Strip clubs are the secret backbone of the convention business, right? Think again 



This started as a much different story.

No doubt you've heard the same truism we have about the wink-wink-nudge-nudge secret underlying the convention industry, the operating principle that supposedly nobody talks about but everybody knows — namely, that there's a direct link between the number of strip clubs a city has and the amount of convention business it attracts.

It's not a matter of idle curiosity. Next month, Nashville unveils its $585 million Music City Center, the biggest single civic project in the city's history. It's a gleaming edifice meant to turbo-boost the local economy, stimulate downtown development, and pump cash into our many needy municipal institutions, from police precincts to schools.

For that to happen, however, people will have to come. A lot of people.

And what's the thing that guarantees convention-center bookings? If this were Family Feud, the survey would likely say: gentlemen's clubs. Attracting the kind of numbers Nashville needs, the thinking goes, requires an equally large portfolio of adult entertainment options — the kind favored by fez-topped middle-aged maniacs cutting loose for a weekend. (Or so Ray Stevens would have us believe.)

The correlation between strip clubs and convention business was in the back (and in some, the forefront) of many civic observers' minds in 2010, when bulldozers advanced on one of the numerous Nashville businesses that cashed Metro's checks and surrendered to the wrecking ball. It wasn't the headquarters of Tower Investments, the downtown real estate power players whose legal battle royal with the city topped the business pages. Nor was it the Musicians Hall of Fame, the underdog whose unsuccessful grassroots stand against eminent domain played out on local TV news.

The site in question was the Nashville outpost of Christie's Cabaret, part of a national chain of strip clubs owned by Memphis impresario Steve Cooper. After Metro paid nearly $3 million for the property at 306 Eighth Ave. S., permits were issued. And Christie's — like all of its neighbors in the Music City Center footprint — disappeared in a cloud of dust. As the dust settled, there were whispers about the irony of it all:

"Don't conventioneers want strip clubs? Isn't there a symbiotic relationship between the skin trade and trade shows? Rather than a blight on our image, aren't the dance bars a recruiting tool to attract the kind of conventions that we were promised would help the MCC pay for itself?"

It was a weird kind of — forgive the pun — conventional wisdom: something everyone accepted that no one would acknowledge publicly. Is it true? You'd believe it from reading the customer reviews on The Ultimate Strip Club List website.

"Christie's closed this month to make room for a new convention center," groused one tnexpress2003 back in 2010. "Why would conventioneers want to come to a city that has run the adult entertainment industry out of town? Nashville was as wild as Tampa 10 years ago." A poster going by bassbust1 seconded these thoughts: "Seems like this place has really taken a turn for the worse since the new laws passed a while back."

But more authoritative evidence? That's where the story began to change. The convention business has shifted since the Roger Sterlings of the world were chasing cigarette girls. Such gatherings may have been largely a by-men-for-men proposition 50 years ago, when Printers Alley was the hub of naughty Nashville nightlife (as Randy Fox describes here).

Now, though, at a time when Las Vegas mounts expensive PR campaigns to make its reputation more unsavory, the question is worth asking: Is the old perception of the convention business — an enterprise built tacitly on private dances in VIP rooms — as much of a relic as the convention model itself?

Needless to say, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau greets this line of inquiry as enthusiastically as the Chamber of Commerce would a sequel to Gummo. Asked if the quality or quantity of Nashville's adult entertainment ever comes up in negotiations with potential clients — or if the bureau ever brings it up in its pitches — CVB President Butch Spyridon is adamant that it does not.

"Never!!" Spyridon responds via email. But he quickly adds, "That doesn't mean I am so naive as to think some people don't go!!"

Actually, the CVB has little reason to hem and haw. The top 10 American cities for conventions, according to an analysis by the convention logistics firm Cvent, are Orlando, Washington, Las Vegas, Miami, Chicago, San Diego, Phoenix, Atlanta, Dallas and New Orleans. The big attraction these 10 cities offer is somewhat less exotic than dancers — space and hotel rooms.

