(Bloomberg) -- It turns out that the Bitcoin faithful still like to party even after the annus horribilis that shook the digital-asset world in 2022. They’re just a little more subdued this year.
Devotees of the largest digital token gathered in Miami Beach this week for the Bitcoin 2023 conference — to commiserate, but also to celebrate getting past last year’s string of calamities, including the blowup of the FTX exchange. Though that period was painful, crypto prices have managed to recover this year, with Bitcoin adding 60% to trade around $26,800, from $16,600 at the start of 2023 — a development that was hard to miss at the conference’s expo floor, where the price of Bitcoin was plastered everywhere. Absent were reminders that it traded at almost $69,000 in late 2021.
More than 12,000 attended this year’s confab, down from over 25,000 in 2022, according to Brandon Green, director of the conference.
“People here have lost money, they have friends who lost so much money they’re out of business, so there’s no more ‘to-the-moon’ talk — everyone here is more sober than they were last year,” said Dominic Ward, chief operating officer of Samara Alpha Management. “But we were going to send some people here one way or the other because we are investing in this space. So from that perspective, this is still a great place to come see everybody that we want to work with — but it is on a scaled-down basis.”
The conference had all the markings of a hyped-up crypto event, including a large speakers’ stage whose lights were perpetually dimmed to a level that would typically be found at a late-night Miami club. Upbeat music — think lots of techno — played all day long. Special cushy seats were reserved for “whales” — a group that includes conference speakers. Some potential presidential hopefuls also milled around.
The exhibit floor hosted a string of booths, including a “mining village” where companies like CleanSpark Inc. camped out. The mechanical bull featured at last year’s event made a comeback. Bitcoin ATMs also could be found, as could a 25-foot inflatable Bitcoin “B.” In the games area, attendees could play chess or cornhole.
Erik Meltzer, co-founder of Plutus Properties, a crypto-friendly real estate investing firm, was auctioning off a “Back to the Future” DeLorean — a copy of the famed movie’s futuristic car, but with a Bitcoin twist. Travel dates on the “time machine,” for instance, were set to January 2009, when the first Bitcoin block was created. “We want to bring crypto holders into the future of real estate investing,” he said in an interview. Bidding started at one Bitcoin.
One of the conference floor’s show-stoppers came from Sebastian Coolidge, a 34-year-old Tampa native who worked with organizers to install a giant piece of art — a Bitcoin bull structure with “god powers” pulling strings over a number of purposefully mis-named burning banks, including “Piti” for Citigroup, and “Crapital One” for Capital One. At the bottom was a Federal Reserve in shambles.
“I want people to think for themselves and use Bitcoin as an example of that,” Coolidge said in an interview.
The mood was largely positive. After all, the crypto crowd tend to be eternal optimists. And yet the lingering memories of last year’s rout dampened the proceedings somewhat. Bitcoin, though it’s gained this year, is still down near 60% from its 2021 all-time highs.
“It’s much smaller than last year,” said Dusan Matuska, founder of AmityAge, which mines Bitcoin and is setting up a Bitcoin education academy in Honduras. “We were joking that this is a physical representation of a bear market,” he said, but added that it’s been easier to visit booths and network.
BitGo, which offers custody solutions, last year hosted an event whose centerpiece included a giant whole sushi-grade tuna that waiters carved up for guests. This year, CEO Mike Belshe still threw a party — but the tuna was much smaller than it was in 2022. The company decided to have fun with it — it handed out stickers to party-goers sporting tiny smiling tunas with the hashtag #TunaWinter, a reference to the crypto winter.
Miami’s Crypto Efforts
Miami has sought in recent years to transform itself into a crypto and fintech hub, and its mayor Francis Suarez has fully embraced digital assets in an attempt to draw in new startups. Last year at the Bitcoin conference, Suarez helped unveil a larger-than-life “Miami Bull” statue that came equipped with Bitcoin laser eyes.
A number of the companies that hosted parties at last year’s Bitcoin conference have since folded. And venture investment in the area dropped more than 90% during the first three months of 2023 compared to the year before, according to PitchBook. The drop was caused, in part, by a slowdown in the crypto industry.
“Being in Miami makes a huge difference — the impact of the network of people that I’ve met in the last three months, it’s more than in the last three years in the US,” Rali Perduhova, co-founder and CEO of Miami-based 7RCC Global, a crypto ETF issuer. Before moving to the Sunshine State, she spent time in Canada, Los Angeles and Puerto Rico, among other places. Perduhova acknowledged that conference attendance has dwindled compared with last year, but said she still finds it to be the best conference in the industry.
Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach, says the city has been looking to diversify its economy to focus on fintech and other areas of the economy besides hospitality, its big draw.
“People are coming here in droves because they feel like this is a quality-of-life community, which means it’s not just the weather and beautiful vistas, but also things to do that you could have done in Chicago or New York but can do here year-long,” he said in an interview.
Still, he says the crypto industry has seen a “shakeout.”
“This is something that’s relatively new, so there’s going to be a level of volatility reflected in these kinds of events,” he said. “But I think there’s consensus that crypto is here to stay.”
--With assistance from Lizette Chapman and Felipe Marques.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.