TAMPA — Two competing businessmen have been on the phone recently, taking the unusual step of sharing their business plans and renovation projects.
Both are remodeling for the Republican National Convention, adding touches to make the politically powerful feel at ease and preparing to stock up on more high-end products.
Rob Rice, manager of one of the establishments, says he has no problems bouncing ideas off a competitor, not when "there's going to be plenty to go around."
The businesses: two of Tampa's better known strip clubs — Tampa Gold Club and Scores Gentlemen's Club & Steakhouse.
Across the Tampa Bay region, many of the estimated 50 strip establishments are upgrading lighting, hiring dancers and creating private nooks to cash in on some of the 50,000 visitors expected for the GOP convention. Long one of Tampa's signature industries, strip clubs are preparing for the RNC as earnestly as the city has been repairing bridges, repaving streets and planting park benches downtown.
Adult industry writers and operators compare what Tampa strip clubs could earn during the week of Aug. 27 to the 2009 Super Bowl.
"The only thing the adult club owners and me can compare it to is the Super Bowl — except that it's five times bigger," said Paul Allen, publisher of the Night Moves adult business trade magazine. "You've got a bunch of people coming to Tampa Bay. They're not in meetings 24 hours a day. What do you think they're going to be doing at night? You can only eat so many steak dinners. You can only look at so many sunsets."
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Scores, which opened just a year and a half ago on N Dale Mabry Highway, redesigned its VIP areas earlier this month with boxy leather benches, new lights and four private rooms that rent for $150 for 15 minutes, or $450 an hour.
Each room includes a leather couch, end table and a 52-inch TV. The dark wood walls will soon be mirrored, said Scores general manager Isaac Zalta. Curtains hide everything inside.
"If you don't really want to stand out," Zalta said, "this is where you want to be."
While Scores is considering raising its cover charges for the convention, operators of the Pink Pony club about a mile and a half away plan to stay open around the clock. They're also adding pink or purple spotlights to highlight the neon-colored building, manager James Kovacs said. It's sister operation — The Penthouse Club — is redoing its landscaping.
Outside Ybor City, the cavernous Tampa Gold Club just put in black granite countertops and a marble tile floor in the lobby. Three flat screens will soon be installed on the wall. A wine rack will soon join display cases of Dom Perignon and cigars.
Two private suites, or "sky boxes," are being repainted red and its private bars are being renovated. New furniture has been ordered to match the suites' stages and stripper poles.
Club operators have added a private entrance with a hidden staircase that leads directly to the sky boxes, which rent for $750 an hour. With 4 acres of parking, a limousine could pull right up to the special side entrance and drop off guests without anyone inside or outside catching a glimpse.
"They can be taken upstairs so there's no contact with the general public," manager Rob Rice said. "Discretion is going to be of the utmost importance."
The club is one of 13 that South East Showclubs owns, including Bliss Cabaret of Clearwater, where a $20,000 "intelligent lighting" system was installed last weekend programmed to display designs, lighting sequences and lasers.
The Gold Club's chef has even been experimenting with more upscale offerings, such as $7 grouper nuggets and an $18 osso bucco — a slow-cooked veal shank in a rich stew over mashed potatoes.
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The owners know customers don't come to their clubs to look at landscaping and marble lobbies. They come to look at undressed women, and most clubs are looking to hire many more willing and, in their subjective view, worthy to dance during the convention.
Alibi, a club on N Dale Mabry that typically rotates about eight dancers a night, plans to have 20 on staff. The Pink Pony plans to recruit on Craigslist and Facebook, while the Gold Club has asked for the "best girls" from chain members in Savannah and West Palm Beach.
Clubs also expect to hire dancers from outside Florida.
"There is a huge circuit," Rice said, explaining that some high-earning strippers — who claim to take in as much as $2,000 a night — go from NASCAR races to World Series games to golf tournaments.
"These aren't your average girls," he said. "These are your high-end entertainers."
While the iconic Mons Venus hasn't done any RNC-related renovations, the club plans to hire more staff — or "as many that come through that door that's a '10,' " manager Lorry Kasner said.
"They just kind of show up," Kasner said. "A lot of girls sort of follow the big events. I'm sure they'll show up."
In-town adult entertainers also are preparing for the GOP convention.
Gold Club dancer Mimi Diamonde, 26, who remembers making about $10,000 during the 2009 Super Bowl week, plans to wear a T-shirt advertising her club, along with "booty shorts" and high heels to malls and Starbucks during the day to recruit night-time customers.
"I'm pretty sure $1,000 and above," Diamonde said, predicting her earnings.
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While Tampa strippers have high hopes, Twin Cities strip club operators warned that the convention may not rain as many dollar bills as they envision.
St. Paul, Minn., hosted the convention in 2008, and at least one club in nearby Minneapolis said the heavy security and a nonstop political event schedule reined many visitors in.
"It was not what we expected to see," said Carol Lynn Miller, director of operations at the Seville Club. "We were much more hopeful. We had increased business, but it wasn't crazy."
In Tampa, club operators say they already are seeing positive signs. A customer Rice would not disclose has booked Gold Club sky boxes after flying in to scout Tampa's entertainment venues. Others have asked about renting entire clubs — though most managers say it'll take an unprecedented offer to sideline them from a free-for-all frenzy of guaranteed customers.
"We've had a few feeler calls," Scores' Zalta said. "It'd have to be the deal of the century to shut it down."
"We've never done it that I know of," said the Mons' Kasner. "But nothing is out of the question."
Justin George can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3368.