The first time I attended Dreamforce in 2010, I was the only Canadian journalist in attendance.

There were no press handlers herding me into presentation rooms, no familiar faces from my beat back in Toronto, and the press work room didn’t even get ice cream bars catered to it. But Salesforce.com’s conference has grown since then. It’s been the world’s largest, single-vendor conference for years but continues to add tens of thousands more attendees, somehow cramming more B2B professionals into the already over-crowded Moscone Centre in San Francisco, where the Salesforce headquarters is also located.

This year there will be a record-setting 130,000 attendees, according to Salesforce. My media experience, as it has been for the past several years, will be a more organized (controlled?) one, arranging interviews through press contacts and either being shuffled into press conference sessions or dodging my handlers to get off to a meeting that I’ve set up beforehand. It’s a rhythm I’ve become familiar with over the last few years, and I must say that I enjoy it immensely.

Dreamforce is more than just a conference. It’s become the place to be in the B2B technology world, especially for cloud software vendors. Thanks in part to all the Salesforce acquisitions in Canada the past five years, there is no shortage of Canadian startups that use this show as a platform to make their big product debut – Influitive, Mark Organ’s second startup, did it in 2012 for its AdvocateHub. This year, hot Canadian wearables firms Thalmic Labs and Bionym will be showcasing their wearable wares on the show floor.

While Dreamforce can serve as a sort of uber-meeting that introduces you to the connections and knowledge that might set your agenda for the next year, it’s also a circus. Keynote presentations can easily be confused with rock concerts – beginning with loud music booming into the auditorium, strobe lights flashing, and live performers warming up the crowd before Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff takes the stage. With so many crowds, more sessions than you could ever possibly attend if the conference was three times as long, and the general ensuing chaos around the Moscone Centre for Dreamforce week, those unprepared can have a harrowing experience.

So here’s some tips from a journalist that’s been to the circus a few times.

Go outside

The Moscone Centre is composed of three large building, two of which (the north and south) are connected by an underground tunnel. Most of the keynotes, sessions, and other activities will be taking place in those two buildings, and there’s an exhibition floor too. It’s entirely possible and often convenient to stream back and forth using the large tunnel and not go outside even once during the entire conference.

But do that and you’ll miss the often impressive outdoors setup that lines Howard Street, the major downtown street that is closed for the week of Dreamforce, much to the chagrin of local motorists. Last year the world’s largest inflatable structure provided a roof and shelter from any rain. Underneath this area are two stages, and at least one is always occupied by a performer – sometimes a really good one.

Last year, I was walking outside when I heard the song “Hip to be Square” being played from one of the stages. When I turned to see what cover band was performing it, I was surpassed to see that it was actually Huey Lewis and the News, in the flesh.

At meal times, the outdoors area can be a less crowded place to grab a boxed lunch. At the end of the day, there are often drinks to be found and hot food served up at various stands.

Also if you just need to escape from it all, climb the stairs to Yuerba Buena Gardens and enjoy a su9rprisingly tranquil setting that is not too far from the conference din.

Accessing the keynote sessions

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is known to improvise during his keynote sessions.
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff (right) is known to improvise during his keynote sessions.

I think the auditorium that hosts the keynote sessions at Dreamforce might hold about 15,000. There are more than 100,000 people registered for Dreamforce – you do the math.

If you want to see the keynote presentations or fireside chats in person, line up an hour before it begins. That should get you a good seat close to the stage. Watching Benioff live is worthwhile – he is known to go off script and improvise when things don’t go quite as planned. One year while waiting on a presentation that was delayed, he started speaking with members of the crowd, giving them time on the microphone to ask questions. Given that a huge audience was watching at the event, and the live online stream, it was a big risk.

In a previous year when Bill Clinton was delayed for the fireside chat with Benioff, he just nabbed Stevie Wonder to come out on stage for an interview that was somehow simultaneously as awkward as it was inspiring.

If you’re a member of the press like I am, you’ll get a separate entrance for the keynotes. But don’t think that means you can waltz in after it begins. You’ll want to sit in the “blog pond” where the tables, power connections, and hard-wired Ethernet is provided and those seats are limited. Also know now that if you’re trying to save a seat for your friend who is dilly-dallying elsewhere, I will not hesitate to take that seat anyway.

Navigating the Cloud Expo

Typically there are two massive show floors (called Cloud Expos) at Dreamforce, one in Moscone West and the other in Moscone North. This year there will also be a special Industry Showcase in the Moscone South / Gateway area.

You should have a plan when you go to the show floor. Know what you want to see and where to find it by booth number. Simply wandering around until you stumble across something isn’t realistic given the sheer square acreage covered by the exhibition.

Don’t be distracted by vendor attempts to woo you to their booths. Most of the swag, you’ll throw out before you ever leave San Francisco. The contests to win an iPad will come with conditions attached that you be in a certain place at a certain time, and you probably won’t make it.

What the show floor really presents is a premium networking opportunity. Make sure you’re connecting with the people you want to and a good time to do it is near the end of the day, in the last hour before the show floor closes. That is when many booths roll out the free beer and wine and conversation starts flowing a bit more freely.

Party hard

Even if the restaurants, bars, and clubs surrounding the Moscone Centre aren’t officially a part of Dreamforce, you can bet that they have been rented out by a company that’s attending the conference to host a special customer party event at night. For some, finding the best parties related to the conference can be a bit of a sport. But you won’t be able to get into just any party – many will be controlled by guest lists.

To get on those lists, you’ll have to network with others on the show floor, at the sessions you attend, and in the lobby of your hotel. Another tool you’ll want to make use of to find out about parties (and possibly do some other types of networking) is your Dreamforce-supplied login to the Salesforce Success Community. Groups like Dreamforce ’14 parties and All Dreamforce Parties & Networking are very active and share tons of options to keep you snacking on hors d’oeuvres and slaking your thirst all night long.

Just remember you have meetings to attend the next day.

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  • Jay McBain

    Great summary – after attending over 100 tech tradeshows, including CES, this is my first year at Dreamforce.