I Went To A Conference That Costs $5,000 To Attend

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal put on its very first tech conference, called WSJD Live.

It was held at the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, California.

Speakers included Apple CEO Tim Cook, Jack Ma from Alibaba, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and Avatar director James Cameron.

A couple hundred people attended.

Other than speakers and a few reporters (like us), almost all of the attendees paid $US5,000 to go.

Is going to one of these things worth that kind of money?

Would you spend $US5,000 to go to a resort in Southern California and hang out with a bunch of tech executives for three days?

My trip to WSJD Live started early in the morning on Monday.

I had a 8:30 a.m. flight to catch out of Newark.

During the long flight, I checked out the WSJD Live app.

It was like a private social network -- a mix of Twitter and Instagram.

I got to LAX by 12:30 p.m. PT -- nine hours after I woke up.

I still had a super-long drive ahead of me to get to Laguna Beach.

As I came closer to my destination, I spotted something glimmering out my windshield ...

Aha! The ocean. It was gorgeous.

As a reporter covering the conference, I didn't get to stay at The Montage. This was my Airbnb.

Not half bad, right?

Settled in, it was time to drive four minutes down the road to The Montage.

Arriving at The Montage, this is the kind of car you see parked out front.

Walk inside, and it's all windows and sunlight like this.

Stunning.

One floor down, this was the conference registration scene.

Every paid attendee got this swag bag. It contained ...

... a Wall Street Journal hoodie ...

... fancy headphones ...

... a Playstation TV ...

... a Lenovo tablet ...

... subscriptions to Evernote and The Journal ...

... travel-friendly soaps ...

... a wireless speaker ...

... a MiFi hotspot ...

... and this book.

Here's all the swag in one shot.

All reporters got was this notebook.

The first event on the program was a cocktail hour oceanside.

The light, the water, the sky -- it was beautiful out.

Next came dinner outside in front of the stage.

What kind of food do you get for $5,000? This salad ...

... this steak ...

... and this dessert.

I ate it all. But the best part of the dinner wasn't the food. It was the company.

A couple of tables behind me sat Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple.

At the same table, there was News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch and Alibaba CEO Jack Ma. Not far away was top VC Mark Suster.

For the bold, it was a chance to get a rare meeting with Cook or other industry stars.

The chance to earhole Tim Cook for five minutes was itself probably worth $5,000 for this attendee.

After dinner came the keynote interviews.

First came Ma.

Then came Tim Cook.

The interviews were solid. At the end, attendees got to ask questions.

Attendees posted to the WSJD Live app about it all.

Day 2 started with this breakfast and a keynote from Marc Andreessen.

Here's the breakfast buffet you get for five grand.

This is the scene at the ballroom where the keynotes were held.

You could also watch from a lounge.

For those not interested in the content, there was a room full of video games.

Who pays $5,000 to go to a conference and then plays Super Mario the whole time?

Then came a lunch where notable industry executives led roundtable discussions by the beach.

Here were some of the topics.

(The press was barred from the roundtables. So I talked to this lady for a while.)

During the whole conference, BMW made its new electric cars available for test drives.

Journal columnist Christopher Mims took me for a ride in an i3. It has great acceleration.

BMW also let you sit in its new hybrid super car, the i8. Aren't gull-wing doors a Mercedes thing?

That night there was an international buffet by the beach for dinner.

It was a long opportunity to network, which was the whole point for most people there.

After dinner came more interviews, including this one with Dreamworks head Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Then an awkward moment. The rock band OK Go performed ...

... and only a few people watched. It was like that scene in the first episode of HBO's 'Silicon Valley.'

The third day featured more keynotes with industry heavies, including ...

... Carlos Slim and Rupert Murdoch ...

... Avatar director James Cameron ...

... and LA Clippers owner Steve Ballmer.

The whole thing ended with a brown-bag lunch.

So, was the conference worth $5,000?

WSJD Live was The Wall Street Journal's first attempt at a tech conference.

In years prior, The Journal outsourced its conference business to All Things D, a now-defunct joint venture it co-owned with journalists Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher.

This was a good plan, because each year Mossberg and Swisher put on a very esteemed conference called the D Conference.

In fall 2013, The Journal and Mossberg/Swisher decided to part ways. Mossberg and Swisher formed a new company, called Re/code. This past summer they put on their first conference, called Code.

In many ways, WSJD Live felt like the Pepsi to Code's Coca-Cola. Everything was very similar, but a different colour. The logo was even blue instead of red.

The most meaningful difference between Code and WSJD Live is that at Code many of the big-time tech business celebrities who go on stage will stay at the conference after their interviews are over. Last year, I spotted Netflix CEO Reed Hastings chatting with strangers in the hallway. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was sitting in the audience during a few keynotes. Famous VCs asked hard questions.

At WSJD Live, the big-name guests all left right after their hits. That was disappointing. It also didn't help that the rest of the attendees weren't as high profile as the people who go to Code. There was one person from Google, for example. No one from Facebook came.

The people who put on WSJD Live did manage to differentiate their conference from Code in some smart ways. They tried to give the conference more of an international feel. With speakers from China and all over Europe, it worked.

Toward the end of the conference, I asked an executive from a mid-tier startup why he, or rather, his company, was willing to shell out $US5,000 to send him.

He said it was because in past years, the networking events at the D Conference led him to meet people who wanted to fund or acquire his company -- sometimes on the spot.

Obviously, that kind of conversation is worth $US5,000.

The Journal put on a great show at WSJD Live. The atmosphere was the exact right kind of low-key elegance.

If WSJD Live can improve its crowd -- perhaps by insisting that its keynote speakers stick around -- it is definitely going to be the type of conference executives around the globe will happily pay many thousands of dollars to attend.

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