Meditation, Michelle Obama and MCs: inside the weird and wonderful world of Dreamforce

The theme for this year’s festival was Trailblazers

Last Saturday (4 November) a Virgin Atlantic flight full of journalists and ad tech execs landed in San Francisco International. The group were making their way to Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual bonanza for clients and employees.

The plane was one of many carrying some of the 170,000 attendees who flock to the city by the Bay every year, but according to a group of tech execs in the customs queue "it was nowhere near as rowdy" as the same flight from Dublin.

Without experiencing it, it’s hard to relay the scale and feel of Dreamforce. It takes over the whole city for just under a week: temporarily shutting down museums, taking over hotels and bringing together tech royalty such as Salesforce's own chief executive Marc Benioff with A-listers like Michelle Obama, Will.i.am, Natalie Portman and, erm, Pitbull (aka Mr Worldwide).

Before the conference even began, delegates were proudly walking around sporting their lanyards on the Sunday evening, something you’d be hard pressed to find at Cannes or Dmexco. “They’ve swallowed the Koolaid,” one marketer was overheard remarking, all in good nature.

The theme for this year’s festival was 'Trailblazers', and as such, the domineering Moscone Centre where most of the activity was going on was kitted out like a national park complete with a climbing wall, mounds of astroturf, real trees and walls adorned with cartoon paintings of hot air balloons and mountains.

Where Cannes has cabanas, Dreamforce has a dedicated meditation areas, 'success stations' and a gameshow-eque challenge – 'Dreamforce Quest' – dotted around the campus.

The Drum was on the ground at Dreamforce for the first time this year. You can read our official round-up here, but in the meantime here's a look at what it's like to experience the weird and wonderful event first-hand.

Organisers take the theme seriously, very seriously

Everywhere you turned in the city, one of the company's 'trailblazers' kitted out like park rangers, was waiting to help.

When guests stepped into the entrance to the Moscone Centre they were officially in 'Dream Valley Campground', which featured a stage, a climbing wall and a lot of navy blue-suited men sitting on benches and beanbags.

Even the press room took on the theme, complete with plants and animal sounds.

The Salesforce mascots, a series of cuddly cartoon characters with names like Einstein, Blaze and Sassy were everywhere; and people genuinely seemed to like getting their picture taken with them...

There was mindfulness amid the madness

Salesforce's Benioff has forged a relationship with the monks and nuns from Plum Village, and as with last year they set up a tent in the camp to share mindfulness and mediation practices with stressed out guests. Cue the same navy-suited execs sitting cross-legged among strings of bunting and fairy lights.

The French monastic community were a big hit with conference goers, offering a quiet space amid the hustle and bustle.

Michelle Obama does not like buzzwords

America's former first lady stole the show on Wednesday. Lines to see her started forming at sunrise and though recording and photography was prohibited, this didn't stop some titles reporting on her session, or attendees tweeting.

She entered the stage to a deafening applause and a chorus of "we miss you". An enthusiastic reveler at the front of the stage was literally doing star jumps.

She discussed everything from diversity to health, and naturally a group of cute kids from local schools were drafted in to sit stage-side. While this was clearly meant to appeal to the softies in the audience, things took a bit of an awkward turn with Benioff told Obama that the children were there because they saw her as a "changemaker".

Her face screwed up: "Did you really use that phrase?" she asked the kids, to a mixture of confused head nodding and shaking as their teachers grinned and insisted that the group of seven-year-olds had done so

MCs and music were a big theme

For a business conference, there was a surprisingly high number of MCs working the decks at Dreamforce. Moscone North and Moscone South both seemed to have resident DJs, no matter the time. It felt quite bizarre being pumped up by David Guetta before walking into the Obama keynote, however.

Then there was Dreamfest, the annual concert held at the AT&T stadium to raise funds for the the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, which saw Lucas Nelson, Alicia Keys and Lenny Kravitz take to the stage.

On arrival guests were handed a hotdog and a Coors Light, which combined with the array of taco and potato chip stalls inside the concert, left no doubt that we were in America.

Before his keynote, which was a two-hour long event, Benioff arranged for his friend LT Smooth to perform for the audience. The talented artist kept popping up throughout the week, notably singing the Salesforce Song (yes, there is a Salesforce song) We Are Ohana, which is inspired by the company's 'family' of employees, customer and partners.

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Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. Based in London, she writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

All by Rebecca