Wednesday, December 4, 2013

My Terrible, Awful Day at Dreamforce 2013

Each year,'s Dreamforce conference represents a mixed bag of experiences. On the one hand, it's an incredible opportunity to see a few of the ways that some of the world's top businesses are using software to evolve their businesses. And, if you work with the software, some of the breakout sessions can provide a great window into how to take advantage of certain features and functions.

At the same time, there is a dark side to entire Dreamforce experience, one that corresponds to crowds and capacity. There is a chaos that hangs over the event, a madness of conflicting schedules and oversubscribed sessions.

Back in the old days (that period when the year still had two zeros in it), the crowd helped contribute to the excitement. It was an era when there was still a lot of skepticism about the viability of the cloud and multi-tenant architectures. In that era, one of the most common question that I wound up having to answer was, "but really, who is using" In that environment, being in that sea of people was vindication.

These days, the crowd is more of a crowd than a bonding experience. What's more, instead of feeling like a giant user group, VIP passes and exclusive access options have turned the entire event into the equivalent of a crowded flight -- the people in first class get treated well, but most of us are stuck in the back with a middle seat, no leg room, and no recline.

Dreamforce is not like a traditional trade show in it's use of the convention center. Rather than many exhibits crowding a convention center floor, Dreamforce depends upon meeting rooms for technical breakout sessions. Each year, as the conference has grown, it's been surprising to see how the infrastructure has adapted to handle the expanding crowds broad agenda. Last year, when they closed off Howard street, held conference sessions in all of the surrounding hotels all the way to Union Square, and then blocked off the area around the Civic Center for the gala event, it struck me as a wonderful example of how San Francisco can come together and jump through hoops in an effort to host these kinds of things. In so many ways, the City is an amazing place.

And yet, for everything that worked well last year (other than what was probably a traffic nightmare for San Francisco), this year was marked by a conference out of sync with the city and the weather. With the November timetable, suddenly all of the outdoor overflow areas became unusable. Travel between downtown locations meant getting soaked between sessions. And while this year's gala event location at Pac Bell park had the potential to provide an well structured venue for an outdoor event, the predictable fall rain meant transformed the event into something into a gathering under the dry parts of the stadium to eat hamburgers and hot dogs, while watching some music on the television. Even the bus rides to the park were challenged with the traffic and the construction on Fourth street.

For the past three years or so, hotels in San Francisco sell out several months before Dreamforce. I knew it was bad this year when I was registering and the Dreamforce hotel interface was listing Hotels in Monterey. Another indicator is when the motels in the ugly parts of the Tenderloin/SOMA area are charging over $300 per night (it leaves you wondering what the people who wind up staying there end up thinking about San Francisco). Even funnier was when I mentioned the crappy hotel situation to our Salesforce account rep and he sent me a link to the housing page in the registration app (#worse-than-a-chatbot). So, invariably, I was forced to commute into the city from the South Bay each day. And while the hour or so commute on Caltrain isn't too bad, what it does add to Dreamforce is a lot of extra steps, the need to carry everything you need (or take back from the event), and it puts a serious damper on any evening events.

For me, the worst day turned out to be Wednesday. The third day of Dreamforce is a day that is punctuated with sponsored events and after-parties. But when you have the added commute to the overcrowded city, it can be a bit taxing. I decided to head out early that night and grab an express train home. Unfortunately, like many commuters that day, my trip home was hindered by a downed power line near the Hayward Park stop on the Caltrain line. I wound up standing in a packed train, waiting from about 6:50 until shortly after 8:00pm before we even started the journey down the peninsula. After a slow ride and a bus bridge at San Mateo, I finally arrived in Mountain View sometime after 10pm. I, like many of my fellow commuters, went home tired and unhappy -- questioning the wisdom of returning to the city for the last day of the conference (I ended up driving on Thursday, but I heard that Caltrain had another day of delays that morning).

Dreamforce: Too Big to Be Meaningful
As I've mentioned in the past, when you attempt to create an illusion of personalized experiences that are clearly generic scripted repetitions -- like the Safeway checkers reading your name off of the receipt like they know you -- it almost seems worse than doing nothing. It's like saying to the customer, "oh yeah, you are important to us, we value your business" with an accompanying satirical tone and an eye-roll. You're personalized customer experience is a mockery of personalized customer experience.