These are the prime drivers for convention traffic, according to the numerous studies the CVB cited during the hard sell for the Music City Center. Nashville therefore needed a bigger space than the outdated convention center, MCC proponents reasoned, and it needed more hotel rooms in the urban core.

Is there a second correlation, though, between convention traffic and strip clubs? Not really. Of the top 10 convention cities, Las Vegas and Miami rank third and fourth among U.S. cities with the most strip clubs. (New York, as ever, is first. Start spreading the news.)

Atlanta and Dallas have reputations as glitzy strip-club towns, and New Orleans is as sinful as anywhere in the country. But a true indicator that gentlemen's clubs produce an increase in convention traffic would be if a relatively small city with a relatively paltry convention center had an inflated ranking. Which brings us to Portland, Ore.

Among large American cities, Portland is without a doubt the strip-club capital. It has a population of only 593,000, and yet there are more than 50 strip clubs within its city limits. Las Vegas, by contrast, has an almost identical population and an anything-goes reputation Portland can't match — yet it boasts "only" 34 licensed dance clubs.

So if prevalence of strip clubs translates into convention business, Portland should rank right up there beside Vegas, right? Wrong. Portland barely cracks the top 50 cities in Cvents rankings.

Or take Tampa. Much was made of Tampa's reputation as "the strip-club capital of the world" ahead of the 2012 GOP Convention. But it's not even the strip-club capital of Florida. Miami has 30 in the city, 50 if the Fort Lauderdale corridor is included. Even if Tampa gets by on its reputation — ill-earned though it may be — it's not doing the city much good as a convention destination. It's 32nd in convention rankings.

And Nashville? With just five licensed adult-entertainment clubs remaining, according to the Sexually Oriented Licensing Board, Music City ranks 14th as a convention town — far higher than much more skin-friendly cities.

In part, the reason for the mental connection between a large number of strip clubs and a large number of conventions is media-driven. The Tampa/GOP story was an easy one to write because the club owners there were so eager to give it. In a clever piece of timing, a Harvard study released in the weeks before the political conventions showed Republicans were likely to spend more at strip clubs than Democrats.

But these national trend pieces rarely follow up to see if their preconceived notions were true. In the weeks after the convention, Tampa club owners told the Tampa Tribune they overstated their rosy predictions of Republicans making it rain into their coffers. Most clubs reported just slight upticks, analogous to what happens when the Buccaneers play a home game against a team whose fanbase travels well — say, Pittsburgh.

Yet the "strip clubs equal convention business" story has enough nuggets of truth that it sounds plausible. Las Vegas has a lot of conventions, for example, and a lot of strip clubs, ergo ... But the fact is, Las Vegas has a lot of entertainment in general. More importantly to meeting planners, it has readily available, cheap hotel rooms and lots of meeting space. The same goes for Dallas and Atlanta, which also boast the advantages of being major airline hubs, easy to get in and out of (if not to get around).

What makes it difficult to assess the direct correlation between strip clubs and convention business is the lack of up-to-date information. The Association of Club Executives, a strip-club trade association, frequently touts a Georgia State University study showing that Atlanta attracted convention business because of its strip-club reputation. But that study is 13 years old and relies on data even older.

Indeed, that study is commonly cited because there haven't been many others to replace it, even given the changes in the workplace and American sexual mores. As opponents of the MCC said in the mid-Aughts, during the battle over the center, the data used to support building convention centers is outdated. They had a point. But the data that supports a correlation between strip clubs and convention recruitment is equally out of date.

For one thing, the demographics of the workforce have shifted. According to the Association of Destination Management Executives, a convention operators' trade group, conventioneers are increasingly female, and more and more conventions are sold as family trips with an occasional meeting. That's why Orlando does so well, and why Vegas went through its — some would say lamentable — Disneyfication. No longer are conventions simply tens of thousands of 50-something salarymen invading a town like horny Visigoths.

