Your Ultimate Guide to Surviving a Business Convention in San Francisco
Centrally located near both Silicone Valley and the state capital of Sacramento, San Francisco is a popular spot for holding conventions, industry trade shows, seminars, and for getting all the movers and shakers together for serious business discussions. San Francisco offers a world-class airport (complete with a spa, art galleries, and fine dining), several generous and well-equipped convention centers, an abundant selection of hotels at a wide range of price points, fabulous 5-star dining, and some interesting attractions to enjoy in between meetings or seminar sessions.
The flipside is that San Francisco is a big city, and comes with all that entails. It is home to a quite large homeless population, and a few of the neighborhoods are notorious for the seedier side of big city life: drugs, prostitution, and a bit of riff raff. Before booking your accommodations and deciding how you’ll get from the airport to the hotel and navigate the city during your stay, you need to understand a few of the ins and outs of San Francisco business travel, as well as your options for transportation. You’re in luck, because this is the only guide you need.
Don’t Let ‘Em Fool You: San Francisco is No Walker’s Paradise
Touted as one of the best cities for pedestrians, it’s tempting to believe that “you can just walk” everywhere. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Those hills that look so inviting on the magazines and travel websites are brutal on foot — especially if you’re wearing brand new dress shoes. There is abundant public transportation available (such as BART, the train/subway, Muni bus, gaggles of Uber and Lyft drivers, and even some rickshaws and Segways for rent), but let’s be frank: unless you like riding with the great unwashed, many of whom are quite likely to relieve themselves en route, these aren’t the best options for a business traveler with nice shoes, a leather briefcase, and a laptop. Play it safe and book a reputable car and driver to get you from the airport to your hotel and around town during your stay. You’ll avoid the worst of the traffic, dodge excessively high parking fees, and steer clear of areas where crime rates tend to stray higher than average.
Dress for the Constantly-Changing, Unpredictably Chilly Weather
Mark Twain famously quipped, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” The locals love to laugh at tourists who step off the plane wearing shorts and T-shirts, expecting the weather in San Francisco to be balmy year-round like Los Angeles or San Diego. ‘Frisco is much further north, and the terrain, positioned between the Pacific and San Francisco Bay, along with a few other factors, make this region notoriously not-warm. The norm is a chilly, foggy morning, broken by a brief, sunny afternoon, interrupted by an evening drop in temperatures of 20-degrees or more. You’re as likely to see an 80-degree day in January as you are in July. Don’t let the 70 degrees right now fool you, either, because the 50’s are just a few hours away. Bring a jacket. Whether your business trip is in January, March, July, or September — bring a jacket. On the upside, an entire industry of inexpensive sweatshirt vendors exist just because most people don’t. So, you’re covered either way.
Business Casual is as Formal as It Gets Around Here
A business meeting or seminar back East in New York, Boston, or even Chicago, usually means your best 3-piece suit, even if temperatures are soaring into the high 80’s. That’s because the East is dominated mostly by “old money” finance types with a heritage of banking or old school industry rooted deeply in tradition. Left-coasters are a different breed. These are the guys who literally built multi-billion dollar empires out of nothing but a domain name or a computer chip the size of your thumbnail. Many made millions before their 28th birthdays, and most are incredibly brilliant with technology but relative newbies to business and finance. The dressiest you’re likely to see anywhere in San Francisco — even in the CEO’s office of a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, is equivalent to business casual (casual Friday attire) back home. Don’t be a bit surprised to step into the elevator and ride to the top floor with a CFO or vice president wearing clothes you just don’t expect to see outside a college dorm back East.
It’s Called Culture Shock: You’ll Be Fine
Yes, that’s poop you’re stepping over in the street. Yes, they’re gay, and yes, they’re making out right there in the middle of a park surrounded by school children. San Franciscans are considerably less inhibited than most of the rest of the country about those sorts of things. Don’t be surprised to see open drug use, amazingly brazen displays of LBGT pride, and similar activities that are considered taboo in most other cities around the country. Even in the absence of overtly shocking behavior, you’ll see a lot more tattoos, piercings, and “alternative lifestyle” types than you probably do back home. Most of these folks are completely harmless. Let them be, and they’ll let you be. The potential exception is homeless people who pretend to be quite innocent but are actually skilled con artists. If you feel moved to help the homeless, please do so through the established charities and missions. Pulling out your wallet in the street to hand them a buck or two could potentially lead to trouble. At best, your money is likely going to something you didn’t intend for it to.
