infusion/dosage expert (also anonymous) will oversee infusions into oils, syrups and juices. Mocktails and food items alike will be infused. An example: cannabis-infused leaf pesto.

Included in the price is a social justice donation to the Last Prisoner Project, as well as a focus on sustainability – with everything from trailers to tableware brought in specially for the dinners. “All of our events are about community and gathering your neighbors around a table,” McGinnis said. “The beautiful thing about these events is there isn’t any judgment.”

Judgment is definitely not a factor in those cannabis tours attracting consumers as the nation opens back up. In a recent webinar hosted by Excelsior College, which offers a cannabis certificate program, Victor Pinho, founder of Emerald Farm Tours in California, extolled the low startup costs for his cannabis business category and the outright fun it provides him.

But Pinho also noted the stigma that still surrounds cannabis entrepreneurs. “I tell everyone I meet – I made this a mantra – ‘I’m not a cannabis company. I’m a tourism company.’” Changing that image, he said, can be frustrating: Obtaining banking services and insurance are a hard sell; local permit rules change constantly. Then there’s the modest profit that tours generate: “If you’re lucky, you’re pulling a 50 percent margin,” Pinho said.

Finally, there’s that 100-acre complex set to open next month and featuring not one but two consumption lounges. In an interview, Tim Wright, a former casino executive, now CEO of Shasta Management, described Cannaffornia’s four buildings, 9,000 square feet each. Two, which stand alone, will each include a 2,000-square-foot dispensary and 5,000-square-foot consumption lounge (with restaurants, distribution, manufacturing and cultivation facilities planned for next fall).

The dispensaries, of course, will be the main source of income; and Wright’s own Queen of Dragons brand is the first store licensee. That business will compete with a second store to be called The Other Guys, which will stock 11 leading brands. Taste tests and special events will be regular features.

In an interview, Wright said he believes that the complex’s proximity to the Mexican border, which brings in thousands of legal workers each day, plus a major highway, Edwards Air Force base and the Arizona line, will attract both medical and recreational customers. But Wright was also realistic: “I don’t know that there’s any kind of money to be made in consumption,” he said. “It’s more an amenity, but an amenity that’s powerful; you can try it before you buy it.”

A broad appeal to the growing number of recreational consumers will be emphasized, Wright said. And The Other Guys store will reflect that luxury cannatourism theme. It will be “the bourgeois store: high-end, super-fancy,” Wright said. “That’s where the ‘luxury’ part comes into play.”