Don't Ask, Don't Tell
When the Houston Convention Bureau's new Official Guide to Houston was released recently, conspicuously obvious by its absence was one chunk of Houston that some people might consider of particular interest to conventioneers -- the city's "adult entertainment industry."
Though ads for cabarets or gentlemen's clubs, as they've been euphemistically termed, have appeared in previous visitor's guides, this time around they were judged inappropriate. In the past, the ads for the clubs tended to the subtle, so much so that unless you knew what they were about you might wonder what was actually being promoted. There was talk of "kicking back" and "fabulous faces," or perhaps "over 100 entertainers," to get the message across that the establishment featured something other than just drinks and music. Cleavage, G-strings and $20 table dances weren't much in evidence. Even so, according to Eddie Webster, president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, the decision to ban the advertisements for adult entertainment clubs was based on public opposition to running the ads in a civic publication.
That public opposition, however, doesn't seem to extend into the membership of the GHCVB. At least three adult clubs have been allowed to join and pay dues to an organization that would just as soon not admit publicly that they exist.
Robert Watters, owner of Rick's Cabaret, describes the advertising ban as an example of the convention bureau's ineptitude and as one more reason why it fails to attract "significant" conventions. Webster admits that convention business this year has been "flat" compared with last year, but he expects an upturn in 1995.
Watters maintains that Houston is known for what he describes as "sophisticated and upscale" adult entertainment and insists that that reputation could be used as one of the city's selling points. "That is an asset to Houston," he says. "The fact they would eliminate advertising for that asset, yet they are trying to induce convention business to come to Houston -- that strikes me as craziness."
Webster claims that the bureau received a "great number" of complaints about the ads in previous visitor's guides and that roughly one-third of the conventions booked into Houston wouldn't allow the guide to be handed out at registration tables because of them. The protests were verbal and written, Webster says, and some came from local elected officials -- though he admits that aside from City Councilmember Eleanor Tinsley, he can't remember which local politicians contacted him
"Most of the local complaints said they didn't like the image it portrayed of Houston," says Webster. "We got complaints from out-of-towners. Meeting planners thought [the guide] lacked taste and didn't want to distribute it."
Tinsley recalls talking to Webster to express her opposition to the ads and emphasizes that it was an image thing. "I understand that many people who attend conventions go to the various gentlemen's clubs," she says, "but I don't know that we have to put the ads in this organ. It's not good for the city's image."
"There's a lot of these clubs here. You can't ban this activity," Tinsley adds. "I object to billboards, and they're certainly on a lot of billboards in town. It's not that someone can't find out about them if they're interested."
Maybe so, says Watters, but unless people get out into the city, they're not going to see any billboards. And it may take the guide to lure a conventioneer beyond the confines of his hotel. "Convention business is a significant part of our business," Watters says. "When conventions are in town, we sell more alcohol than we do otherwise, and therefore we love convention business. There is no question that being in the convention guide is probably the best way to getting access to convention traffic. Being denied that will be a significant loss."
Having said that, Watters admits that after running ads in previous guides, he did not advertise in the last guide that was still open to adult clubs. Four other adult clubs, however, did.
In recent years, the visitor's guide was published semi-annually. But it was recently redesigned, put on a quarterly schedule, and had its circulation quadrupled from 50,000 copies to 200,000 copies, including 25,000 in Spanish. Whether this increase in circulation and frequency had anything to do with the ad ban is uncertain. But what is certain is that there have been a few skirmishes before between some adult clubs, the city and the convention bureau.
Back in 1987, when the George R. Brown Convention Center opened, several members of the production crew of the television series Dallas, in town for a convention, were arrested at Rick's for "public lewdness." The charges were later dropped, but Watters says such incidents have created a less than ideal relationship between the clubs and the convention bureau.
At about the same time, Gerard Tollett of then-mayor Kathy Whitmire's administration drew heat for taking prospective conventioneers to Rick's and putting the outing on his city-paid expense account. At the time, Tollett was quoted as saying, "That's where they wanted to go" when asked why he took them to Rick's. Watters later put up billboards featuring the Tollett quote as a promotion for Rick's.
The bars seem to walk a tightrope, on one side wanting publicity to boost business, but worrying on the other that too high a profile might lead to public outrage or crackdowns by the vice squad. An executive at one club even declined to go on the record about the convention bureau's ad ban. "It's a no-win situation for us," she said. "We usually try not to get involved in the press unless we feel real certain the article won't do us any harm. Our position is that to people who don't mind us being here, who enjoy the taxes we pay, we're not a problem. The ones who do mind, anything they see about us re-ignites their refusal to understand modern-day mores."
One bar worker, who also asked to remain anonymous, says the clubs are a big attraction for many conventioneers. "That's probably the main reason they even have conventions here," he said. "There's nothing else to do here, not much." He adds that he can't understand how a taxpayer-supported publication could refuse advertising from taxpayers. The convention bureau, with an $8 million budget and 56 employees, is supported by Harris County tax funds and the city's hotel-bed tax.
Watters has a ready defense of his livelihood. "There's nobody who forces anybody to come through the doors here," he says. "Everybody is here quite voluntarily and is quite content to pay the cover charge to come in and watch. It's available entertainment. Now if you want to restrict people's access to that, then that smacks of censorship and repression."
One option Webster says was presented to the local clubs was a separate publication, something short of a magazine, that would be theirs alone and would feature Houston's "adult entertainment." No one seemed interested, he says. Watters says he hadn't heard of the proposal, and at any rate isn't excited by it. "What would it be," he asks, "something they'd keep under the counter so you'd have to ask for it?
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