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[whitespace] Ryah Hard Hit: Ryah, a tech industry-related worker who profited during the boom, believes the good old days are gone. 'Last year there was nothing to worry about,' she says. 'I never thought that this would happen.'


Limp Business

Another high-tech sector suffers from economic softening

By Alex Ionides

THE YOUNG WOMAN sitting across from me is not happy about Silicon Valley's economic downturn. Her business has suffered. As of today, she can charge less than half of what she charged for an hourly consultation a year ago.

She remembers when she had no fewer than eight clients a day. At $500 a pop, she was doing very well. But this year has been a difficult one, and now she's lucky if she sees more than one customer a day. She sighs a lot as we talk. The pay cut is only part of the problem. "My stock investments are all messed up," she adds.

Meet Maria. Escort-slash-tech-investor.

"My customers were all working for these computer companies. They told me which stocks to buy. They hardly visit anymore," she laments, "and I've lost a lot on the stock market."

Maria (not her real name) has seen firsthand how many of the valley's pre-IPO techies spent their paper money: recklessly. On fancy cars, on trendy weekend getaways, and yes, on lots and lots of girls like Maria. But as the economy continues its slide, carefree spending habits are disappearing, and in Silicon Valley, the world's oldest profession is being hit hard.

AZIANNA, an escort who travels throughout the Bay Area to visit clients, says she too has noticed that the high-tech execs don't keep her cell phone ringing anymore. "My regulars were all in high-tech, at the managerial level. Now I don't get any regulars," she laments. Azianna used to see an average of 15 customers a week during the good times. "Now it's more like three."

Azianna fondly remembers the good times, which she estimates ran from about the beginning of 1998 to early this year, when there was never a need to bargain. "We could name our price, and nobody would question it. Now I have people telling me, 'I have a family, and I can't afford to spend that.' Now everyone wants to negotiate," she grouses, "because they know they can."

Maria says negotiation has crept back into her skill-set as well. "It used to be that I could charge $500 per hour, and people would say, sure. Now you say $300, and they say $200. If I try and stick to my price, they'll hang up on me. These guys know that we are hurting for business. They probably do their share of calling around first. There are so many girls out there."

In some cases, the girls have stepped up their marketing efforts, using websites like cityvibe.com and print advertising. Cityvibe allows escorts to advertise for a basic fee of $100 a month. For that price, the women are allotted one full page of ad space, allowing for up to three photos and 100 words of text. It's a service that hundreds of escorts in the Bay Area use. There is even an option allowing the women to place a small video ad.

As the escort business becomes more competitive due to the economic fallout, cityvibe.com is seeing an increase in advertising. "Escorts are spending a little more on marketing these days in order to get noticed," notes a representative.

They're getting more creative, too. On Eros Guide, an alternative site to Cityvibe, there are ads from escorts offering birthday and referral discounts of up to $60.

But Azianna said that none of it is working. Aside from managing her own affairs, she has four escorts working for her. "My girls are all looking to me for answers. I'm doing more advertising now, but it's not really boosting our sales. There is too much competition."

THE COMPETITION came from all over. Like the overseas engineers who flocked to Silicon Valley to secure six figure salaries, so did workers in the escort business. For Sherry from Oklahoma, it was good in the beginning. "But lately, it's just all that much harder to close the deal."

Sherry works as an escort in Pleasanton. She said that she decided to move to Silicon Valley early last year because her friends in the area kept telling her how much business there was. "When I first came out, I would see eight or ten guys a day. It was pretty amazing, actually."

So were the numbers: charging $300 per visit, Sherry averaged $2700 per day. She said she worked at least twenty days out of the month, and remained consistent at that rate for the better part of a year. That's an annual salary of over $600,000.

"But I would say that things really started to take a turn for the worse in March," she said. "Since then I've had to lower my rate by $50." Sherry now charges her customers $250 for one hour of her time, and averages two customers a day. She is hesitant to turn anyone away. "I don't screen as much as I used to."

Ryah Where Have All the Techies Gone? Escorts change their tactics in the wake of market drop-offs.

