Tender Is the Net: After the Dot-Com Bubble

The e-economy has cooled off, but Silicon Valley still parties like it's 1999

| November/December 2000

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.'

Don Alderman
6/17/2009 8:30:43 PM

I went to an event produced by Rick Herns Productions. It was a masked ball...awesome! My only regret is that I am only 23 and that may have been the best party I will ever go to in my life!

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