"Relatively little news gets broken at this conference. Instead, companies made announcements at the end of last week, freeing them to emphasize talking points to analysts and media ahead of the confab. Consequently, the important conversations took place in the hallways. And naturally, half of the buzz there was about how quickly the narrow hallways became crowded.
"Of course, it's a tradition to complain about the crowds: in both good years and in bad, attendees have to put aside notions of personal space for a week. But this year, there is reason to believe that the problem was significantly worse: organizers said registered attendance was up by about 20 percent, translating into 1,000 more people jostling for seats in tiny breakout sessions scattered about.
"But claustrophobia really kicked in during the lunches, when thousands packed a constricted hallway leading to the Grand Ballroom for keynote presentations, including Obama health advisor Nancy-Ann DeParle and - and as has become tradition - JP Morgan's iconoclastic chairman, Jamie Dimon. The effect is not unlike pushing to get through the gates at a professional football game, only without the facepaint and drunks. In this case, the elixir is money.
"And for that reason, every presentation is a crucial moment for each company, but the format tends to ensure that everyone hews close to the same model: rolling already-announced news and, sometimes, updated projections into a tight, PowerPoint-heavy speech. Hence, the emphasis on making the most of the hallways - you never know who you can bump into - and hoping to land invites to the right gatherings. But occasionally, there are genuine surprises. "At the Vertex Pharmaceutical presentation, ceo Matt Emmens handed out straws to the audience, encouraging everyone to breathe through them to get a feel for what cystic fibrosis is like (although one Tweeter suggested this may have been an effort to entice the crowd to drink the corporate Kool-Aid). And in an underpublicized, late-day panel, Google ceo Eric Schmidt made a notable appearance with venture capitalist extraordinaire John Doerr and two of the White House's health care gurus. "At a conference notable for warning about 'forward-looking statements,' Schmidt was a bit bolder, dreaming of a day when everyone's complete health care data was available everywhere, stored in the cloud. HHS Chief Technology Officer Todd Park had his own set of predictions about the future of health care (enabled by health care reform): notably, a sea change in the way that health care is reimbursed. The polite, but jaded crowded responded with skeptical questions. But as expected, the real action quickly eventually shifted elsewhere.
"And like any gathering of elitists where velvet ropes are employed - some elite are more special than others. Down the street at the hipper-than-thou Clift Hotel, the Redwood Room bar was loud, dark and constantly packed. The doors were guarded by earpiece-wearing guys responsible for unlatching the rope for people on a guest list. Everyone else had to wait in the unseasonably cold weather for space to open up. It has the feel of the scene outside trendy urban nightspots, except that instead of young fashionistas and club kids, the crowd lined up outside the Clift was composed mostly of suit-clad men, whose idea of dressing down for the evening consisted of removing their ties.
"Inside, everyone was leaning in close to talk over the booming music or fighting to get within arm's length of the enormous redwood bar to order hideously expensive martinis. The schmoozing takes place under the watchful eyes of the bar's digital artwork: bizarre portraits that appear, at first glance, to be backlit photographs but are in fact video loops of slow-moving models, whose subtly shifting gazes are unsettling. "The confab has an ephemeral effect: on the surface, nothing much happened this week. Despite an influx of journalists and hundreds of presentations, no huge stories broke. Officially, you could just skip the whole thing and be just fine (the sessions are all webcast). And yet it's a can't-miss event, mostly because the real power brokers come out after it gets dark to seed deals. That's the reason Union Square was packed this year. And as long as there are deals to be done, it'll be packed again next year."
* - Since we were unable to attend the conference and sometimes like to run guest contributions, we asked Reid to offer some details about the atmosphere, which may can be illuminating for those who are curious to know why the event is so widely attended but are unable to do so themselves. We should point out that there were no strings attached - he did not write about any clients and we did not discuss any of the clients he may have represented at the affair.
pic thx to o5com on flickr