Recently there have been plenty of rumblings in the press concerning the future of North America’s gay bathhouses. As an investor in four gay men’s saunas and the president of the almost five-year-old North American Bathhouse Association, I wish to address some of the predictions.
I became a shareholder in 1972 when new clubs were opening across the country in cities large and small. The first operations were simple to build, and older buildings were easy to buy or lease. At the end of the decade, there were nearly 200 known gay bathhouses across the United States. By the mid ’80s and the onset of the AIDS crisis, there were important decisions to be made. Several major cities began writing regulations for gay bathhouses, which brought about the closing of operations that chose not to make the investment needed to comply with local authorities.
By the early ’90s there were many changes taking place across the U.S. and Canada. Many of us who had investments in multiple locations decided to make the necessary investment to renovate or build new facilities. Some of the owners who were in leased facilities or properties suitable for future development chose to continue as they were with minimal lease-hold improvements. Meanwhile, other owners were aging and losing interest. Their facilities became dated and difficult to maintain, and the customers drifted away. Soon their saunas closed or were purchased and renovated.
As with any business in this industry, there is the growing cost of renovating older properties to update our facilities with gyms, new saunas, whirlpools, and swimming pools, for example. But providing space to promote safe sex became a part of doing business for owners and managers of gay men’s saunas and health clubs, so the need to test for sexually transmitted infections and provide education about the growing usage of party drugs has become quite important.
Meanwhile, the use of the Internet, social media, and mobile devices introduced a new factor to the businessmen who had made seven-figure investments in new or renovated facilities. Gay and bisexual men didn’t even need to leave their homes to meet each other. While at first many of the owners were slightly shell-shocked by the new liberated social media excitement, they soon began to participate by creating a presence. This same type of transition was taking place in the gay bar and nightclub segment and even in gay media.
These days, the members of the NABA own about 50 gay men’s saunas, but the purpose remains. For the past couple of decades, the local sauna has become a social club for many gay or bisexual men. They can come in for many reasons, whether it’s to work out in the gym, swim, take in the sun, or attend weekend barbecues. Some are taking a break in the middle of their workday. There are DJs and full moon parties with appearances by porn stars and all kinds of events that are now attracting new patrons. Gay saunas have continued to be increasingly involved in community activities and continuing to promote safe sex and testing for STIs and HIV on premises.
Around the world, we’re seeing that most gay saunas continue to be profitable — in fact, those in several cities have reported that they are busier then they have ever been in the decades since they opened.
The future of the gay sauna business is good for those owners who continue to invest in their facilities. An example from overseas is in Amsterdam, where a new sauna has been built in the shadow of the iconic Thermos Sauna. It is doing good business and bringing in new faces to a modern space. European saunas have one great advantage since they can serve alcohol and prepare food on the premises. Thus the pressure is on the owners of North American saunas to create a welcoming atmosphere without the addition of alcoholic beverages.
Sometimes people just need a clean and safe place to meet others and have fun. A nearby gay men’s sauna can provide that, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
DENNIS HOLDING is a sauna owner and president of the North American Bathhouse Association.