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There are tech conferences. And then there's Dreamforce.
Some 150,000 people are expected to flood downtown San Francisco, equal to almost one-fifth of the city's population. Hotels are filled to capacity, the already crowded streets will be bursting at the seams, and a large cruise ship dubbed the Dreamboat will be docked on the bay, adding 1,100 rooms (all booked).
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Last year, the conference brought in an estimated $226 million to the local economy, according to SF Travel.
But Dreamforce isn't all about Salesforce—far from it. Scores of companies that are built on top of Salesforce's cloud platform or tied into its ecosystem view Dreamforce as the most important event of the year. Richly valued start-ups such as InsideSales.com, FinancialForce.com, Appirio and Apttus (all backed by Salesforce Ventures) spend a huge chunk of their marketing budget on Dreamforce and count on the conference for an equal percentage of sales leads.
Top sponsorships cost $1.5 million.
"This is the Super Bowl of events for us," said Dave Elkington, CEO of Provo, Utah-based InsideSales, whose software helps businesses target sales opportunities. "We go in a big way."
InsideSales is among about a dozen platinum sponsors, a level that brings with it a $1 million price tag. Five companies are in the highest tier, labeled titanium.
For the four-day conference, Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff turns the area around San Francisco's Moscone Center into a tech village, shutting down a full block and covering the street with artificial turf to accommodate lunches, lounging and a big screen for viewing the keynotes taking place inside.
The CEOs of Microsoft, Cisco and Uber all have keynote speeches, as do Jessica Alba, Goldie Hawn and Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young. Last year's event featured an on-stage conversation between Al Gore and Neil Young.
Appirio, a services company that helps businesses adopt cloud applications, counts on Dreamforce for about 20 percent of its sales pipeline. Knowing that, the company spares no expense.
In addition to the 400 square feet of booth space, extensive branding and high-profile recognition from Salesforce that comes with a platinum sponsorship, Appirio rents out Jillian's, a large billiards hall and sports bar around the corner from Moscone. From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., customers, partners and prospects filter through for meetings over an espresso or maybe something stiffer.
"It's chaotic at Dreamforce, and sometimes people just need a place to relax, plug in and get a nice cup of coffee without waiting in line at Starbucks," said Michelle Swan, a vice president in Appirio's marketing department. The venue got such rave reviews last year that "we expanded to a second part of Jillian's, a larger meeting area," she said.
Preparation is year-round and kicks into full gear months before the conference.
On a Tuesday morning in late August, a team of about a dozen Appirio employees gathered in a conference room at the company's San Francisco headquarters, with another five joining remotely via Google Hangouts. It was their weekly Dreamforce counsel meeting to discuss everything from party invitations and expected attendance to the type of furniture they'd be using and when to reveal the "mystery guest."
"We'll start planning for Dreamforce pretty much the day after the next one," Swan said.
Apttus, which recently joined the billion-dollar start-up club, goes even bigger with a titanium sponsorship (600-square-foot booth space). The company, based south of the city in San Mateo, will have over 400 employees on site, 13 luxury suites for meetings, six booths and a headquarters at The View on top of the Marriott.
And don't forget the raffle for a Tesla car, and the life-size Benioff busts made out of legos that will be on display.
"Last year, we felt we were the second-largest presence at the show, next to Salesforce," said Kamal Ahluwalia, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Apttus. "This year, we have no choice but to raise the bar once again. There's no doubt that we've pulled out all the stops."
Ahluwalia also uses the football analogy, with a little twist. "Dreamforce is our Super Bowl, but we approach it like a game of chess," he said.
While only one person can win the Tesla, 6,000 attendees can visit the InsideSales display for a Misfit fitness band.
Sounds like a lot, but Elkington said the 100 or so employees he's sending will talk to about 30,000 people and conduct 8,000 product demos.
Dreamforce attendees flying into San Francisco will see InsideSales banners at the airport, directing them to drop by the booth.
"The goal is to get someone to engage and learn about what we do," Elkington said.
How much does this all cost?
"It's over seven figures of spend, and we expect to get a return of over eight figures," he said. That's because 60 to 70 percent of its sales pipeline will be touched at the event and 4,000 new sales opportunities will emerge, Elkington estimates rather precisely.
InsideSales, founded in 2004, goes to Dreamforce every year, and has it down to a science. In November, Benioff had Elkington travel to Half Moon Bay, a beach town south of San Francisco, to talk to 50 Salesforce executives about his Dreamforce planning and management.
"They were blown away by the efficiency and analytical approach," Elkington said.
Despite the many millions of dollars that Salesforce generates from sponsorships, Dreamforce is still a money-losing endeavor.
The benefits far outweigh any costs, said Neeracha Taychakhoonavudh, senior vice president of partner programs at Salesforce. As a company born and raised in San Francisco with aspirations to be the fastest software business to $10 billion in revenue (over $5 billion in 2015), Dreamforce is a chance to show off by throwing the biggest party.
It's more than twice the size of OpenWorld, the annual event from Benioff's former employer, Oracle, which takes place at the same venue next month. It's also a way for Salesforce to get its customers and partners in the same location. After all, the more services Salesforce can offer its clients, the more valuable it becomes as a platform.
The downside is that it's total mayhem. There are 400 exhibitors showcasing customer success alone.
Read More Oracle OpenWorld 2014
Below titanium and platinum, there are three sponsorship levels—bronze, silver and gold—ranging in price from $50,000 to $400,000. For newbies, there's the exhibitor sponsorship at $25,000. At the lower levels, companies have to get really creative to get noticed.
"Smaller partners go for something a little eye-catching," said Taychakhoonavudh, emphasizing the importance of loud but attractive colors, clear logos and simple messages. "How do you separate the signal from the noise, because there's a lot of noise."
Bard went to Dreamforce last year as an individual attendee and brought Campaign Monitor's Australian co-founders, Ben Richardson and , as his guests. The company, which is based in Sydney, now has more than 50 employees in San Francisco and is plunging into Dreamforce this year.
Campaign Monitor purchased two silver sponsorships, one for the parent business and another for GetFeedback, a provider of online survey software that Campaign Monitor acquired in November. Company executives will be on panels and leading breakout sessions.
Bard hopes all of his local employees can get to the conference to at least roam the venue and sit in on a keynote talk.
"It's part conference, part education, part networking, part rock concert and part giving back," Bard said. "I want everybody to have the opportunity to experience it."
FinancialForce, a titanium sponsor, will have about 200 people on site, including up to 75 flying in from out of town. The developer of financial management and supply chain management software has hit Dreamforce every year since the company was founded in 2009 and goes bigger each time.
A larger investment means more revenue, as 40 percent of the company's sales pipeline is tied to the conference, said Tom Brennan, senior vice president of marketing. So get ready to see the FinancialForce logo around town
"You'll see us on billboards on Highway 101, cab tops, bus stops, shuttles, pedicabs and hotel room keys," said Brennan. "Our real goal is to be seen everywhere."