(Bloomberg) -- Hotel rates of $2,000 a night. Meeting-table rentals costing $150 an hour. Swank parties held steps from people bundled in sleeping bags on the street.
Thousands of bankers and executives are descending on San Francisco this week for the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference, inundating the tech capital for days of schmoozing and dealmaking. With it comes the annual complaints about the city’s high prices, lack of space and street squalor.
“It comes up with our members every year,” said Steve Ubl, chief executive officer of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents the world’s largest drugmakers. “It gets worse and worse in terms of concentration and cost. It’s outrageous.”
The health-care industry’s premier event, a celebration of innovation and money to be made, also highlights San Francisco’s vast wealth disparities as well-to-do attendees hobnob at parties while stepping around people living in cardboard boxes. This year’s confab comes as the city is grappling with heightened attention on its troubles, with its homeless crisis worsening, tech companies facing backlash and President Donald Trump lashing out at California’s policies.
And in a blow to the area’s reputation as a corporate destination, Oracle Corp. last month said it would hold its OpenWorld conference in Las Vegas after more than 20 years in San Francisco because of the city’s pricey hotels and street conditions. The move is estimated to cost $64 million in lost revenue.
“San Francisco has squandered its place in the sun,” said John Price, CEO of Greffex Inc., an Aurora, Colorado-based genetic engineering company, who traveled to the conference fresh off a business trip to Asia. “San Francisco is the Bill Clinton of cities. It squandered itself with its flaws.”
The JPMorgan gathering at the Westin St. Francis, which attracts about 10,000 people, has long drawn the ire of some attendees. Conference-goers have taken to Twitter and blog posts to express concerns about the homeless situation and watching city officials clean up human feces, all while spending thousands of dollars on hotel rooms and resorting to holding meetings in bathrooms.
JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon weighed in during an interview with Fox Business News that aired Tuesday. When asked about complaints about the conference’s location, he said it’s “not quite that bad.”
Attendees “know where they’re going, they plan for it the same time of the year,” he said, pointing out the city’s Chase Center venue as a new location for functions. Still, he said San Francisco has been hurt by bad policy and the bank is going to become “deeply involved” in the city.
The JPMorgan conference brings in about $51 million a year to San Francisco, according to the city’s travel association. For attendees, missing the industry’s biggest event doesn’t seem like an option.
“There’s talk of the conference becoming too big, and that’s true, but you have to go,” said Bibhash Mukhopadhyay, a principal at venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates. “It’s the mecca.”
Most of the hotels in the conference’s vicinity were completely booked weeks ahead of time, with rooms that were available going in some cases for more than $2,000 a night. A more affordable option, the Lombard Plaza Motel, was sold out Monday but had rooms for as much as $500 a night starting Tuesday, according to Alex Patel, a front desk attendant. That’s nearly four times its normal rate.
On Sunday, as attendees with suitcases in tow checked into the W hotel, homeless people outside were pressed into the building crevices, wrapped in sleeping bags and boxes, faces covered. Blocks away, party goers stepped over flattened cardboard boxes in a dark alleyway to reach Le Colonial restaurant, which was hosting one of the kickoff events going on around the city. Inside, men in ties and women in tweed chomped on spring rolls and chocolate cakes, and sipped gin cocktails and champagne.
“I’ve been coming to JPM for five years, and the homeless situation has gotten much worse,” Selin Kurnaz, co-founder and CEO of New York-based Massive Bio, said at a party Monday night in the Tenderloin. “I feel unsafe walking around at night, especially as a young woman.”
Inside the Westin, attendees jostled over one of the most precious commodities in San Francisco: space. Hundreds of conference-goers crammed themselves into regal ballrooms garnished with coffered ceilings to witness the most in-demand presentations. Despite their pressing, pushing and many tip-toe attempts, they were blocked out.
Attendees looking for meeting spots had to pay up. The Kimpton Sir Francis Drake Hotel was offering meeting tables for $150 an hour. Water, pens and paper, at least, were included.
For San Franciscans, bemoaning the city’s issues is nothing new -- and the idea of wealthy business travelers complaining about street poverty has sparked ridicule. The area’s natural beauty, offbeat culture and many landmarks still make it a top travel destination, with 2019 likely marking the 10th straight year of tourism growth, according to Andy Lynch, a spokesman for the mayor’s office.
“There are multiple conferences going on every month,” he said.
The San Francisco Travel Association is working with the department of homelessness, police and organizations within different neighborhoods “to make sure they’re reporting things they see, to make sure there’s cleaning going on in front of the buildings,” said Tom David, the group’s executive vice president.
David also pointed out that the week after Oracle announced its conference move, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said the city will prioritize addressing homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse over the next two fiscal years. California Governor Gavin Newsom said last week he’s planning a $750 million fund to help the homeless crisis.
As for the JPMorgan conference, it may bring in some money to help: Reporters for the health news site Stat News created a GoFundMe to raise money for Compass Family Services, a San Francisco nonprofit helping homeless families secure housing and economic self-sufficiency. As of Tuesday morning, it had raised $5,355 of its $15,000 goal.
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