The e-economy has cooled off, but Silicon Valley still parties like it's 1999
As the Beastie Boys' 'Fight for Your Right' blasts over the sound system in the Yerba Buena ballroom of the San Francisco Marriott, the CEO of the software company Business Objects and the firm's vice president of North American operations--both white men skirting middle age--step gingerly inside an inflatable gladiator ring. They're handed helmets and jousting sticks with giant marshmallow padding at each end, and they begin, at first, to poke each other with the awkward delicacy of gangly boys in gym class. Then they start getting into it. Little whacks turn into earnest pummeling. They laugh heartily, corporate stiff upper lips still in place, and the crowd around them cheers. The audience, consisting overwhelmingly of single, male Business Objects employees in khakis, nibbles on sushi and sips imported beer. In another corner of the room, young techies scale a 20-foot climbing wall. Others strap themselves into an enormous human foosball court; attached to thick cords, they can only move horizontally as they attempt to kick the ball. Across the floor, a guy in his early 20s flops around on a frenzied bucking bronco suspended above a giant air cushion. Elsewhere, two employees in flesh-toned vinyl sumo suits and helmets decorated with fake black topknots slam into one another and roll merrily about the floor.
Tony LaVasseur, 22, is tickled by the day's events. With all the enthusiasm of a Mountain Dew commercial, he scans the self-conscious roughhousing and says, 'This is awesome! This shows the company cares.' Quite seriously, he adds, 'The more personal you are, the more comfortable you are, and the better you work.'
Unlike the young grunts who entered corporate America a generation ago, boys like LaVasseur aren't expected to feign maturity to fit into a company's culture. Instead, in an era when retaining staff is often a challenge, corporate culture is being molded to suit them. As new-media managers everywhere know, hipness and playfulness are intensely valuable corporate commodities these days. Accordingly, a new breed of corporate-event planners has emerged to supply them.
The new party planners are the perfect composite of camp counselor, club promoter, travel agent, and business psychologist. They're the Blowout Brigade responsible for San Francisco's multi-million-dollar, 20-party-a week habit ( much discussed lately for attracting gate-crashing, champagne-swilling hordes)--and they're showing no signs of slowing down, even in a plateauing economy.
More than anyone, these big-event specialists are responsible for the aggressive fun! fun! fun! ethic that makes the hypercapitalism of the high-tech sector so surreal. They're the ones CEOs hire to keep their staff 'pumped,' the ones who teach geeks to drive race cars on the company dime, the ones who score zebra meat to tempt jaded yuppie palates. They organize trips to Bali, skydiving jaunts over Northern California, and corporate shows by rock stars who should know better. They're both the cause and the effect of the erosion of boundaries between work and play.
Ten years ago, there were five event-production companies listed in the San Francisco phone book. Today, there are 110.
In The Conquest of Cool, social critic and Bafflereditor Tom Frank writes, 'Regardless of the tastes of Republican leaders, rebel youth culture remains the cultural mode of the corporate moment, used to promote not only specific products, but also the general idea of life in the cyber revolution.'
Tech enterprises in Silicon Valley lust after street cred, and throwing parties is one way to get it. A few years ago, Applied Materials, the world's largest producer of semiconductor machines, reached the pinnacle of hip capitalism when it booked Bob Dylan to play its 30th anniversary party. The singer of such hierarchy-smashing ditties as 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' shared the stage with his son Jakob's band, the Wallflowers.
Lacy Maxwell was one of the planners behind the Applied Materials fete. 'These corporations,' she says, 'want to keep their employees. They want to be the coolest, the hippest, so they'll do these kinds of events as a bonus.' Maxwell was one of several people hired to work on a millennial party for E*Trade. She booked Kool and the Gang as the headliner and RuPaul as the emcee. Held in San Francisco's Concourse Exhibition Center, the party had a 'Feel This!' theme. Dancers and drag queens were hired to stroll around the room, as was a bodybuilder with the night's slogan written on his bare back.
Thirty-year-old Petrina Rosholt, owner of the company P.R. Events, oversaw the affair. She created several 'lounges' in the space, including the 'sinful pleasures lounge,' where two models in devil costumes lay on a furry red table and fed desserts to employees and their guests. In another room, where the theme was 'Skins,' organizers installed a snake charmer.
Bay Area event planner Rick Herns, a former musician, describes an ultraexclusive event that played on the attendees' million-dollar egos. The centerpiece of the event, Herns recalls, was a piece of equipment he bought from the Israeli army: a round machine, equipped with jaws, that was designed to dig up land mines and then fly off with them. The party was for the Young Presidents Organization, an elite group of company presidents under 40, mostly heads of tech firms. They were meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and had hired Herns to plan a shindig. On the night of the soiree, the young presidents were herded into buses and told that they were being taken to a dinner engagement. Meanwhile, Herns had hired the New Mexico National Guard to help him pull off a Roswell-themed bash.
Halfway out in the desert, he explains, 'they were stopped by the National Guard. I had Hummers and helicopters. Guys in suits and sunglasses boarded each bus and handed everyone dossiers. When they opened them, there was a letter signed with a presidential seal, which, of course, I'd forged.' The letter, ostensibly from Jimmy Carter, said that he'd been negotiating in secret for several months with alien beings who wanted to form a trade agreement with planet Earth. Before they did, though, they wanted to meet the American business elite.
'The YPO guys are so ego-involved in who they are,' Herns says, 'that they totally believed it.'
The buses drove off the freeway and into the desert, an area that's just 'hundreds of acres of nothing,' says Herns. 'We set up a beautiful, pristine white tent and surrounded it with what looked like radar and scientific apparatus, just like in the movies.' The young presidents went in and were served dinner. When the meal was done, the Israeli machine, decorated to look like a UFO, flew into the tent and landed on the dance floor, where people in alien costumes climbed out. The bill for the elaborate charade? 'Several hundred thousand dollars,' says Herns.
Last December, Rick Herns Productions threw a party for Synopsys in several tents pitched in the company's parking lot. It all took place on a workday afternoon, and the theme was 'Cyber Playground.' A squat R2D2-style robot greeted guests as they entered. The smell of steaks sizzling filled the air, and a lavish spread awaited employees inside. Still, the tone was somewhat flat--melancholy even. Maybe it was the band playing a desultory 'Jingle Bells,' or the condescending antics of a guy with a Cyrano nose mincing around dressed as a court jester. 'We're here to help loosen them up, so they can go back to another year of cubicle living,' said the jester--a depressing prospect, even if he was half-joking.
Wouldn't it be better to just have the day off? Attendees reacted to the idea with shock. Seriously. 'I would rather be here than at home,' said senior R&D engineer Anupam Anand. 'These parties are great.' John Conner, a young guy with spiked blond hair, overalls, and a hoop earring, concurred, saying almost eerily, 'It's much more fun to hang out with your work buddies than to just have a regular day off.'
Sometimes the event planners themselves say they have to step in and stop their clients from co-opting too much of their employees' lives. Last year, party planner Ron Johnson talked one of his high-tech clients out of throwing a company party on New Year's Eve. 'I advised the CEO that maybe he should reconsider allocating the funds for this and issue some extra vacation days or a bonus instead,' Johnson recalls. The CEO took his advice and gave everyone in the company an additional week of vacation and a $50 check. 'It went over huge,' he says, employing his favorite descriptor. After all, the boss may be getting you a life, but sometimes a day off still means not going to work.
From Shift (July/Aug. 2000). Subscriptions $17.97/yr. (10 issues) from 35 Riviera Dr., Unit 17, Markham, ON, Canada L3R8N4.