Despite the plethora of porn-plotpossibilities, life behind the scenes as a manager or owner of a bathhouse isn’t as wild as one might imagine.
“You can’t help but get excited,” says Scott Cheslock, the new regional manager in charge of Central Spa Toronto, a bathhouse appealing largely to those men with a wedding band on their finger, and Central Spa Hamilton, formerly known as the Warehouse. He adds, however, he’s never acted on the impulse. “But after a while, you start to get desensitized to it.
“People think because you work in a bathhouse, you’ll put out. At first, I have to say, a little bit, I thought the same.”
Spa Excess co-owner Peter Bochove, who in the old days at the Richmond Street Emporium blurred the lines between business and pleasure, now gets his action elsewhere. “The ones who last the longest go home at the end of their shift.”
Easy access to sex aside, the job of managing a bathhouse involves many of the same day-to-day activities as any other management job, like dealing with suppliers, accounting and scheduling and supervising staff.
“We have three rules,” says Cheslock. “Be on time, don’t steal and no playing while you’re on shift.”
The tubs aim to make a guest’s stay as comfortable – and lengthy – as possible. Each bathhouse offers up an array of goodies, ranging from sex necessities like condoms, lube and cockrings to quick meals to keep the guys going. Some will host occasional buffets or weekly meals. Spa Excess and Central offer free Internet access, while patrons at St Marc’s can order in food.
Ultimately though, it’s the client that’s also the product in the bathhouse business. No matter what the perks of the place, it’s the appeal of the people who frequent it that make it or break it.
“These places are like supermarkets,” says Bochove. “You have to make sure the shelves are stocked with selection.”
He compares Excess to a resort, and if the definition is a destination for eight hours of pleasure, food and drink, Spa Excess certainly fits the bill. With 14 award plaques adorning the entrance to the spa, it’s not an outlandish comparison.
“This is a little microcosm, it’s a little resort,” says Bochove. “It’s possible to come here and stay here for a long period of time and be very comfortable.”
St Marc’s has a very different philosophy. “People want baths where it’s black and dark because it’s more private,” says manager Richard Demontigny. “If people want to go to a gym, they’ll go to a gym.”
Though he’s still relatively new to the industry, Demontigny is no stranger to bathhouses themselves. And as the former manager of a Montreal peepshow, he knows that a hint of the illicit holds a certain appeal. He believes that many men are looking for a dark and sexualized place to get off – not the bright and shiny design that characterizes newer establishments like Steamworks. Demontigny says he’s got renovations underway, but nothing that will detract from the St Marc’s maze-like feel.
Cheslock is also fresh behind the ears when it comes to bathhouse management. Once the promotions manager at Zelda’s – he organized Drag Idol – he’s turned to a different kind of dining. Could Porn Idol be far off? Certainly Cheslock’s got porn on the brain as he pulls together a launch party for Central Spa Hamilton that will include, among other delectable treats, real-life porn star guests.
Toronto’s Central Spa has an old school style, with bi and hetero men getting a body scrub and some time off from the wife. That dynamic and a large Portuguese clientele combine to create unique challenges.
Nervous married men ask, “‘Are there cameras? Will anybody see me?'” says Cheslock. Privacy is paramount. Ads proclaiming Central Spa to be “Where men meet men” are translated into Portuguese and placed in small west-end newspapers.
Beyond the extras that give each bathhouse its own unique flavour, two basic concerns of any spa manager are warmth and cleanliness. After all, not many customers want to walk around in a cool, drafty space stepping in mystery puddles.
Spa Excess underwent summertime renovations to insulate the floors in the back of the building. “Cold floors in a bathhouse, there’s nothing quicker to shrivel your dick,” quips Bochove.
At Excess, pretty much everything is made to be cleaned, from the tough, durable floors to the beds to the walls. Bochove says the cleaning solutions used are so strong they’d eat through your skin.
Demontigny is equally blunt about cleanliness. “If [customers] put their hand on the wall, I don’t want it to stick there,” he says, laughing.
At most bathhouses, a handful of washers and dryers are running all day, every day, cleaning sheets, towels and pillowcases. As a little dose of luxury, the boys of Central Spa add fabric softeners, but use phosphate-free detergent in consideration of customers with allergies.
“Having really nice towels makes a big difference,” Cheslock says. “When towels are worn out or they’re scratchy and you’re exfoliating yourself every time it’s not a pleasant experience.”
Starting a new bathhouse takes significant capital funding and money for other pitfalls, but they still represent a good investment, says one owner.
“These businesses never come up for sale very often so I figured they must be a good business to get into or there would be high turnover of owners and the opportunity to own them would come up more often,” says Chris Srnicek, the owner of Central Spa.
Srnicek, who bought Central about two years ago, says he’s largely learned the ropes through trial and error. “There is no manual to be a bathhouse owner. [It’s] more street smarts versus the business school smarts that were taught to me.”
So just what does it take to open up a brand spanking new bathhouse? Xtra previously reported that renovations to Steamworks would cost almost $2-million. Considering that the space was formerly the Spa On Maitland, one can only imagine what it would cost to start from scratch.
Generally, the boys were coy about what it takes to turn a profit in the bathhouse business. Demontigny demurs that he hasn’t yet learned that side of the job. Cheslock is equally hesitant to get into the financial details.
At Excess, business is also going well enough to reinvest. They installed a $300,000 whirlpool not long ago. “A fair amount of the money we take in goes back into the business,” says Bochove.
With the recent price wars, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone in the industry was making a profit at all. The prices of lockers and rooms have been fluctuating like mad, with specials as low as a toonie for a locker or $9 for a room, depending on the time and day.
The competition for the loyalty of bathhouse goers has been fierce. The war zone is the Church-Wellesley village and the weapons are posters, flashy advertisements and free passes. Steamworks’ posters line the strip while St Marc’s hits back with full-page ads. The men interviewed for this article remained poker-faced at mention of the competition.
No one at Steamworks, the big boy that sparked the recent price war, was able to comment for this article. Word is that after a shake-up in management, two staff members from the US-based chain have flown into Toronto, but their role is as yet unclear.
Meanwhile, Demontigny has plans to continue the eye-catching advertising and keep up the specials. “One or the other are going to stop one day,” he says, adding, “if St Marc’s works to keep this place the way it should be, we don’t have to be afraid.”
Although Cheslock claims that the differing demographics means that Central hasn’t been affected by the competition, he speculates that the cold weather may be just the thing to ease the pressure. “I think spas are maybe busier during the wintertime. I think maybe now the end is near or the end is here.”