Why are 170,000 people heading to San Francisco? Dreamforce

San Francisco has a lot of conferences and conventions. As a city newbie, I’ve heard a buzz around all of them: Facebook’s F8, TechCrunch Disrupt, Oracle’s OpenWorld, the list goes on. But none is remotely as massive as Salesforce’s Dreamforce.

During Salesforce's annual customer confab, Dreamforce, some 150,000 are expected to descend on San Francisco, filling hotel rooms (and cruise ship suites), cabs, Ubers and open spaces with speaker events and concerts. In this session from 2014, founder Marc Benioff addresses the crowd.

Maybe that’s because last year, so many people came to the event, Salesforce had to rent a cruise ship to house the attendees once local hotels and Airbnbs filled up. This year, 170,000 people are headed to San Francisco Dreamforce. So what is this beast?

Pitch sessions and mindful monks

It’s a conference, put on by Salesforce (CRM), a cloud-based customer service software provider. Like many smaller-scale tech support conferences, it’s a time when Salesforce can meet with its customers and developers, putting itself in the spotlight to announce its goals. And in the spotlight it sure is.

Dreamforce banners are all over bus stops, streets are shut down in preparation and the Moscone Center is covered in blue Dreamforce banners. The company has more than 2,500 breakout sessions over four days (Oct. 4-7.) But it’s not your standard conference setup. There’s a Shark Tank-like pitching session with Mark Cuban, Chris Sacca and will.I.Am (up to $150,000 is at stake) and 20 monks are coming in to lead daily mindfulness sessions. Monks. Twenty of them. The whole shindig brought in $137M of direct business sales to the Bay Area last year, San Francisco Travel reported in 2015, and this year, even more attendees are expected.

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AI, gender equality

What are the hot topics besides the key one: how to improve sales?

Machine learning and artificial intelligence.

In September, Salesforce unveiled Einstein, its artificial intelligence product that helps salespeople focus on leads that statistically show the most promise of becoming clients, and helps customer service reps answer a rainbow of consumer queries.

More Einstein features are expected to be discussed at Dreamforce. Important to note: Salesforce has been working on its Einstein AI services for two years, and it acquired eight machine-learning companies in the process.

Equality. Salesforce is dedicating an entire day to the Women’s Leadership Summit with speakers like sports icon Billie Jean King and equal pay for equal work activist Lilly Ledbetter.

The company’s CEO Marc Benioff is known for his activist nature and extols what he calls “compassionate capitalism.” Benioff and his wife Lynne have given $200 million to a San Francisco children’s hospital that now bears their name and Benioff’s passion for the ocean, music and a holistic lifestyle often result in Dreamforce speakers touching on everything from yoga to oceanography. In September, Benioff announced a new endeavor — hiring the company’s first-eve chief equality officer Tony Prophet to bring greater diversity to the business software company.

Dreamforce, and Salesforce, haven’t necessarily won accolades for how it approached the tech industry’s historic lack of women and people of color.Last year at Dreamforce, panel hostGayle King drew criticism for asking YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki if her children were “by the same husband” and for asking other questions that focused on motherhood rather than entrepreneurship. Benioff also took some heat when he said, at an Advancing Women in the Workplace panel, that diversity is important, but Salesforce’s “major focus right now” is on “the women’s issue.”.

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It will be interesting to see how the organizers and participants handle themselves with a year’s worth of mindfulness behind them. One progressive move? Gender neutral bathrooms.

Who goes?

Lots of salespeople — Salesforce’s clients. Speakers like Melinda Gates, ABC News’ Good Morning America Co-Host, Robin Roberts and General Motors CEO Mary Barra, life strategist Tony Robbins and many more. Oh, and U2 will be there, too.

And why should you care?

Salesforce and Benioff have an outsized influence over Silicon Valley entrepreneurs — and the company is no lightweight on its own. Benioff started Salesforce in 1999, back when few were talking about the potential of cloud-based computing. But his prescience in this area has led to massive success. And here’s the latest: Salesforce has long been a target of acquisition rumors, specifically by Microsoft, which is trying to build out its enterprise-focused cloud platform. Microsoft’s recent $2.6 billion bid for professional networking site LinkedIn was recently opposed by Benioff on the grounds that it could create a form of monopoly when it comes to professional networking information. Salesforce, it turns out, was one of the bidders for LinkedIn, and isn’t eager to see a massive competitor make out with that prize.

Natalie DiBlasio is a digital editor for USA TODAY who writes the column #Launched about tech and culture in San Francisco. Follow along with #Launched and on social media to explore the technology explosion and the culture collision that make up daily life in the Bay Area.

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