June 23, 2008 -- Advertisers like to say sex sells, but the rules of the game change when gas prices go up.
As the Silver State's fuel prices hit all-time highs, Nevada's brothel employees find it harder to make a living these days, leaving some people wondering whether they should stay in the business.
At the Stardust Ranch in eastern Nevada, bartender Cindy Howe says they're "down to only two girls. They don't want to come here because business is down."
The brothel is about to change hands after soaring gas prices affected the number of customers willing to drive out to Ely. Now its owners are forced to sell.
Truckers, who provide steady business to many of Nevada's 28 legal brothels, are now paying 40 percent more this year to fill up their rigs. A gallon of diesel averages $4.69 across the country, up $1.89, or 67.5 percent, from a year ago, according to the Department of Energy.
"Most of these truckers used to have $100 they could spend," Howe says. Now they're struggling to pay for fuel.
The Stardust's out-of-the-way location in downtown Ely doesn't help matters. Ely is 240 miles from Las Vegas, 320 miles from Reno and 240 miles from Salt Lake City, surrounded by open spaces.
"The cost of fuel is killing us," says Karl Hardy, who also works at the Stardust as a bartender. "Tourists can't afford it."
Hardy says he's worried about his job, but may find other work welding for a nearby mining company.
To provide customers with incentives, the Ranch offered free showers, parking and coffee. None of these perks translated into more business.
George Flint, a lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Owners' Association, says many of the brothels are seeing decreases in revenue anywhere from 20 to 45 percent. He says he has "never seen it this dramatic" in 48 years.
"There are more and more women having second thoughts about staying in the business," he says. "The return for their time is not there. In northern Nevada, most of our business is supported by the truckers. They don't have much disposable income left."
Other brothels rely on tourists who are no less cash-strapped. In western Nevada at the Kit Kat Guest Ranch in Carson City, co-owners Jacie Caramella, 23, and her mother Shelia, 50, says they've cut costs to trim their overhead.
"We could be buried right now," Jacie Caramella says. "This year really hasn't been a good year."
Their clients, who tend to come from San Francisco and Sacramento, aren't traveling as often now that gas prices are so high. "I would say we're probably down 25 percent," Sheila Caramella says. "We had a really bad winter up near Reno, so you don't have the people coming over the hill."
But some of these Nevada institutions aren't lacking for customers.
Jim Davis and his wife, Bobbi Davis, co-own the Shady Lady Ranch in Esmeralda County, near Las Vegas. In between answering the door to let in three different customers, Jim Davis explained that unlike most brothels where the women negotiate one-on-one with their clients behind closed doors in a private room, the Shady Lady posts its prices online. The business also advertises monthly promotions, such as June's $25 discount off the regular 40-minute rate of $200.
"Other brothels play the negotiation game," he says. "It's too far to drive for that kind of thing."
Davis, 76, who attributes much of Shady Lady's success to his 54-year-old wife's "brilliance and marketing," says that the majority of its profits come from people driving out from Vegas, mostly men on business trips who generate "a ton of repeat business."
"Next month we're going to give a gas card out and we think that will help some," Jim Davis says.
July's promotion offers customers a $50 gas card if they spend at least $300 on services there.
"Good service and a friendly atmosphere will win over gas prices any day," he says.
One-man promotional machine Dennis Hof, the self-proclaimed "PT Barnum of booty," says he lives in another world, "the bunny world."
The owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch has been insulated from economic trouble, thanks to frequent national news coverage and HBO's cinema verite series "Cathouse," a documentary-style portrayal of the Bunny Ranch that debuted in 2002.
Business is up 20 percent for the year, says Hof, thanks in part to his latest promotions. His nationwide Father's Day radio contest asked callers to nominate their dad for a VIP Bunny Ranch booty pass, and June 11 Hof vowed to double the value of any IRS stimulus check that a customer cashed at the brothel and used on a Ranch Pleasure Party.
"The sex doesn't last long," he says. "The party is what it's all about."
Hof's persistence has paid off in a Web site that gets 125 million hits a month and a database of more than 17,000 women who have expressed interest in working for him. "Most girls are making a six figure income in a year, some a mid-six figure income," he says. He hires around eight women a month and loses six or so every year.
