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San Francisco’s Biggest Conference Is Back But a Full Recovery Remains Elusive

·5 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Tens of thousands of techies will frolic through kitschy national park-themed decorations in San Francisco’s downtown this week as Salesforce Inc.’s annual Dreamforce conference returns in full after two pandemic years.

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It will easily be the largest conference the city has seen since early 2020, said Joe D’Alessandro of the San Francisco Travel Association. Company and city leaders are touting the event as a symbol of pandemic recovery, with the estimated $40 million of revenue that Dreamforce will generate for the city and a new $25 million donation to city schools.

But, the downtown that conference attendees will be coming back to is still marked by the pandemic. Office vacancy rates are higher now than after the great recession, population has slipped more than any other major US city, companies have left the region for cheaper tech hubs and persistent work-from-home leaves the streets a bit emptier.

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Even Salesforce, which is the namesake tenant of San Francisco’s tallest building, has cut office space in the city where it’s headquartered, fully embracing a hybrid work model without any mandatory return-to-office minimums. And just like many of its employees, the largest San Francisco employer is increasingly splitting its time between the city and suburbs -- the company opened a new retreat called Trailblazer Ranch about 70 miles south of the city for bringing aboard new workers and other events.

“We’re known for our towers, we’re known for our events,” said co-Chief Executive Officer Bret Taylor in an interview with Greylock Partners last year. “I joke that half the people who aren’t in tech have no idea what Salesforce does.”

For just $1,999-a-ticket beginning Tuesday, you can listen to speakers like retired basketball star Magic Johnson or actress Jennifer Hudson, catch a Red Hot Chili Peppers benefit concert and even grab a free copy of Bono’s memoir. There are also hundreds of those technical panels that are the point of the conference.

Hotel prices reflect the influx of visitors -- the average price for a double room is about 46% more expensive during this Dreamforce than last year’s scaled-down event, according to data from travel website Trivago shared with Bloomberg. Still, average hotel prices are below the average cost during Dreamforce 2019.

For the Bay Area Rapid Transit commuter rail, where weekday commuter ridership is less than half of pre-pandemic levels, the conference stands to bring a big, albeit temporary, boost. Dreamforce has traditionally marked some of BART’s top ridership days, the agency said. Wednesday has the potential to exceed the highest ridership day since the pandemic, Robert M. Powers, the system’s general manager, said in an interview. The conference aligns that day with an Oakland Athletics baseball game and Gorillaz concert in the city.

San Francisco’s other big annual software conference run by Oracle Corp., which had been held in the city for more than a decade, announced in 2019 that it would move to Las Vegas, citing high hotel prices and poor street conditions. The San Francisco Travel Association estimated that would cost $64 million a year.

City residents express the same frustrations. Over the past few days, the San Francisco Chronicle has published results of a poll taken in June that showed more than half of San Franciscans feel life today in the city is worse than when they first moved to the city. Homelessness, crime and the cost of housing were named as the top three problems plaguing San Francisco.

Still, Salesforce counts San Francisco as an essential part of its corporate identity -- and this will be the 20th year of its annual conference in the city. “We could go to Vegas, we could go to New York. We choose to do Dreamforce in San Francisco,” Chief Business Officer Ebony Beckwith said in an interview.

Convention’s Mass Appeal

Co-founder Marc Benioff has long touted the importance of mass-appeal events to drum up interest in the company. In his 2009 book, Benioff gleefully details stunts like bringing a George W. Bush impersonator to one of his keynote speeches or hiring fake protesters to disrupt a rival company’s conference.

Dreamforce speakers have included Sheryl Sandberg, Melinda Gates, and both Obamas. Metallica, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder, and Alicia Keyes have been musical guests.

Years into the company, Benioff worried that Salesforce’s branding was getting too “boring,” said Chief Marketing Officer Sarah Franklin in an interview. “He pivoted our whole company from being just a blue cloud to being immersed in a national park and having, you know, trees and characters.”

Now, attendees to Salesforce events can expect to see outdoor-styled environments; past company events have taken visual queues from Yosemite and Zion national parks, she said. This year’s event is focused on Sequoia National Park, which recently re-opened after a fire. In recent years, the company has moved away from its use of Hawaiian motifs after some saw the corporate obsession as cultural appropriation.

Critics of Salesforce have taken some cues from Benioff’s showmanship. His 2019 Dreamforce keynote speech was interrupted by protesters upset at Salesforce supplying the US Customs and Border Protection with productivity software. The year before, protesters set up a giant cage outside Moscone Center, the site of many of the conference events, in reference to the US government’s treatment of immigrants.

Elaborate themes, guests, and protests can distract from the fact that it’s all for business-to-business software. Most panels are about wonky operational topics like marketing strategies, data analytics, or ESG reporting.

Still, Salesforce sees it as an opportunity to brand itself to the wider public as a fun company aligned with the future of San Francisco as its largest employer. “This is our way of continuing to support the city and to continue to show our love to the city,” Beckwith said.

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