The Massive Carnival of Geekery That Eats San Francisco
San Francisco has been taken over by techies—and more than it already is on any regular day. But it’s not because of an iPhone event or some other breathless product reveal. Dreamforce, a week-long conference put on by enterprise giant Salesforce CEO and notable philanthropist Marc Benioff, has eaten the city again.
It’s hard to overstate how massive the conference is. The annual event, now in its 13th year, draws 160,000 attendees—about a fifth of San Francisco’s population—all hoping to network and strike deals with other enterprise companies.
Some of tech’s biggest VIPs—including the CEOs of Uber, YouTube and Microsoft—spoke at Dreamforce this year. But its influence reaches well beyond the borders of tech—a testament to how the tech industry now has the power to lure even the biggest mainstream celebrities. The conference included appearances by boldfaced names in sports (executives from the Golden State Warriors and the San Francisco Giants), Hollywood (Jessica Alba, Goldie Hawn, Gayle King), along with concerts by John Legend, The Foo Fighters, and The Killers.
In other words, Dreamforce is all about scale. Salesforce doesn’t skimp on the rhetoric, either. “It’s a completely immersive experience,” Julie Liegl, Dreamforce conference chair, tells WIRED. “We don’t just want to engage their minds, we want to engage the entire person. That’s why Dreamforce’s values are innovation, impact, giving back and fun.”
Of course, an event this big costs lots of money, and each year, the City of San Francisco welcomes the economic influx with open arms. In 2014, according to San Francisco Travel, Dreamforce generated about $226 million for the local economy.
With many of the city’s hotels booked at full capacity, Salesforce even brought in a cruise ship to accommodate more bodies. The 965-foot-long Dreamboat, docked at San Francisco’s Pier 27, provided an additional 1,073 cabins, priced at $250 to $2000 per night. It too is sold out—and it has sparked the ire of at least one local watchdog group aiming to protect the waterfront from unseemly development.
“So far, we’re pleased that the Salesforce team is trying to control the noise,” says Stan Hayes, president of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers. “But our concern is if this is done repeatedly, there could be de facto hotels springing up in violation of the city’s ban on it.”
But perhaps the most visible display of Dreamforce’s pull is its ability to literally stop traffic (well, while creating more elsewhere). A full block of Howard Street, a major thoroughfare in the South of Market district, has been closed off for the week. Workers have laid synthetic grass down on the cement, dotted it with colorful beanbag chairs, added outdoor games, and erected concert stages. On nearby blocks, businesses rented out whole restaurants and bars to give their employees—and their networking contacts—reprieve from the crowded halls of the cavernous Moscone Center, the main site of the conference. So-called Dreamforce “ambassadors” are trained for hours and do multiple walkthroughs of the space ahead of the conference so they can give proper directions to the unwieldy throng of attendees. Benioff, well known for his admiration of the Dalai Lama and an avid meditation practitioner, also imbues the event with a certain Left Coast mysticism: on Friday, the final day of the conference, for example, an entire keynote was dedicated to fostering mindfulness.
To be sure, the B2B deals struck at Dreamforce are a big deal. For evidence, look no further than the immense business of Salesforce itself: Its market cap now stands at around $45 billion, and Microsoft at one point reportedly tried to buy the company, though negotiations ultimately fell through after cost-related roadblocks. In spite of the enormity of the event and its headliners, however, Dreamforce stands largely separate from those not involved.
If you took Burning Man and gave everyone clothes, and all the conversations were about cloud computing, you basically have Dreamforce.
— Aaron Levie (@levie) September 15, 2015
One sunny afternoon this past week, Tamim Jabbour, a Salesforce administrator at Chicago-based sports data company Stats.com, and Sarah Rosenwinkel, executive director of business development at analytics and insights firm Gravy, discarded their Dreamforce-branded shoulder-slung messenger bags on fake grass to play a game of chess on a giant outdoor set. The two hadn’t met before, but both had come to Dreamforce in past years and were here to network and see if they could strike up new partnerships with strangers.
After the game, Jabbour explained, he would try to see if there were any opportunities that Rosenwinkel’s company could provide his business. “We want to identify potential strategic partners because we want to exploit certain areas of the business,” he said. “She said analytics, and I’m going to follow that. I don’t know who she is but I’m going to find out what that means when we talk business.”
Nearby, on hammocks and on beanbags, conference-goers took short naps with their hoodies covering their faces to shield them from the sun. A small group huddled around a table stocked with beads, their heads bent down over the work. “We could be closing deals right here as we bead—why not?” one woman who worked with Salesforce told me.
Elsewhere, groups of businessmen and businesswomen played cornhole. A couple of kid entrepreneurs wearing mascot heads sold lemonade, and a handful of painters worked on a mural. Dreamforce makes its own app to keep track of the panels conference attendees want to see, but to maximize networking opportunities, app maker Doubledutch has introduced its own, called “Partyforce”—designed to let conference-goers keep track of private parties and post photos and invitations in real-time. It even has a tab within the app called Missed Connections, for meetings so fleeting that the crucial business card exchange is missed.
Like much of the industry on the whole, it turns out Dreamforce is yet another insular world in an insular industry. Walking through the conference, you get the nagging sense that for all its fanfare, the carnival atmosphere is just gloss on something that’s, well, a little bit boring. It just so happens that for about a week, it’s the carnival you can’t ignore, the carnival that eats San Francisco.
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