Naudia, 26, is one of the many women who entered the brothel business last year. She joined the Wild Horse Adult Resort and Spa about seven months ago, a place she describes as the "five star of all brothels."
Longing to leave her nine-to-five "average lifestyle" in California, Naudia began researching other jobs on the Internet. "I wanted to be a dancer -- that's how I got involved in this," she says. By searching online she found a brothel advertisement.
"I had never even heard of a brothel before," she says. "It advertised that girls sometimes make $20,000 to $40,000 a week."
Her income isn't nearly as lavish, but it's lucrative enough that she says her "lifestyle has turned around."
The Wild Horse brothel is doing better than expected this quarter. Even so, Naudia says some of her fellow workers reminisce about earlier times when business was more robust.
"The girls tell me it used to be so much better," she says. "But I can't miss something I never had."
Rise of the 'Stay-cation'
Right now the Nevada Commission on Tourism is running commercials across state lines to lure tourists into the state. Within Nevada they're asking Las Vegas residents to visit Lake Tahoe, and encouraging people in Reno to go up highway 80 to Elko, a place commission spokeswoman Bethany Drysdale describes as the "heart of cowboy country."
She says Nevada's tourism industry is good overall, despite tough times in Sin City and Reno.
"Of course, gas prices are going to affect us," Drysdale says. "Gas prices are raising, airfare and everything, but we are such a drive destination as well. The whole state is projecting less tourism income than what was originally projected."
In 2007, 57 percent of visitors who came to rural Nevada traveled in their cars. Today gas prices are at an all-time high in Nevada and the rest of the country. Tourists and locals are paying $4.27 a gallon in Las Vegas and $4.21 a gallon in Reno, according to AAA.
The rise in fuel costs has prompted the Nevada Commission on Tourism to rethink some of its initiatives. "We're trying to get more in-state travel. People really are looking closer to home," Drysdale says. "There's a new trend called 'stay-cations' -- people vacationing in their own towns or nearby towns."
At the "world famous" Mustang Ranch and the Wild Horse Adult Resort and Spa brothels near Reno, general manager Susan Austin says she has noticed that the average tourist isn't traveling as far as he normally would.
The Mustang Ranch made headlines recently when production began on "Love Ranch," a movie starring Helen Mirren that's based on the ranch's infamous history. Austin serves as a consultant for the film.
Her reality, however, was a bit less glamorous earlier this year. After observing the sagging economy, she decided to lay off employees and trim back in the kitchen "and everywhere across the board to save one or two thousand a month." But in the past two weeks, business has picked up, partly due to "Love Ranch."
Several women have approached Austin looking for work. "When you see a huge influx of girls, you know they're not getting a lot of business," she says.
One of those women was Nyoka, 45, who was been working at the Mustang for the past three months. "This business is so unpredictable," she says. "You can be having sex all day and not having sex the next day, but it has a way of averaging out."
Nyoka, a former nurse, left the health care industry after a divorce, an ailing parent and the pressures of supporting both her daughter and granddaughter made it difficult to pay the bills. At the encouragement of a friend, she began working at the Sagebrush Ranch brothel, outside Carson City, where she stayed for four years.
"The business just died down there," she says. "There's a couple of girls there who are doing very badly, and it's a sign of the times." Nyoka says women at the Sagebrush who used to work one week, then take the next week off, now work three months in a row.
When several of Nyoka's friends decided to leave the Sagebrush for the Mustang Ranch, Nyoka followed and hasn't looked back.
"I average three grand a week," she says. "I'm a little higher than average -- I'm a very young 45, but I have the mindset of a 45-year-old and I know what guys like. I think my secret talent is drawing out their fetishes."
Austin's brothels still draw customers, who drive in from four or five hours away, but she says they're "not getting fellows from Chicago or the East Coast -- if you know what I mean." Her resort compound typically holds up to 150 men during the course of a day. "Last year was a banner year," she says. But 2008 started out slow.
Even so, she's not worried about the future.
"I've got some great smiling ladies, let's put it that way," she says. "We'll survive this. And we'll be here and smiling when all this picks back up."
"Sex is sex," says Nyoka. "So, they'll make a budget for it."