Based on the available data, it's hard to argue that strip clubs help cities attract conventions. If anything, it's the other way around: A booming convention trade helps strip clubs.

VCG Holdings is one of the country's largest strip-club operators. It's also a public company, which means it must file numerous annual reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission. That makes VCG a rarity in the exotic dance industry, a trade dominated by small family-owned enterprises.

In 2009, VCG reported a decrease in revenue from the previous year of nearly 5 percent — a $2.6 million drop on its $57 million annual revenue. VCG's higher-end clubs took a 7.3 percent hit, which the company's accountants attributed to the decrease in convention business due to the recession. In other words, the convention business didn't drop because of the number of clubs: The clubs took a hit because of the drop in conventioneers.

A study by Exotic Dancer magazine (don't look for it at Kroger) claimed the cities with the highest-earning clubs — Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Las Vegas — were also among the top convention destinations. That much is true. But strip clubs are like any other business in a broad sense — they do well when there are people, and conventions bring people. A list of cities with the highest-earning bars and restaurants also include the top convention towns.

When people are in a new city looking for something to do, some of them — maybe even many of them — will find their way to a dance bar. And many others will eat in restaurants, and still others will go to a sports bar for a tipple. But it's not specifically a function of convention traffic. It's a function of increased humanity.

That's not to say strip clubs dont have a significant economic impact. The Sexually Oriented Business Licensing Board reports there are 386 dancers currently licensed in Nashville. According to the most recent figures from the Tennessee chapter of the Association of Club Executives (the K Street lobbyists for strip clubs), a dancer here averages a take-home of $1,200 to $1,500 per week — mostly in cash.

But it remains an open question whether adult businesses are a net positive on a community's economy. A piece of conventional wisdom ripe for closer scrutiny (one of several in this story) is the belief that strip clubs are hotbeds for crime. This line of reasoning has been furthered by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ruled on a number of occasions that cities can restrict adult businesses simply on the assumption they have "adverse secondary effects."

And yet a 2004 study published by the Law and Society Association showed that there is less violent crime associated with nude clubs than with bars that serve liquor. What's more, a study in Insurance Journal advised readers that underwriting gentlemen's clubs is a better risk than run-of-the-mill bars and restaurants. The clubs, the study explained, are increasingly focused on the safety, security and comfort of their patrons.

Yet somewhat surprisingly — as perhaps the last nail in the coffin of the strip-club/convention-center myth — the MCC hasn't triggered a stampede of new strip clubs. When Christie's was bulldozed, Cooper said he might re-enter the Nashville market if it made good business sense. Evidently it hasn't. The last new adult-business permit was issued in 2009, and that was for Hustler Hollywood, a retail store.

The licensing board says that from time to time, potential dance-club entrepreneurs will pick up applications for a club. As yet, though, none have sought to fill the void left by Christie's, Vivid or Ken's — which converted to the all-male dance club Arrow just after ground broke on the MCC, then found itself wanting for customers and closed.

If the MCC works as expected and draws millions of conventioneers, perhaps a club owner will decide the juice is worth the squeeze of all the regulation and permitting that has to be done to get a club opened. But now, just a few weeks from the center's official grand opening, none have.

Was there a time when Vegas or New Orleans or Dallas or Atlanta were convention destinations because they offered the workingman plenty of places to gaze upon nude bodies? Probably, back in the days of smoky rooms and chomped cigars and "guess what we can show ya they can't" — a milieu portrayed in tawdry detail in Robert Altman's Nashville. But today is more like the world of the ABC series Nashville: all business. Convention booking now is far more cutthroat and far more calculated, a sterile science of incentives, rent and rooms.

That leaves one conclusion about the link between a city's adult entertainment options and the conventioneers it draws: The big convention cities are big convention cities because they've always been big convention cities. Portland, the nakedest town in the country, still isn't one. Nashville, on the other hand, is well on its way, even with a paltry and declining number of clubs.

The tail, one might say, isn't wagging the dog.



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