Earlier today, I went to check out Fest300. It’s a web site with 6 staff, as well as a crowd-sourced content element, created by Chip Conley – a hotelier who is AirBnB’s head of Global Hospitality and Strategy. Chip is also on the Board of Directors of the Burning Man Project. On the front page of the site, was a Twitter feed linking to an article in Billboard magazine. Among other things, it said:
Last year, Conley launched Fest300 in the vein of lists like the Fortune 500 and Forbes 500. Of what he estimates to be 100,000 total festivals in the world, the Fest300 staff — a team of about six, including Conley, working out of a San Francisco office, with freelancers contributing editorial content — aggregates the best (you guessed it) 300 festivals.
…At only a year old, Fest300 is clocking some steady pageviews: the site had 525,000 unique visitors in September, a number Conley hopes will grow as the company pursues sponsors and advertising — and yes, a possible partnership with Airbnb, though Conley stresses he can’t comment on that yet. “I’m lucky enough that I sold my hotel company and am head of global hospitality and strategy at Airbnb that I can financially underwrite the site,” he says.
Their traffic makes them a bit smaller than Burners.Me, with our totally unpaid staff of Yours Truly, and the occasional (very welcome and appreciated) guest posts from our beloved readers. We have no sponsors and no advertising; nor do we make commercial advertisements from Burning Man footage like Fest300 does. Gifting, Self-Expression, Self-Reliance, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Decommodification (the Principle, not the money-making LLC), Inclusion, Leave No Trace, Immediacy, and Participation are some of the principles that underwrite this site. Others can paint, weld, mix, create costumes, take photos, cook, and make blinky lights. I have none of those skills, so writing and Interwebz is my contribution to the “Special Olympics of Art” that is Burner culture. My reward from BMOrg for Gifting my art? People using Burning Man’s internal network come here to abuse me using a variety of false names, and their paid employees slander us on Facebook during business hours.
I’m starting to think that I’m a fool to put thousands of hours in and give this away for free, when everyone else seems to be cashing in on Burning Man wherever they can.
It seems that making money from the festival boom is very much a part of the AirBnB global strategy, and the Fest300 vision too.
Chip is not the only Burning Man Project Director on the take from AirBnB, who launched their service on the Playa this year. Rae Richman left her 9-year job running the Rockefellers Philanthropy Advisers, helping wealthy corporations set up tax-exempt non-profit foundations, to become the head of Global Citizenship for AirBnB. She’s been a BMOrg Director for about 4 years.
There are AirBnB/BMOrg connections at the Executive Level too, though not so direct. Global Initiatives Director Jenn Sander is on stage with them at the CMX Summit in San Francisco this month, with a presentation “How To Build Community: Learning From Burning Man, AirBnB and NASA”. We also recently pointed out the “coincidence” (or is it?) that Burning Man’s Social Alchemist, Bear Kittay’s mentor recently created an investment fund named “Sherpa Ventures” that is financially backed by the same Texas Pacific Group (TPG) who led the AirBnB’s last financing round, supplying $75 million of the $450 million investment. Sherpa also sees big profits in new types of pop-up hospitality:
Other “hospitality entrepreneurs” on Burning Man’s Board of Directors are Jennifer Raiser, who is now selling a book about Burning Man:
Previously, Jennifer was CEO of Raiser Senior Services, a full-service provider of luxury retirement in the Bay Area, combining health care, dining, and long-term care…Her previous experience includes marketing with Procter and Gamble and BBDO/Omnicom Advertising, and management consulting with Fortune 500 corporations.
…and new appointee Jim Tananbaum, who threw his hat in the ring when he created everyone’s favorite Commodification Camp, Caravancicle. What evidence do we have that he was involved with Caravancicle? Well, he registered their domain name and is specifically named in the legal agreement their participants had to sign.
“…the organizers of the Caravancicle Camp and/or the Burning Man Event, including, but not limited to, Back to Earth Inc., dba ‘dovetail events’, Ari Derfel, Jim Tananbaum, Space Cubes LLC, Brad Peik/Peik Construction Inc./Peik Invstments LLC, Black Rock City, LLC and any and all owners, officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, volunteers, contractors or affiliates of these individuals and entities…”
The website was registered by ()
We have also been told by Burners that he provided the funding to develop The Lost Hotel’s Space Cubes – and we have no reason to doubt that. Caravancicle had 120 VIP guests paying $17,000 each (according to the whistle-blowing sherpa), as well as dozens of paid workers including “Mistresses of Merriment”. $2 million just for a camp at a festival: I think that qualifies JT as one of this “new breed of hospitality entrepreneurs”. To put that number in perspective, it’s about 10% of ticket sales of the entire event. 25 such camps would be making more money than Burning Man itself – while paying their sherpas less than minimum wage, with slave-like working conditions where if they don’t like it, they get dumped in the desert without food, water, or shelter.
The reason I’ve provided such a long-winded introduction to this story, repeating things I’ve already written about, is I’ve been accused on Facebook over the last couple of days of not providing enough evidence to support these claims. Regular readers of this blog will have seen all of this information before, because we always provide evidence and references to back up our claims, and if it’s just speculation, rumor, or theory, we tell you that. Unlike BMOrg, who make statements like “we pay $4.6 million a year to the BLM”, which when we fact-checked with the BLM turned out to be $3.4 million. It seems Burners.Me, a free Gift to the community, is expected by some to operate to a much higher standard of ethics and integrity than BMOrg, which is overseen by an 18-person Board of Directors and makes $30 million a year. Which we do, integrity is not a problem for me – yet it is our site that gets accused of “misinformation”, “yellow journalism”, “not a credible source”, “TMZ”, “Fox News” and so on…but I digress.