Photograph by George Saakkestad


LYNETTE WORKS on an out-call basis, meeting clients at different hotels throughout the Bay Area. She recently had a bad experience with a customer. "I got to the hotel, and this guy was an hour late." When he finally arrived, Lynette said, he wanted to tie her up. "I should have left right there." She said that he tied the rope so tightly around her mouth that it caused her to bleed a little.

"Until about five months ago I was seeing as many as seven guys a day. Back-to-back customers. Now I'm lucky if I get more than one booking. So I take some chances. I bet all the girls are having to take some chances now."

On the business side, Lynette is surviving the difficult times by taking advice from friends. "A guy I know used to sell cars, and he gives me sales tips. For example, when someone asks me how much I charge, I tell them my price, and then immediately ask them if that is okay. If the customer doesn't like it, I always let them make the next offer. I don't want to undercut myself. I'll ask them how much they are looking to spend, and negotiate from there."

"A lot of girls don't understand this," continues Lynette. "They don't understand that it doesn't matter how much you charge if you're not getting a sale. I'm very practical. I'm an excellent salesperson."

Lynette also keeps records of the number of calls she receives and which ads led the customer to her. Like many of the escorts, she advertises on multiple websites in the Bay Area. "When times were good, it didn't matter. My schedule was booked, and that was all I needed to know. Now I have to stay organized. I have to know which ads are bringing me the best results. I have to keep track of the number of calls that come through vs. the number that I am closing. I learned all these techniques from professional businesspeople. And they're coming in handy during these harder times."

BUT NOT everyone is falling on harder times. For those in niche markets, business has not dropped off at all. According to Sandy, a transsexual who has been escorting in the Bay Area for the past two years, "My business is fine. For the couple of years that I've been here I have had my steady share of customers, and there has been no change in the past few months."

Chloe, also a transsexual escort, said, "If anything, it's gotten better. I'm more of a niche market. When guys have a very particular way in which they need to get off, they'll continue to pay for it, regardless of their economic situation."

Tyra is a dominatrix working out of her apartment-cum-dungeon in San Francisco. "People don't cut back on smoking just because they're not making as much money as they used to. I'm not saying these guys are addicted to me, but they have their tastes. It's a lifestyle, and they'll find a way to keep paying for it. More importantly, they'll find a way to keep paying me. My business is doing just fine."

So who is buying? Or, who is not buying?

Sandra, an escort located in Sunnyvale, said her customer base remains the same. "It's mostly these computer guys. Last night, for example, I saw a married couple. This guy and his wife. They were both computer engineers. I guess the only thing that's different now is that I'm seeing fewer people. Same customer base, but less visits."

"It's still all these computer guys. Just not as many calls," said Lynette.

THE SITUATION has left many of the escorts wondering what to do. Some, like Cindy, have taken second jobs. "It's not so much for the money, but I have to find a way to keep myself busy. I used to have customers all day long, from morning until night. I never had any time for myself. I'm now working in social services, assisting girls in the industry. I give advice on how to have safe sex and how to get HIV testing. I feel better about myself now."

"There is a plus side," agreed Lynette. "The leisure time is a big one. I'm taking more time for my spiritual self. Before, all I had was the game [of being an escort]. I didn't have anything going for me. Now I have more time for myself, and more time to do the things I love. I'm writing a kung fu movie. The last few years were crazy. It was all work. Now things are getting a bit more normal. I'm enjoying it."

But for Azianna, there is no positive side to the downturn. "I'm running a business, and I have to think about the bottom line. Three visits a week won't do it." Azianna has decided it's time to move on. "My plan is to go to other cities. Maybe L.A. or somewhere in Florida. About five girls I know who came here in the last few years have moved back to wherever they came from."

"The Silicon Valley that most of these girls knew was just a phase," said Maria, "and it's passed. I was in Atlanta during the Olympics, and I go to Vegas for most of the big trade shows. It's the same thing. Crowds and money. Only here it lasted for a long time. But it's over. Mark my words. The sooner the girls who came here on the hype realize that, the sooner they'll move on, and the sooner this place will get back to normal."

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From the September 27-October 3, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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