Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Dollars and Sense: Nudist Economics Drive Tough Choices

Where were you when you heard the news that the Space Shuttle exploded about ten years ago?  Two members of your Bare Platypus team remember vividly. We were sitting in the manager’s office of a nudist club that was about to go over to the “Dark Side” and begin catering to a distinctly sexual market.  We had driven several hundred miles to press our case that continuing to serve a straightforward sunbathing clientele would pay better in the long run.  Besides, the club in question had spent over a decade building its brand as a great place to enjoy Southern weather and down-home hospitality.  Why throw all that away?

For his part, the manager had just finished explaining the myriad reasons that the club’s ownership didn’t feel it could afford to court a “wholesome” market anymore. That’s when some gasps from people watching a news program in the restaurant just beyond the office got our attention and we went out to learn about the shuttle tragedy.  We would like to report that our mission that weekend was a success but it failed.  Nudism lost a club and we gained yet another lesson about a disturbing trend: Economics are making it more and more difficult to stay on the straight and narrow.
Years ago when land was cheap and leisure time more plentiful most nudist clubs in North America got their start as cooperative clubs.  A group of people who wanted to enjoy their birthday suits would put some of their money together and buy some land out a couple hours’ drive from the nearest big city. Such driving distances provided seclusion and lower property costs, but amenities were few. 

At first a club might offer only a volley ball net, a sunning lawn, a central water spigot, and a tenting area to weekend visitors.  Outhouses were more common than flush plumbing, electricity and telephone service years away too.  What’s more, club volunteers had the responsibility for maintaining grounds, cutting the lawns, and replacing toilet paper rolls.  But at least they got to be naked and it kept costs down.  Some clubs still function this way (Squaw Mountain Ranch in the Pacific Northwest is a great example.)
As travel and consumer habits changed in America, nudist consumers changed too.  Leisure time became scarce for some, who valued it too much to be able to commit to weekly lawn care assignments or front desk duty.  Outhouses and unheated showers?  Even Boy Scout camps grew to have better accommodations than that.  Building codes and health laws added layers of complexity to what used to be simple camp improvement projects also.

As full-time personnel replaced volunteers, electric lights replaced lanterns, and state of the art swimming pools replaced the pond, costs for providing those services rose.  Problem is, recently the costs have been escalating to extremes that are putting many campgrounds and smaller hotels out of business---nudist or no.
The cost of providing septic service that meets code to a campground of 60 to 100 sites, for example, would astound anyone who has not solicited quotes from a construction company recently.  Figures well north of $500,000 are common---and that’s with staff from said business performing much of whatever manual labor doesn’t require the services of an engineer!  One half a million dollars! Before the first pool is dug, hot tub installed, or tennis court poured.  Not that those would satisfy the demands of today’s travelers, who also want wifi internet access, a restaurant with a varied menu, etc.

In our fifteen years serving the nudist travel market we naturally met some people who were more successful than others.  But we never met club owners who were striking it filthy rich.  Even the ones with the business savvy to prosper most would probably confide to you that there are easier places to invest time and money that would yield a lot more money with less effort. 
Ultimately, we believe that the same economics that are turning KOA campgrounds into Walmarts has a lot to do with why your local nudist club has difficulty making it without supplemental income from things like high-end alcohol sales.  For those clubs it’s hard to make it if their clients consist of the family that retires at 8:30 pm each night after preparing its own meal at the tent site. Or volleyball players who turn in early so that they will be well-rested for the next day’s tournament---and then soon leave after that tournament. We may lament the “party crowd” that has emerged in some clubs (we do), but we rarely offer an alternative for producing the income potential “party crowds” offer.

If you belong to a private or cooperative club that does a good job walking the “straight and narrow,” great!  Extend a thank you to the employees or owners who make it possible from time to time.  Try to help it save money with simple things like turning the lights off in a room not being used, conserve the hot water where you can, and patronize the restaurant when you can.  We’re not asking you to cue the sympathy violins, but we’d rather not hear funeral dirges either.