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September 23, 2014

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Post-recession, porn makes a comeback at 2014 AVN and Adult Entertainment Expo

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L.E. Baskow

Attendees walk past life-size dolls of porn stars during the 2014 AVN and Adult Entertainment Expo in the Hard Rock Hotel on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014.

2014 AVN and Adult Entertainment Expo

Performers with the X Burlesque dance show entertain the crowd during the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo  on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Launch slideshow »

2014 AVN/AEE: Shoes

Clear high heel shoes are worn for the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo happening at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on Thursday , Jan. 16, 2014. Launch slideshow »

Among the job fairs, declining foreclosure rates and heightened tourism, another more unlikely sign of economic recovery has emerged in Las Vegas — pornograpahy.

Exhibitor attendance at this year’s AVN and Adult Entertainment Expo at the Hard Rock Hotel is up 30 percent from 2013, officials say, with a projected attendance of 25,000 visitors. The spike represents the second consecutive year of growth at the convention after years of decline brought on by the recession and a shifting business model.

“The line used to be that vices are recession-proof — alcohol, tobacco and porn. Well, it turns out porn — not so much,” says Sherri Shaulis, senior editor of pleasure products for Adult Video News, who has organized AEE for the past seven years.

Like Las Vegas itself, AEE suffered from the economic downturn as attendees opted for “staycations” rather than shelling out thousands for a weekend at the expo. At the same time, those customers also cut costs by forgoing DVD purchases — the adult industry’s bread and butter — in favor of illegal downloads and streaming live content and clips on free video-sharing sites.

Within five years, the number of porn studios across the adult industry shrank from around 200 to a few dozen. The production companies and retailers that survived struggled to afford the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to exhibit at AEE, forcing the expo to relocate from the sprawling Sands Convention Center to the cozier Hard Rock three years ago.

“There was a time when anybody could get in this industry and make money pretty much hand over fist. Whether you were making a movie or had a website or a toy store, you were gonna make money in adult,” Shaulis says. “When the decline came, it weeded out the people who didn’t know how to run a business and didn’t know what they’re doing.”

As the economy has improved, however, AEE has drawn new clientele — particularly women and couples — thanks to the mainstreaming of adult entertainment by franchises like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which exhibitors say has helped boost sales by 40 percent across the industry.

With new customers has come the opportunity for exhibitors to diversify their business strategies by expanding to online offerings and physical products like adult novelties, toys and other products.

“We’re seeing a lot more entrepreneurs and new businesspeople coming into the industry because they have new, fresh ideas,” Shaulis says. Several ill-fated DVD retailers have even returned to the expo this year to launch new adult-product lines.

Exhibitor Marcus West, vice president of marketing and sales for Evolved Novelties, an adult toy company that launched just before the economic downturn, says AEE has evolved from the hard-partying fan fest of a decade ago into a serious trade show rife with business and networking opportunities.

“I’ve noticed this year that as sexual wellness starts to permeate the mainstream, manufacturers who might not have thought of doing adult products before are looking at the market and growth potential and are coming to the AVN show to seek out those partners. And that’s really worked out nicely for us.”

Though the adult industry’s revenue woes are far from over, many see AEE’s upswing as a path to bolstering longevity in a struggling industry.

Sitting behind the booth for new toy company Impulse Novelties, sales manager Julian St. Jox, a longtime porn actor and director, laments the decline of the “star mentality” and celebratory atmosphere of AVN in its late ’90s heyday, when the expo was less about products than fan experience.

Still, he’s content to adapt.

“You have to change with the times. You have to realize the business model is changing,” he says. “Porn itself isn’t going anywhere. But you have to be on top of things to stay in the game.”

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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