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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.

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