SAN FRANCISCO — There were oysters on the half-shell, an assortment of imported cheeses and all the liquor one could drink. The historic mansion, perched on a hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay, offered a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The site was the old Flood Mansion on Broadway, and the occasion was the 87th annual conference of the League of California Cities. It was about 6:30 p.m. Monday, and the seminars, meetings, lectures and strategy sessions were over for the day. In at least one sense of the word, however, business had just begun.
"If you are going to do it, you might as well do it right," said Dwight Harper, vice president of development for Public Storage Inc., a Pasadena firm that sponsored the glitzy reception for city officials at the Flood Mansion. "We thought it would be nice to meet in a setting that is different."
Public Storage, which builds self-storage facilities throughout the state, was just one of at least a dozen companies that came to San Francisco this week for the sole purpose of wining and dining the more than 3,000 city officials--including about 100 from the South Bay--who attended the four-day conference.
Visibility for Companies
There were no sales, no new contracts--in many cases, not even a business discussion. But there was visibility for companies that depend heavily on good relations with cities for much of their business, and a pleasurable respite from conference business for some tired local officials who had gathered to elect new leaders and to set the league's lobbying agenda for the coming year.
More than 100 city officials, including several from South Bay cities, boarded buses chartered by Public Storage shortly after Monday's last seminar. The officials were escorted into the stately mansion where a dozen Public Storage employees--many of whom had arrived that day from Pasadena--greeted them with name tags and wide smiles.
At the same time, Western Waste Industries, a Carson-based rubbish firm, was throwing a dinner for a group that included Redondo Beach City Manager Tim Casey. Meanwhile, Group W Cable, which operates cable television in Torrance, was sponsoring a dinner to which several Torrance officials were invited.
And officials from several cities, including Redondo Beach, which has a moratorium on large billboards, were invited to the 31st floor of the St. Francis Hotel for a cocktail reception in the Presidential Suite. The co-hosts: Foster & Kleiser and Gannett Outdoor, two large billboard firms.
"It is really a case of subtle lobbying," said Hermosa Beach City Councilman George Barks. He had accepted a Sunday night dinner invitation from Western Waste, which does not operate in his city.
"We didn't talk business," Barks said, "but it is clear why we were invited." Officials at Public Storage and hosts at other dinners and parties described their mission in San Francisco as one of exposure. At the Public Storage reception, photos of facilities built and designed by the company dotted the rooms on the ground floor of the mansion. Company employees directed guests toward the photos.
"There is a lot of public relations in business," explained William Bothwell, an attorney with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, a law firm that specializes in tax-exempt bond financing for cities. The firm was host for a buffet dinner for city officials in the ballroom of the Ramada Renaissance Hotel.
"We are not here to drum up business," he said. "We just like to keep up our connections."
More Conventional Approach
Yet not all of this so-called "networking" at the conference took place in fancy hotel suites, historic mansions--or even after hours. About 135 companies took a more conventional and probably less expensive approach and purchased a booth at the league's exhibition center.
The exhibitors included financial consultants, computer specialists, oil corporations, waste water treatment companies, engineers, garbage haulers, urban planners--even a firm specializing in restroom facilities.
Each paid $775 for 13 hours of exhibition time spread over three days. The fees were a big money-maker for the league, covering 40% of the cost of running the conference, said Terry Dugan, a league official.
More often than not, the sales pitches by the exhibitors were more straightforward than those at the evening receptions and dinners. The companies displayed their products, handed out literature and even gave away key chains, metric rulers, pins and other reminders of their products and services.
The pitches were polite but pointed.
"These are the decision-makers we need to get our message to," said Howard Schau, an exhibitor for Shawtown Industries, a Westlake company that sells equipment designed to prevent roots from cracking sidewalks and streets. "Here you get the people who are really interested in their city."
Added Torrance City Councilman Timothy Mock, who did not attend the Group W dinner: "They have captive audiences here."