Dreamforce returns with hundreds on hand, down from 170,000 in the past

High hopes for a larger Salesforce conference shriveled during the summer

By Jeff Elder

Examiner staff writer

Dreamforce, the Salesforce mega-conference that in prior years boasted 170,000 registered attendees, opened Tuesday with just hundreds of people on hand, despite high hopes for a larger turnout.

The company and city officials had hoped the conference would usher tourism dollars back to an economy desperate for them, but the delta variant ripped through those plans, limiting the conference to a small, invitation-only event.

There have been major setbacks of all kinds this summer, hindering San Francisco tech companies’ return to normalcy. Salesforce is The City’s largest employer, with some 9,000 Bay Area workers, and Dreamforce is its biggest conference. There are no greater testing grounds for tech’s return to in-person work and events than the company’s towering, 61-story SoMa headquarters and the sprawling convention in its shadow.

And there is almost no one at either of them. That emptiness would have been unthinkable a few years ago. And just months ago there were high hopes that thousands would have returned. Instead, the normally massive conference was held entirely outdoors.

Just a smattering of Salesforce workers attended a talk at the outdoor Dreamforce conference at Moscone Center on Tuesday. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Just a smattering of Salesforce workers attended a talk at the outdoor Dreamforce conference at Moscone Center on Tuesday. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Attendees, Salesforce employees and vendors mingled in the sunshine Tuesday, mostly maskless because they had been tested for the virus multiple times. But the excitement of past years was missing, along with more than 99 percent of the crowd. It made the colorful and friendly surroundings and decorations seem somehow otherworldly.

As in past years, Howard Street was blocked off between Third and Fourth streets, turned into an Astroturf forest populated by Salesforce’s cartoon character mascots. But the largest presentations on that outdoor concourse lured dozens of people, not the teeming masses of the past. And those who were at the event went through a sequence of COVID-19 tests so they could mingle maskless, the company says.

But Salesforce loves star power, and Tuesday’s itinerary included a talk by “Ted Lasso” Emmy-winner Jason Sudeikis, followed by a concert at Moscone Center by Foo Fighters.

Before the pandemic, San Francisco’s convention industry accounted for $4.9 billion of overall economic impact annually, generating nearly $500 million in tax revenue and over 39,000 jobs, according to a city report released in October 2020. Last year, when Dreamforce was only a remote conference, direct spending on events at the Moscone Center convention site dropped 86%, from $1.9 billion to $275 million.

So, last spring, there was understandable optimism about Dreamforce coming back in person as vaccinations seemed to signal an end to the pandemic. The company and public figures rejoiced at the apparent return of the in-person conference. “We’re thrilled to bring Dreamforce back as an in-person experience, and we can’t wait to bring all our Trailblazers together for a completely new brand experience,” Sarah Franklin, the company’s chief marketing officer, said in a May announcement of the return of an in-person Dreamforce.

City Hall happily concurred. “Bringing Dreamforce back is a significant milestone on our road to recovery and another sign that San Francisco’s future is bright,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement provided to the company for a press release. “I’m so excited for this fall when we will have conventions back in Moscone Center, bringing more visitors to our incredible and resilient City.”

Then the delta variant struck, and many plans were scrapped.

Hopes for a larger, in-person conference apparently unraveled last month. Salesforce said on its Dreamforce FAQ page as late as Aug. 7, according to the web archive of their website on the Internet Archive, that, “Dreamforce will return to San Francisco and cities around the world, including New York City, London, and Paris, both in-person and in a new digital experience from September 21-23, 2021.”

There was plenty of empty space on the grounds at this year’s Salesforce Dreamforce conference. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

There was plenty of empty space on the grounds at this year’s Salesforce Dreamforce conference. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

On August 10, the company promoted a new streaming video channel where remote attendees can watch Dreamforce. And days after the announcement of that streaming channel, the Dreamforce FAQ web page was apparently changed, according to the Internet Archive, from the above statement to, “Dreamforce will stream live September 21–23, 2021, exclusively on the new Salesforce+ for FREE to everyone from anywhere.”

It was unclear to some devoted fans of the conference what was happening. In a Salesforce subreddit page, dating back to Aug. 25, users linked to the changing FAQ page, and compared rumors about caps on attendance, and whether the conference had become invitation only, which it had.

The next day, on Aug. 26, Franklin, the Salesforce chief marketing officer wrote in a blog post titled, “An Update on Dreamforce 2021,” that, “We’re grateful to host hundreds of Trailblazers for an in-person, invite-only experience in San Francisco.”

Salesforce would not comment on the reduction in the size of the in-person conference, nor its communication of the evolution.

The mayor did acknowledge the impact of the delta variant when asked for an updated comment on her May statement. “Unfortunately, the entire event is not in person due to the safety protocols to combat the Delta variant, but she is happy to be participating and joining the portion that will be,” a spokesperson told The Examiner.

Due to COVID restrictions, just 100 Salesforce employees are working in the company’s 61-story tower, San Francisco’s tallest building, four months after the company enthusiastically announced its re-opening. That’s down from several thousand before COVID-19.

Examiner staff writer Jeff Elder worked at Salesforce from 2018-2019. He holds no stock or affiliation with the company.

jelder@sfexaminer.com

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