Nude resorts bare all in bid for new customers
Asbury Park Press, NJ
BY PHIL DAVIS
THE PHOTO OF THE attractive brunette is strategically cropped, but the ad makes it clear she's wearing nothing but a smile. The pitch: She swims nude at Paradise Lakes Resort in Land O' Lakes, Fla., and so can you.
Lake Como, Paradise's across-the-lake neighbor, promises a more rustic family-style retreat, including naked camping and karaoke on its 210-acre grounds.
Just up the road, brash newcomer Caliente Resort and Spa entices nudists with conspicuous consumerism — flashy facilities, lavish homes and a medical spa featuring laser hair removal.
Three of Pasco County's six nudist resorts are taking off the gloves and everything else as they attempt to attract more of the worldwide clothing-optional market, which has tripled in size since 1992.
"Pasco is becoming the mecca of North American nudism," said Richard Mason, an activist who helped open a stretch of Miami-Dade County's Haulover Beach to nudists in 1991.
"A lot of people think nudists live in a colony like hippies. Then, you see a place like Caliente. It's like a country club," he adds.
Modesty is not an issue
Pasco's nudist tussle began in the late 1990s when Paradise manager Chuck Foster broke away and began planning the 120-acre Caliente facility.
Through the years, he has brought over several Paradise employees, most recently Deb Bowen, who is now Caliente's marketing director.
"They took the best of our ideas," said Joe Lettelleir, president of the 72-acre Paradise Lakes resort.
"They didn't create their own identity. The bottom line is there were some growing pains. We certainly wish them well," he adds.
Modesty is not a nudist's strong point. That's certainly true at Caliente.
The resort's $300-a-night Mediterranean-themed waterfront villas and expansive pools featuring waterfall grottoes have knocked Paradise Lakes from the pinnacle of the nudist resort pyramid.
Now, Caliente is circulating plans to add an RV section that could threaten some of the smaller resorts that cater to motoring nudists.
"There is nothing like this in the nudist world," Bowen said of the resort.
"I felt we could do it better, which, obviously, we have," Foster said. "Como is rustic. Paradise is Motel 6. This is the Ritz Carlton."
Doug and Adele Butler, a Virginia couple, chose Caliente over a nudist resort in Palm Springs, Calif.
"We love the freedom of being nude. And look at our view," said Adele Butler, pointing to the lily-covered lakes behind her $500,000 Caliente home. "We come home to a resort."
But Caliente left ...
Illinois retirees Denny and Arlene Reed a little cold.
"We had considered it, but Lake Como seemed more friendly to us," said Denny Reed, sitting pool side wearing only a baseball cap and a deep tan.
"Competition is a good thing. They all look at each other and learn. Each one offers a different experience," he added.
"Remember the mom and pops"
Cheri Alexander, founder of the Travelites nudist club in South Carolina, said the larger resorts such as Paradise and Caliente tend to capture most of the attention of the American Association of Nude Recreation.
"I don't think the mom-and-pop operations are being pushed out, but I think marketing is being focused on the larger clubs instead of the smaller ones like Lake Como," Alexander said.
"I sometimes have to remind the powers-that-be in our organization to remember the mom and pops," she added.
A low profile
The American Association of Nude Recreation estimates that nudists pump about $400 million into the global tourism economy, up from $120 million in 1992.
The association says its ranks have grown 75 percent to 50,000 members in that time. Nudists can choose from 270 clubs, resorts and campgrounds in the United States.
And a lot of that business comes to Pasco County, where the six resorts are concentrated along a six-mile stretch of U.S. 41 in Land O' Lakes, about 20 miles north of Tampa.
County officials say it's impossible to put a tax value on the dozens of condos, homes and hundreds of acres of land owned by nudists.
"They're good neighbors," Pasco County Commissioner Pat Mulieri said. "They provide a wide tax base. It's great. We get people from all over the world."
Nudist resorts brought in a sizable chunk of the $807,000 in tourist tax revenue collected in the county last year, good money in an area with no major tourist attractions. Pasco has reserved a spot on its tourism board for a nudist.
Florida's collection of nudist resorts are barely acknowledged by state and local tourism officials who stick to safer terrain such as Disney, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee springs or Busch Gardens, all major attractions that flank Pasco's nudist resorts in all directions.
Still, Lettelleir likes to think Pasco's "It's only natural" ad campaign is a cheeky nod to the nudist economy.
"We thought that was great," Lettelleir said. "We call it our joint slogan. They don't see it that way. They're not willing to carry that as their theme, but the county and city governments aren't ashamed of us."
Reaching out to the young party crowd
All three major resorts aim to keep the money train rolling, with additional condos and RV space. Paradise and Caliente are opening new locations in other states and the Dominican Republic.
They are also marketing to college-age kids.
Caliente wants to capture part of the young party crowd in Tampa's Ybor City. Paradise joined forces with a 21-year-old University of South Florida public relations student to market free admission, cheap beer and reverse strip poker — you lose, you put clothes on.
Lettelleir acknowledges it's a hard sell. Contrary to Paradise's alluring ad, most of the bare bodies pool side are decidedly middle-aged.
"I think the industry will continue to grow, but it will not grow through the college ranks," Lettelleir said. "The younger generation doesn't have a problem with the nudity; they just don't particularly go and belong to things."