In the weeks leading up to the Dreamforce conference, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, a longtime San Francisco booster, threatened to pull the event from the city if this year’s iteration was “impacted by the current situation with homelessness and drug use.”
Benioff later positioned his comments as part of a pressure campaign meant to get San Francisco to get its act together. At least during Dreamforce, he seemed to have been pleased by the results.
“When the city of San Francisco wants to look good and get shiny, clean and safe, it knows how to do that,” Benioff told reporters on Wednesday.
He detailed his decision to make the threat to pull Dreamforce in an interview with Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“Nobody liked that. I didn’t like saying it. Everybody calling me saying, ‘Oh, Marc, why did you say that?’ I’m like, ‘Because it’s true, and we need to be thinking about our customers and everybody’s experience,'” Benioff said. “Then, everything is perfect, spiffy, cleaned up, nice. I looked on Howard Street, and I’m like ‘What did they do? Pour fresh cement?' You can eat off the sidewalk, it’s incredible.”
For many attendees, Dreamforce is a pilgrimage of sorts. As the Bay Area’s largest tech conference, some were adamant that the event stay in close proximity to Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
Josh Ellars, CEO of Utah-based OpenGTM, said that the concentration and centrality of tech in San Francisco would be “tough to replicate anywhere else.”
As for the social issues that Benioff has pointed out? Ellars said regularly traveling to San Francisco and the Bay Area as part of his professional life underscores his experience that perception doesn’t always match reality.
“I crisscross the country and homelessness, drug addiction, drug abuse is happening in every major metro area. Unfortunately, sometimes you have those issues being magnified in the media,” Ellars said. “If you take a zoomed in photo of tents and homeless people, you could do that in Dallas or even in Salt Lake.”
Others were ready for a change of venue and took Benioff’s comments as a welcome opportunity to switch things up at the 21-year-old conference. Ellars said he was “openly indifferent” to the future location of the conference—he’ll follow wherever Salesforce decides to go.
David Mansi is the CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based startup ProcureSpark, which is using generative AI to ease the procurement process for companies.
Mansi, who is from the United Kingdom and lives in the Mission, is not blind to the conditions on the streets and says he would “probably not” want to raise a family in the city if it continues on its current trajectory. But in his opinion, there’s simply no better place to start an AI company right now than the city.
“There’s still a hell of a lot of innovation and a hell of a lot of very, very talented people building things here and basing themselves here,” Mansi said. “That’s a combination of the venture ecosystem, but also the entrepreneurial ecosystem and people willing to take risks.”
“Over here, every elevator conversation is about databases,” his co-founder Prateek Sahay, quipped.
Las Vegas, which has attracted a number of conferences away from San Francisco, has often been raised as a potential new location for Dreamforce. Recently, the Google Next conference announced it was decamping from Moscone Center to Las Vegas.
Mansi said for attendees like himself who are mainly there to meet potential clients and partners, the nightlife takes a strong back seat. He thinks it might be hard for early-stage companies to make the business case to investors that an expensive trip to Sin City would be worth it.
“In Vegas, it’s hard not to party. People would be walking into the second day hungover,” Mansi said.
Thomas Schutz, partner program director at startup Titan, had a different take.
“The city’s a mess. I love this city, but Benioff has stated his intention,” Schutz said.
His first choice for a new Dreamforce location? His backyard of San Diego, as a way to save on the conference’s exorbitant hotel room costs.
Dreamforce regularly attracts a crowd of over 40,000 techies every year, whose attendance boosts tourism, sales and hotel stays in Downtown San Francisco. Given the area’s struggles to return to its pre-pandemic economy, it would be difficult to look at Dreamforce’s potential departure as anything but unfortunate for the city’s Downtown core.
In 2022, the company projected the conference would rake in $40 million for San Francisco’s economy; this year, revenue was expected to more than double, reaching $90 million by the end of the week.
Still, some attendees thought Salesforce’s longer history of championing San Francisco causes was more important than a single convention. Despite CEO Benioff’s warning about pulling the convention from his home city, the Salesforce boss has nevertheless continued to invest in the University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital and other city causes.
Salesforce’s “actions have shown their commitment to SF, particularly with [Benioff] being a native, so I think they speak for themselves,” said Kwasi Mitchell, chief purpose and DEI officer at Deloitte.
Mitchell is part of a team representing big-name corporate entities sponsoring a San Francisco-based activation challenge, Yes SF. Backed by Salesforce, the World Economic Forum, Deloitte, SF’s Chamber of Commerce and more, Yes SF will fund and steward a select group of innovators proposing sustainable ways to revitalize Downtown SF.
The group spoke to a sparse audience on Wednesday, though YesSF representatives contested that roughly 300 people attended the presentation in a room that can hold up to 900 people.
“I think there’s an opportunity here, as we start to change that narrative of what’s taken place here in Downtown San Francisco, to invite others in,” Mitchell said. “The excitement that we see from the coalition of 20-plus organizations that are a part of [Yes SF] has me really hopeful about reversing the exodus and have it be really focused on growth.”
San Francisco Mayor London Breed was named as a “special guest” for an AI-based pitch competition at Dreamforce and touted the city as a center for the nascent industry. Of the top 20 AI companies, eight are located in San Francisco, Breed noted.
Sharing the stage with another Deloitte executive, Breed played her role as upbeat city cheerleader and conduit between the tech industry and San Francisco. Yes SF, she said, could help shepherd San Francisco into its next era.
“What we hope happens today, the relationship between Salesforce and Deloitte, this marriage that’s been created by Yes SF is to say yes,” Breed said. “Yes to new opportunities, yes to new ideas, yes to creativity.”