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Summer Strip Club Slump

Missy Wilkinson on what the tourism downturn means for New Orleans' exotic dancers

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Club Eden sits in the shadow of the looming Jefferson Parish water tower, on a dead-end street scabbed with patched potholes. It neighbors a brick building whose cheery yellow storefront reads "Learning Tools, Inc.: Educational, Religious & School Supplies." Club Eden's sign: "Worldclass [sic] Gentlemen's Club."

  Inside, the club is dark; the air refrigerator-chill. The stage is empty and only two baseball-capped guys sit chatting with the bartender. It's a little past 7 p.m. on "Military Monday" (free admission with a military I.D.).

  "If we can get one military guy in here and he has a good time, he tells his friend," manager Daniel Preble says. A tall, broad-shouldered man wearing a purple shirt, black tie and vest, Preble constantly flicks his gaze between me and the security monitors. "The best way to get business in here is word of mouth."

  Getting people through the door is a concern for all service industry workers during the slow months of August and September. But exotic dancers feel the pinch more than most. Dancers pay house fees or rent to managers in exchange for a spot on the club's stage rotation and the privilege of selling lap dances and "Champagne rooms" to its customers. As independent contractors who pay to work, they're positioned to leave a shift with less money than when they came in.

  Preble estimates he gets 30 percent fewer customers during the summer months. "We experience a slight dropoff, but we try to cater to locals and regulars. Of course you see a decline in tourism, but we don't feel the pinch quite as bad as, say, downtown."

"I've worked various parts of the service industry in New Orleans since I've been in the work force," says "Sparkles," a pale redhead who declines to name the Bourbon Street club where she works. For the last 12 years, her jobs have included stripping, waiting tables, bartending and bike delivery. "August is the worst, always. September is also really bad. But stripping is the only job where you can actually lose money if people don't pay you — not to mention how much it costs to get your roots done, replace your makeup, tanning ... In a restaurant, you just have to make sure your uniform is pressed, slap on a little eyeliner and you're good to go. Worst-case scenario: You leave with $20.

  "In the strip club, you invest two hours getting ready and worst-case scenario, you lose $50."

  Preble doesn't expect many customers on Monday — it's the club's slowest night — so he intends to cap the number of dancers on shift in an attempt to avoid this scenario. "Tonight, I won't let more than eight to 10 girls work," he says. "Tuesday night no more than 20. We do good. We aren't Rick's [Cabaret] or Penthouse [Club], but we do well."

  Because he caps the number of women on shift and because fewer women work during the summer, Preble says the earnings potential at his club is good, though fewer "whales" (big spenders) come through the door.

  "Downtown you have a better chance at meeting that one customer who's a millionaire, who's going to spend a bunch of money, but you also have more girls to complete with," Preble says. "Plus, you have a lot of extra activities that go on downtown that we don't tolerate."

  "Athena," a dancer who meets me for coffee wearing knee socks, cut-off shorts and her pink hair in braids, works at Deja Vu Showgirls on Bourbon Street. She says her club has been busier this year than in past summers, but that doesn't always mean better money.

  "Last night was busy. It was just shit customers," she says. "They weren't spending. The crowd in the summer is younger; the businessmen aren't down here. It's bachelor parties from all over the country and people from neighboring states here for a wild weekend.

  "It's less money per person on average, but it's been all right. But if I showed up to work tonight, if I had a wild guess, there would be more girls than customers. The consistent business is really during convention season."

  "Melinda," a dancer at Rick's Sporting Saloon, says she sees a 50 to 70 percent decline in customers during the summer. It's also a time when she experiences a phenomenon she calls "bad-busy": a club crowded with people who may pay the cover charge and buy a drink, but who won't spend money on dancers.

  "The quality of clientele goes down in the summer," she says. "The managers think any body in a club is a good body. Last Thursday, the club was packed, but it was all couples and bachelorette parties. If you're a straight woman, why are you in a titty bar? Please leave. ... I don't even f—k with couples. And there are a lot less businessmen."