“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” – George Orwell.
When reading the Billboard piece about Conley’s plans to integrate AirBnB, festivals, and his own site, I was struck by this link in the middle of the story:
What was that doing, smack bang in the middle of an article about a Burning Man Director? I clicked the link, and sure enough – Burning Man is mentioned in the story. Not just mentioned: it is highlighted as the “creme de la creme” of packaged festival experiences for VIPs.
Due to the exclusive perks they provide and the premium prices they command — from $175 for a 5 Seconds of Summer VIP experience to a whopping $50,000 for a perch on the Burning Man festival’s Billionaires Row — these packages also have become an easy target for media seeking an “us vs. them” class warfare storyline. But architects of these offerings tell Billboard that critics are missing the point.
VIP packages, they say, are about business, not class — an opportunity to generate new revenue streams for the industry by attracting more demanding breeds of concertgoers, including “superfans,” as Breithaupt puts it, who’ve already seen the artist live “and are looking for an elevated experience.”
Jennifer Breithaupt is the senior Vice President of Entertainment Marketing for Citibank, whose job is to create VIP opportunities for their card-holders.
So “Billionaire’s Row” is a thing, now – and this term is being used to market the event in the media.
Dan Berkowitz, founder of CID Entertainment, an innovator in the VIP packaging field, says there also is a market for music lovers who aren’t into roughing it with the sweaty masses at festivals. “These are people who won’t go to a show unless they know they’re going to be comfortable, that meals will be prepared for them, that there will be an air-conditioned bathroom nearby and that they’ll be able to get close to the artist,” he says.
The concept is not that much different from the first-, business- and coach-class price tiers offered by airlines. “As you get older and more seasoned, you need the luxuries in order to enjoy the experience, and unfortunately this world works on money,” says Dave Precheur, who oversees the priciest VIP experiences in the market, Burning Man’s Billionaires Row, where packages include lodging in RVs outfitted with two queen-size beds, a two-person waitstaff and a private jet charter to the festival site.
Precheur acknowledges that because he caters to “extremely rich individuals,” Billionaires Row has become “a very contentious thing, because Burning Man is supposed to be this super-hippie event” where basic tickets run from $200 to $500. But, he adds, the carping is shortsighted. Revenue from general-admission tickets pays for infrastructure, safety, traffic regulation and emergency medical expenses, but little else. “Most people miss that [Billionaires Row patrons] are the very people that fund the big art, the art cars, all the things that make Burning Man such a spectacular visual and artistic event,” says Precheur.
The use of the word “spectacular” is particularly jarring. Clearly, the Commodification Campers are coming to witness the spectacle. But who is providing it? According to Precheur, it’s the Commodification Campers themselves. We’ve seen no evidence of that: quite the opposite. Caravancicle’s crew were given popsicles to hand out to people, and apparently only one of them even did that.
We heard about one camp this year that had more than $5 million of Art Cars – I’m not going to name them, but they were a high-end Burner camp, not a Commodification Camp. What’s the difference? Participation, Gifting, Decommodification, for starters. These cars were funded by individual Burners, and sure, people got paid to build them, install the lighting, tune the stereos – so what? People got paid to make the RVs and tents that Burners stay in as well. Someone got paid to make your food and your bicycle. If you can afford to drop more than a million bucks on an Art Car that you use one week a year to provide awesome music to thousands of people, who cares how nice your accommodation is? One rumor we’ve heard is that Google founder Sergey Brin spent $2 million just on an art installation one year. Good for him! We all got to look at it, that was his Gift to Burners. Thanks for sharing.
BMOrg would like Burners to conflate all this together, saying “they’re all turkey camps, most camps are on the same spectrum, and only a few of them are bad”. You can’t compare creating an Art Car or funding an Art Project, with handing out popsicles and being driven around in a handicapped golf-cart when you’re perfectly able to walk. Living in luxury is fine, if they behave like “We The Burners”. Selling VIP packages that promote “Us vs Them” is not. Gawking at us like a spectacular safari, using us to play “Burner Bingo” to knock the “Big Five” off their bucket lists, and excluding us from camps because we don’t have the right wristbands, is not what Burning Man is all about.
Money, of course, is the key driver behind all this. Festivals can only put ticket prices up so much, before they are forced to look for new revenue streams:
For a festival that grosses $20 million, VIP offerings can add $1 million to the bottom line..
The competition ensures that VIP experiences will evolve. “We keep trying to up the experience, whether it’s something as simple as sunscreen at the shuttle stop or orange slices in the golf carts,” says Berkowitz
The Anonymous Burner who recently leaked us details of 10-packs of VIP Tickets being sold after the OMG sale had closed, said:
I do know for certain that the transaction occurred post OMG sale! Tickets were “sold” as part of a package deal to mates who flew into Bman, got picked up at the airport and checked into their cube. Each had a bike and or scooter waiting for them and a survival pack, with access to a “handicap registered” golf cart.…and a whole lot of expectation based on the price they paid. Expectations that no Real Burner would ever have and no Camp could have ever fulfilled without everyone pitching in.
I called American Express’s VIP Centurion concierge service that they provide with my black card, and asked them if they had any packages for Burning Man. They didn’t know about any, but said they have a “reputable supplier” in the US who could probably get me tickets: I asked for 10. I’ll update this story if they come back with anything. Perhaps I should shift my accounts to Citibank…