In may ways, that is what Dreamforce has become. In the old days of the conference, the entire experience was like a multi-tenant architecture. You sat, side by side, with your colleagues on the platform. Big companies, small companies, you shared an infrastructure and you shared the challenges of the crowd. You were just as likely to wind up sitting in the front row as you might be at the back of the venue. When you attended the event, you were part of a community.

Now, it feels more like you are part of a herd -- sorted, weighed, and routed as is most profitable. With VIP lines and exclusive access, you are often reminded that you are in economy class, not good enough for business or first -- despite spending what probably amounts to a premium, regardless of the size of your business. Yes, you are a customer, but as a customer appreciation event, this will leave you feeling like you are second class.

Consider this: in five years of attending the conference, only two of my five account representatives have made an effort to meet with me during the week of Dreamforce. If the customer-facing roots of your organization can't interact with your customers that have paid $1000 to come to your party, are you really holding a party for your customers? And can you really call yourself a customer-focused business?

Think about that. As marketers, most of us have considered road shows and customer events. We all understand the costs and the challenges. We've all consumed our share of free food and drinks at business events. Now imagine asking your customers to pay to come to your customer event. What kind of experience would you expect that they were expecting?

I used to think that it might be helpful to bring a team of attendees to Dreamforce; perhaps a couple of people from the sales organization, somebody from IT, and an exec or two. But considering how large Dreamforce has become, I've come to believe that, even if they were excited to participate and be a part of the crowd, the real benefits that they might have gained two or three years ago have faded, washed away in a sea of lines, generic experiences, and diverse business/software platform interests. Should I be battling with the people who might be there for Or the developers who don't know about Heroku? Do I really need to hear another pitch on the latest version of Portal - now Communities -- when the pricing model is so disconnected from anything that makes sense for our business?

Would you pay $1000, then wait in line behind a thousand people if you could only ask one question? And, if you did all that, how would you feel about the experience if the answer that you received gave you less information than already got during your online research?

Can Dreamforce Be Saved?
This question is actually several questions rolled up into one.
  • Has the conference grown too large for San Francisco? 
  • Would it work better if it was relocated somewhere else that could handle the size of the event?
  • Has the conference itself become too diversified and lost it's focus?
  • Is there any way to make it effective in connecting with individual customers while hosting the massive crowds?
In many ways, I think that there are elements of Dreamforce that are intertwined with San Francisco. While a location like Las Vegas might be able to handle the large crowd, there is a reason that so many Internet businesses have found their home in San Francisco. The city speaks the language of software start-up and part of the dream in Dreamforce is a harmony with this world. And yet, there is little question that the San Francisco infrastructure is overwhelmed by the conference crowds. Housing, transportation, conference room capacity, all are being taxed beyond their limit during the event. Without limits, I expect the reality of the conference to just get worse and worse.

As for the diversity, there's always the dream of serendipitous interaction and the potential engagement with technologies and applications that you might not otherwise have imagined. And yet, when crowds become overwhelming, it's less about serendipity and more about traffic and road rage. Perhaps the bigger question is, what is a realistic take-away from this in-person experience?

So when you consider the world of modern marketing and making individual connections, it seems so antiquated to provide such a generic, impersonal experience. As the provider of the leading CRM platform, you'd expect the experience to be more personal. But perhaps that underscores the difference between the hype and the reality -- in the same way you'd expect Facebook marketing to be... better. Big data and algorithms are powerful, but they are hard-pressed to achieve something greater or overcome something as powerful as a long line or a frustrating commute.

And so, the spectacle will probably continue. And as it does, the evangelism will probably ebb -- or continue to ebb -- and instead of something amazing, it will become something amazingly horrible. My terrible, awful day at Dreamforce probably would have been better if all of the hotels in San Francisco weren't sold out and I was staying in the city and hadn't been stuck on Caltrain for over three hours. But without that Caltrain experience, I might not feel so compelled to ask is the entire experience really worth it?

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