PUFF DADDIES & MOMMIES: Trade show creates community for hookah enthusiasts

This isn’t your grandfather’s hookah.

His was probably all curves and brass, resembling a tall genie’s bottle more than anything else.

But this new hookah — an ultra-modern version of the classic water pipe used for smoking flavored tobacco — looks like a sleek, see-through mini-treasure chest: squat, square and containing everything a hookah aficionado could ask for.

“Hookah hasn’t changed for hundreds of years,” said Nathan Holscher, a Phoenix engineer who designed the Hotbox Hookah, which generated a buzz at this year’s Hookah Expo Worldwide, held Aug. 3-4 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. “But this is a different animal. I have to bring something new that is appealing to those who want to smoke.”

The expo, in its third year, was all about showcasing the latest hookah trends and innovations. Well, that and providing a comfortable, lounge-like atmosphere in which hookah producers and consumers can get together, smoke and celebrate their shared passion for the product with Middle Eastern roots.

“Smokers want to be in a room with other smokers,” said John Naddour, better known as Hookah John, who produces the expo with partner Jake Jacobson. “Hookah is a very social activity.”

In fact, every expo attendee approached by Las Vegas Newswire cited a sense of community as their favorite part of hookah smoking.

“We’re part of a big Facebook group” dedicated to hookah, said Jewell Black, who traveled to Las Vegas from El Paso, Texas, with her husband to attend the public expo. “We got an Airbnb with 15 (hookah) community members” from around the country.

Black relaxed in a lounge chair, smoking a flavor of hookah tobacco called “El Patron,” which she described as reminiscent of margaritas.

The opportunity to try the most creative new tobacco flavors is another expo draw, which explains why anyone wandering through it encountered dissipating clouds of disparate, if pleasant, aromas. There was citrus, wine and — was that tiramisu?

“Hookahs are getting more creative, both in design and in terms of flavoring,” said Joe Rowles, marketing manager for Eternal Smoke, a new hookah brand based in Orlando, Florida.

Eternal Smoke offers flavors including Dolce Banana (“like a banana pudding,” Rowles said), Chilled Wine and Milkin’ Cookies.

Tickets to the expo went for $50. The show has grown significantly each year. This year, it included dozens of exhibitors from around the world. Organizers, who drew nearly 2,500 attendees, exceeding their goal of 2,000, are already planning next year’s expo. (For more information, visit hookahexpoworldwide.com.)

“I don’t have to sell anybody on Las Vegas,” Naddour said. “It sells itself.”

It wouldn’t be possible to hold such an expo in California, where he lives, he said.

“Our local government (in California) is not having any indoor smoking. This event requires brands to showcase their product.”

Like cigarettes, hookah smoking is verboten in many indoor spaces (It’s advisable to check beforehand with an individual establishment’s policies in Nevada.) Though there are numerous hookah lounges in Las Vegas, a challenge faced by the hookah industry is the stigma associated with smoking in general.

“There’s the health concern,” Rowles said. “But it’s no different than any other vice.”

Added Naddour: “I’m not going to tell you that smoking is good for you. Smoking is never good for you. But hookah is very pleasant and fun.”

Several expo attendees said they prefer hookahs to cigarettes or cigars, in part because the former smell better.

“They don’t have the stench that cigarettes do,” said Ivan Drysdale, a Las Vegas truck driver who, appropriately enough, was sampling a tobacco flavor called Vegas H2O — a blend of passionfruit, cantaloupe and strawberry, with menthol —not yet on the market. (“It’s good,” he said. “I can’t wait to buy it.”)

Despite the stigma, the popularity of hookah establishments — legal lounges and bars dedicated to the pastime — has grown in recent years in the United States. So has the hookah industry in general, Rowles said.

“This expo was half the size last year,” he noted. “We’re a brand-new company, and we’re seeing other companies coming out.”

Naddour, a hookah retailer and something of a celebrity in the hookah world, has made it his mission to spread hookah awareness in the U.S., in part by producing the annual expo.

Hookah is “no longer (just) a Middle Eastern thing,” he said, explaining that it “has spread so far, to Brazil, Germany, Russia” and so on. “They have these amazing hookah expos. I thought, why doesn’t the U.S. have this?”

Drysdale appreciates the opportunity to meet other hookah enthusiasts from around the world, without leaving Las Vegas.

“I just love hookahs,” he said. “I got 14 of them back at the house.”

Gesturing at the one sitting on a table in front of him, a smooth, stainless steel number that somehow brought to mind James Bond’s Aston Martin, Drysdale said, “And I’m going to buy this one.”

To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at SBornfeld@lvcva.com.

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