The disappearing-businessmen phenomenon is symptomatic of the decline in mid-summer conventions as a whole.

  "Every destination has a slower time, and for New Orleans, that is typically August and September," says Kelly Schulz, vice president of communications for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. "A lot of convention planners are hesitant to bring people to the city during the peak of hurricane season. This August, convention business is down about 50 percent compared to last year. It's a time when kids are going back to school; people aren't traveling as much."

  Schulz and Maria J. Ortiz, a tourism research analyst at the University of New Orleans, say the first half of the year is stronger in terms of spending and tourist activity. "Between January and June, we have more tourism activity than between the months of July and December, both in visitation and in spending. July and August are part of the second half, and there is definitely less activity and spending in the second half," Ortiz says.

  "Thomas," a strip club manager, is familiar with these ebbs and flows. He manages an out-of-state strip club that's near a military base, which guarantees consistent customers. Before that, he managed clubs on Bourbon Street and in the greater Baton Rouge area for almost 10 years. Good management is essential when it comes to keeping a club financially viable and creating a safe work environment — at all times, but especially during summer months. At one club where Thomas was assistant manager, the manager was inflexible on house fees, even when there weren't enough customers to allow dancers to earn money.

  "The rent was the rent, and the girls who showed up were expected to pay it come hell or high water," Thomas says. "[The manager] didn't give a shit what they had to do to make their money, as long as the rent got made. There was blatant prostitution. ... [That manager] is not with the company any longer."

  Melinda says she also has seen dancers resort to prostitution. "In the summer, in an effort to garner more money, the girls will do things they don't feel comfortable with because they feel they don't have a choice," she says. "You don't have to do that at all. And it creates a snowball effect because the customer who has a girl who is willing to do more will tell his friends about it, and they'll come in expecting that. It's horrible and it creates a bad working environment."

  Preble echoes those sentiments. "The wrong girl doing the wrong thing, the word spreads," he says. "The customers and the clean girls I get from Bourbon [Street] will tell me it's hard to give a $30 lap dance when a guy just asked me for a BJ for $40 because the last girl did it."

  Preble says he keeps his club clean by adopting a zero-tolerance policy, getting to know his dancers and limiting the number of dancers on shift. "We have a low girl count, we know what our girls are about, and we try to keep the 'ratchet bitches' out, as they say," Preble says.

Not all clubs follow these practices. Melinda, who has worked a variety of jobs in strip clubs, says the businesses can improve working environments and their income streams by following a few guidelines: "Management needs to stop treating girls like they're a house fee," she says. "They look at it thinking, 'I can have X girls on my shift and still get paid. Doesn't matter if they earn anything.'"

  A flexible house fee schedule also helps some clubs get through the slow summer months. When he worked there, Thomas says, "Rick's [Saloon] lowered their rent to $5 during the summertime. They made sure everyone was having fun — instead of having one shift drink per day, you could have an extra shift drink by swinging in the window."

  Melinda adds that it's unfair to expect dancers to tip out the managers. She also wishes management would consistently enforce rules rather than bending them during the summer. "During the high season, I see girls get fined for doing questionable things. But during the low season, the managers don't do that. It all comes down to consistency and remembering your girls are the cornerstone of your business."

  Athena says she earns more when she shows up to work with a good mindset, even if it's a slow night. "Summer is a little bit more rough, but you just have to take it week by week," she says. "When you have a bad night, you have to brush it off because when you show up with stress, you'll make less."

  Athena relaxes during slow nights at the club by reading a book. For her and other people struggling in the summer service industry trenches, there may be relief soon. "If you look at the convention calendar for the fall of 2013, we're up 60 percent compared to the same period of time in 2012," Schultz says.

  The income rush of fall, compared to the slowdown of summer, is a manifestation of what Melinda calls the "bipolar" nature of the business.

  "When you're bartending or waitressing, you get an hourly wage," she says. "Dancing is like placing a bet every night. It all boils down to a mental game."

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