Wednesday, October 12, 2016

An Open Letter to Marc Benioff RE Dreamfest Logistics

Hi Marc,
First, let me say, thanks for replying to my tweet from the Dreamfest Event and thanks for requesting an email with details. While I know you requested an email, it seemed only fair to share aspects of it as a blog post since the whole thing started as a broadcast conversation.

First of all, let me start by saying that there are many aspects of Dreamforce that I think are great. I've been attending Dreamforce events since 2009, and I probably would have also gone to a couple of earlier ones, but I couldn't make it work. Not only have I always found the conference sessions to be helpful in gaining a much deeper understanding of the Salesforce platform, but it's also been a software/business/world eye-opening experience for the colleagues that I've brought to the event over the years. That being said, I've had my issues with Dreamforce over the years, like 2015, and my terrible Dreamforce 2013 that was so bad, I only came up for keynotes in 2014. As I've said in the past -- and once in a survey with your marketing people -- the biggest problem / challenge with Dreamforce is the crowds.

For all of the Dreamforce events that I've been to in the past, my gala concert count is far lower. Each year is different, but the biggest reason is logistics -- if you have to commute to the South Bay each night, staying late for a band after an exhausting day of running around for sessions is asking a lot. When I've stayed in the city, I've hung around for the band. At the same time, I remember seeing Stevie Wonder in the south hall of Moscone and thinking, firstly that the concrete walls and floors were the worst place that I've ever seen a band and, secondly, that it was only a matter of time before the size of the crowd overwhelmed the venue. Over the years, I've watched as the people and the venue grew, challenging the San Francisco landscape with a place large enough for the show. In that way, I think the Red Hot Chili Peppers was peak Dreamforce Gala. Closing off the Civic Center plaza was mind-blowingly awesome and, while it probably sucked for San Francisco that week, definitely ranked as one of the most amazing shows. Perhaps that contributed to making 2013 so disappointing. Last year, with the Foo Fighters, I actually considered going -- even though I was commuting -- until I saw where the event was located. While it was in San Francisco, it wasn't going to be an easy commute from the Moscone area nor back to the Caltrain for the ride home.

While I understand that this is a long opening, I want to provide a clear sense of history and, correspondingly, where my expectations and motivations were. This year, I registered on the first day of registration and secured a hotel room in the city. Despite having colleagues attending the conference, for various reasons, I found myself attending the Dreamfest event on my own. Prior to going, I was invited by our AE to use a special shuttle provided to SMB customers. After initially agreeing to that, when I discovered that the departure point for those shuttles was down in the Mission, I abandoned that plan. Instead, I walked down to Moscone West, figuring that there would be a number of shuttles there and that, traffic wise, it would be faster out of downtown than one of the hotel shuttles. I arrived at 7:00, thinking that I had left plenty of buffer before the 8:15 concert start. While the trip out of the city in traffic wasn't fast, overall we made good time, maybe 20 minutes or so, but by the time we got off 101 to make our way down to the Cow Palace, traffic was crawling. It felt like 15-20 minutes to travel a handful of blocks. I arrived at the event around 8:30, with U2 already having started their set.

While I've never seen U2 live before, I've seen a couple of their concerts on video in the past. When I saw the crowd and the way the event was set up, it was quickly clear that I would get no closer to the stage than the far back concession stands, and so I began, once again, watching a U2 concert on video using the large screen monitors near the back of the event. However, it quickly became clear that the actual audio was a second or two ahead of the video, and the irony of having had a better experience when I'd previously watched the video concerts struck me.

Leaving the Event
Around 9:30, I began wondering if I should just go ahead and leave, wondering whether there were early buses running back yet. By 9:40, I decided to head for the buses and was about out to the bus pick-up by 10:00. What I came across was a bit of a mess, to say the least. There were long, crowd control gates directing traffic through to the buses, but few people doing crowd control. You were supposed to follow these long crowd control gates (I was headed back to Moscone), but as you worked your way through them, you'd often see people climbing over them and jumping in front of you in line -- particularly since they weren't full and the "bus destination" on the street seemed so far away and, not even visible from the gates. As I started to get close to the street, more crowds, more people climbing over gates. In general, chaos.

I was standing behind the gates, on the sidewalk near the road, when the "first wave" of buses arrived (about the time the concert ended -- probably about 10:00). Rather than going through an orderly loading like was done back at Moscone West, suddenly people just started swarming toward the bus doors. It was forget about the crowd control gates, suddenly, people were three and four deep in the road trying to shove their way toward a bus door. Once the first buses were full and started to drive off, a handful of crowd-control people came through telling people that more buses would be coming and to wait where we were. Meanwhile more and more people kept streaming down the street. The crowd, from sidewalk towards the middle of the street, grew from 2-3 people deep to 6-8 to 8-10. Half the side of the roadway was filled with people standing around waiting to rush the buses doors when they opened.

There were some of us, sitting back, trying to behave with order, asking for guidance, but there were so few people. And the crowd was just getting more aggressive in trying to get buses whenever another row of buses would come through. At one point, the cops were there, attempting to help manage people getting into the bus door. Perhaps you've seen it all when you see a cop in SWAT gear trying to do people traffic control at a charter bus door. Meanwhile, with all of the crowd chaos, my thoughts kept going back to The Who concert in Cincinnati, hoping that somehow people would get this under control. Seriously. At times it felt like the crowd just might be that crazy.

The thing that really cracks you up though, that makes you think twice -- this crowd isn't soccer hooligans, it isn't "kids that don't know any better". The crowd is, theoretically, business people, professionals, grown-ups who've spent the day listening to stories of philanthropy and charity. And now, to watch them push and shove for buses. It's a reminder that crowds change people and that herds behave differently. Sadly, the whole thing also reminded me of the last Grateful Dead tour in 1995.

By 11:00, they started to try and control the people standing in the road, trying to push them back toward the sidewalk with yellow hazard ribbon, but it wasn't until about 11:10 when the cops started actually forcing people back that things started to move. Finally, I made it on the bus around 11:30 and back to the hotel. The finally funny part was that the bus driver dropped us off -- first stop -- at "The Hilton", but he was about a block away, across from Glide Memorial behind Parc55. Frankly, by that time, I was just glad to escape, but I was glad I wasn't one of the people from out of town trying to geo-locate using the map on the back of my Dreamforce badge.

Since the event, I've reflected on what was wrong and what should have been done differently. While I'm not someone who plans events on this scale, observation wise, I do have a couple of thoughts about what went wrong.
  • Too much unmanaged space between open areas and traffic controlled areas. By that I mean, there was a lot distance in crowd control gates with nobody there to manage the traffic and provide authoritative guidance. Like having one of those ribbon guides with nobody in line, people often believe that they can just jump ahead. 
  • Not clearly managed bus loading areas. At one point someone said they'll be loading at the cone. Then a bus pulled up 30 feet from the cone and a mass of people rushed the door from both directions.
  • The remote location. The Cow Palace is just too far away from San Francisco and from BART. When I checked with Google maps about walking to Balboa Park BART, it said 45 minutes walk. While finding an event location to handle the huge Dreamforce crowd is San Francisco is probably impossible, for myself, I wouldn't go to another event that isn't within walking distance.
While I waited for a bus to extract me from Daily City, I wondered if there was a band that I would be so interested in seeing that I would do another Dreamforce Gala again. At this point, I can't think of one.

Marc, I want to thank you for the conference and all of the effort that you and your team go through to make Dreamforce happen. And again, thanks for reply and the email request.

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