The 2008 Sex & Entertainment Fair was touted on billboards across Mexico City as 300,000 square feet of "pure sex," an erotic twist on Mexico's chaotic market culture and affinity for spectacles. The event itself was just as splashy as the advertising. There were acres of booths selling lubricants, sex toys, and cheap lingerie. Near a stand offering "hot hangover tea," a striptease took place on an elevated stage. A male Aztec-themed stripper wearing an oversize headdress, diminutive chaps, and gold body glitter wandered the halls between stints at one of the "table dance" tents.
More surprising than the wares were the demographics. According to the 2008 C.I.A. World Factbook, three of every four Mexican citizens are Roman Catholics, yet among those who paid the $16 entrance fee were middle-aged matrons, twittering teenagers, and suited men on their lunch breaks. In a country where machismo rules, 45 percent of attendees were women.
When the show's owner, Mexican entrepreneur Alberto Kibrit, inaugurated the country's first-ever sex-industry trade fair in 2004, "talking about sex was completely taboo in Mexico," he says. "The issue and the industry were very closed." But now, as he and other entrepreneurs are quick to point out, the adult-entertainment industry is an increasingly respectable sector for small-business owners in Mexico. A decade ago, Kibrit hoped to be a politician. A few career detours later, the 26-year-old now has power and a leadership position in a changing society-as the founder and C.E.O. of Entretenimiento Masivo.
As the first person to gather Mexico's adult-entertainment business owners for a public trade event, Kibrit is a pioneer in an industry with a considerable audience. Wham Picture, Mexico's largest purveyor of video pornography, estimates that the country's adult-entertainment industry, including pornography and erotica, raked in $1.1 billion in 2005. (Forrester Research estimates that the U.S. adult-entertainment market sells $15 billion yearly.)
Before Expo Sexo, Kibrit had tried launching a real estate expo two years earlier with his father, a real estate agent. After its tepid reception, he proposed they produce a similar fair with a sexier subject; his father promptly washed his hands of the affair. Left to his own devices, Kibrit produced the first Sex & Entertainment Fair with one investor, who fronted $15,000, and some hefty credit-card debt. He collected 40 exhibitors from around the city, managed to draw a startling 80,000 attendees, and made a profit from the $10 admission fee. This year, the number of exhibitors mushroomed to 205, and about 117,000 attendees bought tickets over four days-generating 10 million pesos (just under $1 million) in profit for Kibrit's 20-employee company.
Kibrit, who doesn't look or sound any older than his 26 years, says that age aided his success. Like many young Mexican men, he wears preppy, button-down shirts with jeans and slicks his hair with gel. "People didn't see me as a gangster," he says. "They don't want to see a big guy with gold chains surrounded by beautiful women. Being exactly the opposite has made things much easier for me."
Having a clean-cut spokesperson helped the fair's image-and that of the industry as a whole. When he sought their participation in 2004, says Kibrit, he found sex shops on the second floors of the buildings that line Mexico City's Eje Central, a main street that's a mayhem of questionably legal enterprises. "I was panicked to go inside them," he says. Since then, adult-entertainment retailers have acquired a sheen of professionalism, and have been creeping into posh Mexico City neighborhoods: An unabashedly upscale erotica shop, Ficus, was the first to open on one of swanky Polanco's prime shopping streets in December.
The Erotika Sex Shop chain, the country's largest sex retailer, evidences the growth. In the five years since the first Expo Sexo, the nationwide count of Erotika stores jumped from 12 to 52. All feature a signature hot-pink facade with a magenta-and-white cartoon dominatrix standing guard. Of those, 18 belong to C.E.O. Uriel Valdez; the rest are franchised by various small-business owners around the country.
The market's recent growth worries educator Gabriel Contreras, a sexologist with the Mexican Association for Sexual Health. "Compared to 10 years ago, things are very much in public view now, but there's no broad consciousness of sexual education," he explains. He points out that few public schools offer sex-education classes.
Of course, some entrepreneurs see an undereducated populace as an opportunity to build business. Valdez's stores all have in-house sexologists with weekly "office hours" for customers. Each Tuesday his employees can attend sexology classes, and on Thursdays it's Sex Toy 101. With educated staff manning the company's almost 11,000 square feet of booths at the Expo Sexo, says Valdez, everyone wins. "We've seen the results in our sales," he says, citing his stores' nearly $10 million in sales in 2007, a 25 percent increase over 2006. "What people want is information."
Not surprisingly, the Sex & Entertainment Fair has come under fire for promoting promiscuity. Some insiders have reservations too. Jos� Roberto C�ceres, chief executive of SXO, which markets massage oils and lubricants exclusively to couples, has shown at the Expo Sexo. But he empathizes with its detractors; he says that there's little middle ground between past conservatism and new promiscuity. "The atmosphere keeps getting worse," he says. "We haven't been able to process our sexual freedom like we should."
Still, there has been scant public opposition to Kibrit's enterprise: 2008's fair passed with not a peep of protest from conservative groups, which demonstrated during the first year. For the sake of his profits, Kibrit hopes that public acceptance will follow with his next step: bringing the fair to the Mexican countryside. On May 15 to 18, 80 exhibitors will occupy a tent just 10 minutes from the center of Monterrey, Mexico's second-largest metropolis. "Again, we'll crash into the same issues as when we began," says Kibrit. He seems nonplussed about the social taboos his business plan confronts. Asked how the Monterrey fair is shaping up, he says that it's padr�simo, Mexican slang for "way cool."
Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.