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November 17, 1999 12:00pm
Sex Industry Comdex Opportunities
by: David Strow

Comdex is well-known as the biggest week in the Las Vegas convention business as more than 200,000 conventioneers pour into the city.

It's also the week when the "Sin City" image comes into full force as the Las Vegas sex industry enjoys its biggest week of the year.

Las Vegas's strip clubs spend the week packed to the gills, outcall services put their dancers on 24-hour call, and "AdultDEX" -- an adult video convention held during Comdex week at the Imperial Palace hotel-casino -- draws an estimated 15,000 people.

ADULT FILM ACTRESS Asia Carrera is the center of... photographer's attention at the AdultDEX convention at the Imperial Palace. The local sex industry has its biggest week of the year during the same week as Comdex.

By conservative estimates, adult-oriented businesses will see their business double during Comdex week. That draws in dancers from across the country during the week, hoping to cash in on the Comdex-created boom.

"You get a lot more $20s and $100s on stage," said Cheri Reed, a bartender at Talk of the Town nude nightclub, who has danced during two previous Comdex weeks. "They're real generous. They're out to have a good time, so they're willing to spend a lot of money. Some will even send you cards afterward."

Those in the business say there are two elements at work: One, that Comdex tends to draw a younger, male, often single crowd; and two, those in the technology industry have a considerably higher amount of disposable income than traditional visitors.

"The hotels tend to complain that the computer geeks ... don't spend money gambling," said Raymond Pistol, president of Showgirl Video and Talk of the Town. "But they do spend money on our operations. It's a matter of putting their money in a different area, as opposed to the hotels.

"Basically, you've got a younger crowd, and younger guys tend to be single. They're very computer oriented, they know the math ... and I guess their interest isn't sitting at a table. They're interested in the women."

Adult entertainment, a business city and county leaders have tried in vain to clamp down on, is already a good-sized industry in its own right. Pistol estimates the city's sex industry grossed $175 million in 1995 and employed 2,000 people. Now, he guesses that it has passed the $250 million a year mark.

How much of that is grossed during Comdex, no one's quite sure, though Pistol said he increases his staff during the week.

"It's hard to tell, because we have several days that are high-water marks," he said. "Any time the town's full, we're full, is what it amounts to. Any big fourth of July or New Year's Eve are high-water marks. You can't say one is better than the other, because they fill you up.

"If anybody's not doing well this week, they're in trouble. You don't need special promotions, because there's so many bodies out there."

Ashley Taylor, a dancer who works at Pistol's club, says she's hoping to gross $7,000 during Comdex, a week where she'll be working 18-hour days for 11 consecutive days.

"You'll make 10 percent of your annual earnings in a week," Taylor said.

Taylor spends the days as a model at the AdultDEX convention. For $5 each, conventioneers can get a signed photo. But the real reason it's done is to draw visitors back to the club that night.

"We're the bait to lure the guys in (to the booths)," Taylor said.

AdultDEX was launched five years ago as a kind of rebellion, after Comdex organizers booted the adult Internet businesses from the convention.

Now at the Imperial Palace, the conference has become a significant draw in its own right. Organizer Faye Sharp estimates the conference will draw 15,000 people this year, but says the real purpose of the conference is to promote the business side of adult entertainment on the Internet, not to give Comdex visitors a chance to ogle women.

"It's still a trade show," Sharp said. "Basically, there's a lot of people on both sides of the business (traditional and adult)."

But opening day Tuesday brought out hundreds of Comdex attendees, each paying $8 at the door. As women performed -- and sometimes flashed -- the men, crowds quickly formed and minicams appeared left and right. Many booths hawked X-rated tapes and DVDs.

"When people get tired of the classroom, they come to the playground," said William Margold, director of the West Hollywood, Calif.-based Free Speech Organization [Free Speech Coalition], the trade organization of the adult film industry. "This is recess. They come here to play."

At night, as the conventions close their booths and doors, the outcall business begins to take off. One operator that does exceptionally well this week is Richard Sorrano, owner of S.O.C. Inc., the largest outcall operator in Las Vegas, whose pamphleteers blanket the Strip.

On a normal day, Sorrano's agency will send out 50 to 60 dancers a day. During Comdex week, that rises as high as 150 a day -- each charging $150 to $250 per visit, not including tips. Many of his 200 entertainers will be on call 12 hours a day for the entire convention.

"(Wednesday night), around midnight, is our peak hour," Sorrano said. "The first day, they're registering. By the second day, they'll leave early, begin exploring the city.

"I've got to say Comdex is our biggest week."

One of the biggest booms in Sorrano's business comes through his website, www.vegasgirls.com. The site normally sees less than 200,000 hits a day, Sorrano said, but that rises above 1 million during Comdex week, he said. That creates residual business for Sorrano, who uses the site not only for advertising, but for a year-round subscription based adult entertainment business.

"It's a matter of putting out increased advertising targeted for these types of people," Sorrano said. "This crowd likes electronic things, so our Internet site does very well. We also put billboards on the back of trucks that are electronic billboards. They're not only interested in adult entertainment, but at the same time, it associates to them electronically.

"We're being tricky by hitting them both ways ... and we definitely get an edge by doing that."

Even Nevada's legal brothels -- the only legalized prostitution establishments in the United States -- see a modest boom during Comdex week.

Despite the 70-mile desert trek out of Las Vegas -- and the state's ban on advertising -- Sheri's Ranch in Pahrump sees business rise 25 percent during the week. That's despite a ban on brothel advertising.

"Comdex is probably our busiest week, because of the length of it, though the lack of advertising really curtails us," said Jim Miltenberger, owner of Sheri's. "It's more or less word of mouth, through the cabs and what not.

"Regardless of what convention it is, they make it out here. Most all of the (brothels) have limos, and they'll come back and forth to the ranch. They'll stay busy this week."

Miltenberger says Sheri's won't increase the number of women on the ranch this week, "though we have more girls applying, because they've all heard of Comdex."

The sex business is something civic and business leaders would want to see swept under the rug in Las Vegas. But promoters say they deserve the same legitimacy as any other business.

"We're really not as scummy as everybody thinks we are," said Dondrea Eisenbarth, owner of Wyoming-based Web Overdrive, an Internet consulting firm specializing in the adult entertainment business. "We're good people. We run serious businesses. And we've been pulling in millions for years."

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