During the economy’s slow crawl back from recession, many companies have cut out lavish holiday parties. But with the Nasdaq up 11 percent for the year and companies like Uber raising record amounts of investment capital at valuations in the billions or tens of billions of dollars, the Bay Area’s tech elite is feeling celebratory. On Dec. 6 at AT&T Park, the home of the reigning champion San Francisco Giants, a jazz band welcomed thousands of Facebook (FB) employees and their guests into a large white party tent spanning the outfield, accented with giant hanging lights in the shape of baseballs. Guests danced, played beer pong on Facebook-branded tables, and took selfies in front of a 6-foot-tall baseball-filled Facebook logo. The World Series trophy and Giants mascot Lou Seal were on display and available for photos, and a live feed of the party streamed on the park’s jumbotron as revelers enjoyed ballpark hot dogs alongside macarons and fancier fare. The cost of booking the stadium is $200,000.
Photographer: Chloe Park
The same weekend, Google (GOOG) took over the Exploratorium, an arts and science museum overlooking the bay. The party included a giant snow globe inside which partygoers could pose and, nearby, a throne sculpted from ice. That wasn’t all: The company also held a masquerade ball elsewhere in the city, and the New York office held a Great Gatsby-themed party at Wall Street favorite Cipriani. Dropbox hired electronic dance music duo Chromeo to perform at the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco, and Airbnb had stilt walkers, acrobats, and body-painted models inside a faux circus tent within the Armory, a city landmark owned by porn site Kink.com.
Google spokeswoman Meghan Casserly declined to comment beyond saying that the company holds multiple parties for different groups of employees. The other companies confirmed that they’d held holiday celebrations but declined to discuss them.
Bay Area party planners say clients have been trying (even if they haven’t been succeeding) to keep their events understated to minimize the kind of criticism set off in the past year by, among other things, the private fleets of cushy, Wi-Fi-equipped commuter buses that circle the region. “They are very image-conscious,” says Jon Retsky, co-owner of Got Light, an event-lighting company. The price tag for a swankier event is about $300,000, says Neil Adams, director of business development for Blueprint Studios, a San Francisco company that supplies party décor. Apple (AAPL) took over the Monterey Bay Aquarium for one of its holiday parties on Dec. 13, planting an open bar in front of the jellyfish exhibit, and threw a masquerade ball at San Francisco’s famed Nob Hill Masonic Center. Online storage company Box rented San Francisco City Hall for a formal gala decked out with a red carpet. Adams says that requests from tech clients have included a beach theme—complete with changing stations and lifeguard stands—and furniture and other décor evoking the sci-fi subgenre called steampunk. At its Burlingame (Calif.) headquarters on Dec. 10, business-software startup TellApart built a snow hill so revelers could go sledding while it was 60F outside.
“I have never seen anything like this,” says Retsky, who has run Got Light for 10 years. Tech companies now account for about 40 percent of Got Light’s business, up from about 30 percent last year, according to Retsky, who has worked with Google, Apple, Intel (INTC), and Pandora (P). He says he’s on pace to light more than 1,000 events for the year, with the most intricate setups costing $80,000. The favorite spots are City Hall and museums, including the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “That used to be bar mitzvah central,” he says. “Now it’s tech central.”
To find acrobats, stilt walkers, models, and the occasional contortionist, companies including Apple and Google have turned to Natasha Miller, the founder and creative director of event-planning company Entire Productions. No matter the budget or the theme, Miller says, there’s one common thread: “The open bar is the big draw.”