It was a typical weeknight at the Gold Club in SoMa. The music was pounding at the San Francisco strip club, the drinks were flowing and a procession of dancers was spinning onstage. But a less distracted observer could spot something new: a sandwich board next to the velvet rope at the entrance. It was marketing the long-standing gentleman’s club at 650 Howard St. to a new customer base that the business hoped to attract in the coming week.
“Welcome Diplomats,” the sign read, mirroring the design of some of the official marketing put out by city officials for the forthcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. “Anonymity Assured. Your Privacy Is Our Priority.”
Typically, an event bringing tens of thousands of visitors from around the globe to the center of San Francisco might seem like a boon for nearby businesses. That’s particularly true for those that cater to a more adult demographic, like strip clubs, cannabis dispensaries and sex workers. But the tight APEC security lockdowns have many business owners viewing the event with more apprehension than excitement.
The Gold Club sits at the very edge of the red zone security perimeter established to protect the VIPs flooding the city for APEC. Already, crews have started to erect black fencing on nearby streets.
The Welcome Diplomats ad is also the first thing that pops up when visiting the club’s website, along with an FAQ that assures customers the business will be open during normal hours and offers suggested ride-share drop-off points.
“The biggest difference between [APEC] and, like, the Super Bowl is that this is still completely unknown,” said Axel Sang, the director of marketing for BSC Management, which owns the Gold Club. “But let’s make the most of it and plan for it, rather than sit on our laurels and not do anything.”
Sang said that the club plans to give complimentary admission to those with badges during certain hours, as well as offer some sponsored drink specials.
Gold Club General Manager Craig Bordeaux said that the staff has set up carpooling and discussed other transportation options to help people get to work. He’s also pivoted to scheduling dancers who live in San Francisco for the early shift to help ease the pressure of getting to the club on time.
A dancer who asked to be called Jessica said she’s been tracking the street closures and will probably have to leave hours earlier to get to work from Walnut Creek. Another said she took the week off because she has a concealed-carry weapon and is loath to deal with the additional security.
As for the business prospects during APEC week, Bordeaux is staying cautiously optimistic that a slower flow of regulars could be made up by new guests.
“We’re very upscale. We have a lot of high-profile tech people and athletes that come, and we’re very protective of their privacy,” Bordeaux said. “We understand that it might be people’s first time in San Francisco, in California, or even in an adult business, and we’re certainly welcoming them in. We’re ready to roll.”
Deliveries of supplies pose their own challenges. Many of the businesses near the security zone have front-loaded their deliveries in order to avoid the additional screening and logistical challenges of getting product during APEC week.
“I think the rule is if we run out of food items, it’s OK, but don’t run out of alcohol. Don’t run out of the booze,” said Joe Carouba, the owner of BSC Management.
Eros, a queer sex club and San Francisco legacy business at 132 Turk St. in the Tenderloin, has more prosaic concerns than APEC. Namely, the ongoing street construction around the corner from the business on Taylor Street.
Owner Ken Rowe is afraid of the area being a traffic choke point due to the vehicle detours being put in place around the Moscone Center. Rowe said he’s just hoping for the best and preparing as if it were a normal week.
Business in and around the Moscone Center has become all the more dependent on conventiongoers as foot traffic from office workers has dropped off significantly compared with pre-pandemic years.
Bloom Room, a cannabis dispensary that sits two blocks from Moscone, has stocked up, particularly on vape products, which tend to fly off the shelves during conferences like Dreamforce or Google Cloud Next.
Owner Stephen Rechif said the business has lined up a promotion from Bloom brand vapes to coincide with the event. Typically, he said sales tend to jump as the week and the conference lingers on and attendees look for a respite.
Rechif plans to put out a Bloom Room tent and to get workers to put flyers on the streets to draw in potential customers, many of whom may be from areas where cannabis use is prohibited.
“It’s strange because this is something totally new,” Rechif said. “We’re used to Dreamforce and we know what to expect, but this is still a bit of a mystery.”
One positive has been the mad rush to get the city spic-and-span for the convention, although Rechif said he is somewhat annoyed that long-standing issues around street conditions need a once-in-a-generation global conference to address.
“It’s interesting to see how efficient and focused change can really come when politicians’ careers are on the line,” Rechif said. “It’s been frustrating, but I’m not bitter about it. I’ll take the streets getting clean any way I can get it.”
Nate Haas, the owner of the dispensary Barbary Coast on the west edge of the security perimeter, echoed the frustration of many business owners about a lack of organized communication from city officials around APEC.
Haas describes the city’s messaging as pointing in different directions, simultaneously touting the estimated $50 million in economic impact from the event, while also warning people to steer clear of the area.
One nagging concern is that with the Secret Service managing the security for the conference, there could be some challenges in transporting a product that is still federally illegal. For Barbary Coast, that has meant loading up on deliveries of cannabis ahead of time, which threw a wrench in its normal operations and cash flow.
Although Haas is skeptical the number of “canna-curious” diplomats who are coming to San Francisco will be significant, he’s leaving the door open to be surprised. Barbary Coast is known for its high-end approach to cannabis, as well as its consumption lounge, the city’s first.
“If you’re skeptical, then you’re going to leave a believer,” Haas said. “If we can get them in the door, they’ll have a great experience, and it’ll be another gold-star day to try cannabis here in San Francisco.”
Even after going through his litany of complaints, Haas jokingly said he was heartened to hear that New Zealand was part of the APEC delegation.
“I was excited to see the Kiwis are coming. I know they love to smoke weed,” he said with a chuckle.
Police and other authorities often speak about an increase in demand for sex work during major events like APEC, but a number of scholars have found little evidence to support such suppositions.
Victoria Hayes at Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago-Kent College of Law wrote in a 2010 paper on sex trafficking and international sporting events that empirical evidence tracking sex work data is hard to come by.
Another paper on the subject, which studied major sporting events in three countries, found no or little link between these events and an increase in sex trafficking or sex work.
The authors of that work, Kathleen Deering, then a postdoctoral research fellow and now a professor, and Assistant Professor Kate Shannon—from the University of British Columbia—wrote that usual “recurrent moral panics” over the subject were overstated.