Behind the scenes of adult film/sex trade show: Exxxotica Miami Beach 2012

Exxxotica, billed as the nation’s largest event dedicated to love and sex, kicks off its 2012 season at the Miami Beach Convention Center this weekend.

For three days there will be plenty of adult film stars taking photos and signing autographs for fans, sex toys and other novelties on display, and seminars on such hot topics as the swinging lifestyle. But strip away that fantasy world environment, however, and the core of the convention is surprisingly about family.

Event founder J. Handy – along with his wife, Grace, his mother, Diane LaRose, and his stepfather, Marc LaRose – provide much of the show’s foundation.

“The thing that nobody really realizes is they look from the outside in and they see this giant event that comes through the convention center and that kind of takes over South Beach and has been around for a while,” Handy said. “You just assume a show that big has a million people running it and has a team full of office members. People are really shocked to see how much of a relatively small family business it is.”

Many of the vendors, who showcase everything from independent films to lotions and novelties, have been with the show since its inception in 2006 and give Exxxotica an extended family feel.

“It’s really strange because our first year there, we would stop and talk to some of these people,” Diane LaRose said. “It would be husbands and wives and their grown kids. They were working with them. It was kind of interesting because it wasn’t just us being a family working together. It was [the vendors] doing that.”

Family has always been important to Handy. At age 9, Handy - a native of northern Vermont - was diagnosed with life-threatening Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare form of African cancer.

After the initial diagnosis, Handy’s parents decided to eschew treatment locally and moved him to the Boston Children’s Hospital, where he underwent treatment.

“If they had started the treatments and not decided to move me and go through all the steps and everything, I would have died that night,” said Handy, who named his daughter Mattingly after he met then New York Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly as a Make-A-Wish child. “They re-diagnosed me with Burkitt’s in the correct form. They had me in a medically induced coma for a week. It was quite a process.”

His cancer in remission, Handy resumed a normal lifestyle and went on to graduate from the University of Rhode Island in 2001 with a double major in journalism and English.

Handy, 33, put his newly learned skills to work when he answered an advertisement in the Hartford Courant from the RDP Group to help run live events. Within a few years, Handy and a partner launched Victory Tradeshow Management. While searching for the right enterprise to put on a show, Handy examined the adult industry and the idea of Exxxotica came to him while sitting on his couch one night.

“I think I had the same misconception that a lot of people have, and that it is a $13 billion industry and all you have to do is say you’re in the adult industry and money starts raining out of the ceilings and the roof,” Handy said. “There was no consumer trade show like Exxxotica anywhere on the east coast.”

Handy presented the idea to Grace, his girlfriend at the time, and his parents.

“I don’t remember what my first thought was, but I don’t remember it being anything negative,” Diane LaRose said. “I thought, ‘Wow. That sounds like fun.’ It was something interesting and definitely fun to do. I was anxious to see how it worked out for him.”

After an extensive search for a location for the inaugural show, Handy received interest from Miami Beach. Due to the nature of Exxxotica, Handy endured countless meetings and interviews before finally gaining clearance to put on the first show in 2006.

“Just getting that first show off the ground was insane,” Handy said.

Since then, Exxxotica spawned a national following, put on 14 different shows and included stops in New Jersey, Chicago and Los Angeles. Although the L.A. show was scrapped for 2012, a tentative deal will bring the convention to an unnamed city in 2013 to once again give Exxxotica a four-city tour.

“We’re going to keep growing Exxxotica bigger and better,” Handy said. “But we’re not trying to take over the world.”

While the demand for additional shows may be evident, Handy prefers the limited schedule, which allows him to cherish the time with his loved ones.

“My parents have always taught me, looking back to the whole cancer thing, life is too short,” said Handy, whose wife gave birth to their second child less than two months ago. “I’m not trying to work 70 hours a week, every week. I don’t mind working 70 hours a week this time of year leading into each of the shows.

“Other people may drive nicer cars and may have nicer houses, but at the end of the day they’re sitting in their offices 80 hours a week, 52 weeks a year to be able to afford those things. That’s not what I’m looking to do.”