LAS VEGAS — It was only a matter of time before the strip clubs and cabbies went to war.
Las Vegas' fortunes, which have fallen along with the nation's, can be measured in shorter airport lines, sparse roulette crowds and lighter freeway traffic. But the recession also has strained the "green handshake" culture, where businesses trade cash and favors for recommendations from doormen, concierges, limo drivers and cabbies.
In the taxi world, the practice is called "spiff" — when strip clubs pay drivers to steer bachelor parties or frat boys their way. The clubs depend on cabbies, who are de facto guides for millions of visitors to Las Vegas and considered so vital that casinos routinely hold "driver appreciation" events.
"The clubs are being shaken down," said Neil Beller, an attorney for Deja Vu Showgirls and Little Darlings, which recently sued rivals that pay cabbies more. A hearing on a defendant motion to dismiss the case is scheduled for March.
Larry Beard spends $10,000 a week marketing the clubs that filed the lawsuit; they're owned by the same company and offer nude dancers but no alcohol. The clubs pay up to $200,000 a month to cabbies, who bring in a third of their guests, he said.
Beard said paying the cabbies $20 a passenger hasn't been enough to compete for a dwindling pool of customers. Some places are paying $70.
Business is off about 15 percent, Beard said. Men who gave dancers $300 now spend $35. Packing the clubs has become more important than ever.
"My advertising dollars get them in the cab and then a driver says, 'Oh, it's burned down' or 'The girls are ugly,' " Beard said. "If they go somewhere else, I've just been robbed."
But the cabbies view the handouts as a lifeline — particularly in a recession.
Clark County's taxi industry grew steadily from 2001 to 2007, with nearly $320 million in revenue in 2007, the Nevada Taxicab Authority said. The average salary for a cabby is about $27,000, according to federal estimates, although some say unreported tips push it far higher.
"These drivers looked at Las Vegas as a pot of gold," said Lynn Pierson, publisher of Trip Sheet, an industry magazine.
But in December, according to the Taxicab Authority, revenue was down almost 14 percent from the same period in 2007, and the number of trips plummeted 20 percent.
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"You used to do two to three trips an hour," said Greg Bambic, president of the nonprofit Professional Drivers Association. "Now you're lucky to do one, and you have to hustle."
Gene Brady, a driver for 19 years, said his average tip has dropped from $3 to $2. He hasn't eaten at a restaurant in at least six months and is using razors for weeks longer than he once did. As a unit president for United Steelworkers Local 711a, which represents drivers at several companies, Brady has been asked whether the union has funds for cabbies sleeping in their cars.
Inevitably, the spiff spat returned.
"During boom times, money solves a lot of problems," Brady said. "During starvation times, every issue becomes a big deal."
In the months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans were afraid to fly and tourism went bust, Peter Eliades of the topless club Olympic Garden rallied his compatriots to pay cabbies $5 a customer. Within 24 hours, other clubs were wooing drivers with bigger tips and Eliades took the quarrel to court.
He accused the cabbies of diverting tourists by saying certain clubs were unclean, closed or packed with pickpockets.
A judge issued a preliminary injunction against payola-type practices because, she said, "cabdrivers have the ability to cripple the industry."
In 2005, a state legislator tried to ban taxis from accepting bonuses from businesses. (Restaurants, wedding chapels and gun stores have been known to slip cabbies cash.) It was vetoed by then-Gov. Kenny Guinn, and the squabble was mostly set aside.
But amid the worst downturn in decades — visitor volume was off 9.8 percent in November compared with the same month in 2007 — the perennial irritant again seems pertinent.
In addition to suing Spearmint Rhino, Sapphire and other clubs, Deja Vu and Little Darlings filed a complaint with the Taxi Authority against several cab companies and included a report by private investigators.
The investigators asked drivers to take them to Deja Vu or Little Darlings; cabbies instead offered rides to Asian-massage parlors and gave out booklets of scantily clad women who supposedly made hotel room visits.
A cabby identified as Aris admitted in the report that the Treasures club paid him in money and hot dogs. A driver named George, who took the investigators to Sapphire for free, said one club was "full of gangsters" and called the Little Darlings dancers "old hogs." To cabby John, the same women were "chicks with bullet wounds."
And driver after driver, without much prompting, reflected on the economy's sorry state. A French cabby, for one, told the investigators to go to Sheri's Cabaret, which paid drivers up to $70 a passenger but on that night was doling out $50.
"He said it was hard to make a living," the report says, "and harder every day in Las Vegas."