Leave Your Picky Eating Habits at Home
San Francisco is home to some of the greatest restaurants on the planet. Think the quality of Paris with the international selection of NYC or LA. From fusion to dim sum, Burmese to Thai, San Francisco offers it all. The only downside to SF dining is the service. It’s not always so great, primarily because it’s next to impossible to get great wait staff. The smart cookies have jobs in Silicone Valley (or at least in the towers downtown) and the average bears have gigs in the upscale boutiques, salons, and offices around the city. The cooking, however, is fabulous, and almost always worth the wait. For over an hour. With no drinks. And probably not a single sighting of the (guy or gal, we really aren’t sure) who said (s)he was helping you this evening. Nevertheless, a tip of 15% to 20% is not just encouraged; it’s expected.
Don’t Freak Out! It’s Just a Siren
Every week, on Tuesdays at noon, the city sounds its emergency siren. Unless you hear the siren at a different time, it lasts only 15 seconds and means nothing (except that the city’s emergency alert system is working, which is a good thing if you’ve ever seen the movie San Andreas). In the unlikely even that you hear it at another time, it will last a full 5 minutes, and will include instructions about an active emergency situation. The alert sounds in the event of a significant event, like an earthquake, tsunami, or severe weather. Turn to your nearest local news source for more information. You probably will feel a mild tremor sometime during your visit, especially if you stay here several days. Really. It’s nothing. We promise.
It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, If You Pick the Right One
San Francisco is a fantastic place to hold a convention, with several well-equipped convention centers near the airport and numerous hotels offering amenities ranging from rainforest showers to twice-a-day housekeeping services, many with absolutely stunning views of the Pacific, the Bay, the Bridge, or the iconic San Francisco skyline. But before you head to Orbitz or Expedia or Travelocity, get to know the neighborhoods where business travelers are most (and least) at home.
SOMA (South of Market) & Moscone Convention Center Areas
Some travel sites consider this one neighborhood and others split it into two. This section of the city is convenient to the airport and features many of the newest hotels around. If your convention or seminar is in Moscone Convention Center, this area is ideal. Depending on when your convention is, you might also score some great deals here, as these hotels cater to the business traveler. This is the happy medium between the exorbitant prices of Nob Hill and the inconvenient realities of trying to stay outside the city “to save money”. [Hint: whatever you save on hotel prices by staying outside the city, you’ll spend doubly in transportation and sheer frustration getting in and out of the city over and over again. Plus, that’s less time you have to spend enjoying the non-business side of SF.]
The Financial District & The Waterfront
None of the “Waterfront” district hotels around the Fisherman’s Wharf area are actually on the water. Most are a couple of blocks away, at best. Having said that, many do offer excellent views: some of the Bridge, others of various sections of historic San Francisco or AT&T Park (formerly Candlestick Park). The Financial District is nearby, and perhaps more convenient for those visiting clients or attending conventions downtown. The Transamerica Pyramid is the most notable building on the skyline, and several of the hotels offer views of this section of town. Some also offer views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the SF Bay. Downtown/ Financial District hotels actually are in reasonable walking distance from many excellent eateries, shops, and nightclubs.
First, a word on what Nob Hill is and what it isn’t. “Lower Nob Hill” isn’t Nob Hill, and don’t believe any travel site or hotel rep who says otherwise. Lower Nob Hill is merely property below Nob Hill, which isn’t Nob Hill, therefore doesn’t have any of the advantages of it. These hotels try to cash in on the high prices commanded on Nob Hill without the views or posh amenities. Nob Hill proper offers amazing views of the cityscape, the Bay, and depending on the room, perhaps the Golden Gate Bridge, as well. That just doesn’t mean that you’ll have great views of all those things from just any room you book in Nob Hill. If the view is important, call and speak to the hotel desk staff personally (instead of relying on the sales agent at Expedia, who probably lives in the Philippines and has never even seen San Francisco). But remember, the view isn’t all you’re paying for to stay at Nob Hill. Astounding architecture, world-class customer service, convenience to the financial/business district, and luxurious amenities also go into that price tag.
Before You Go …
San Francisco nightlife offers a little of every style music you can name, from folk to classical to jazz to alternative. It’s also home to a thriving craft beer industry, and there are more art galleries than you could see in a lifetime. When you head out, go prepared. The cost of living (in other words, the price of everything from T-shirts to food to fine artwork) costs almost 63% more here than the average prices around the rest of the country.
Definitely enjoy some of the “touristy” stuff while you’re here — Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, some hot and fresh sourdough bread, and a creepy night tour of Alcatraz. But also take some time to enjoy what keeps the locals here year-round: POPOS or “Privately Owned Public Open Spaces” (think parks and gardens), the unique infusion of cultures in The Mission, and one of the amazing farmer’s markets around the city — just to name a few.
When it comes to your airport transport and getting you around the city, rely on the professionals at Elite Limousine. From airport transport to getting you to your meetings on time, depend on elite for the expert San Francisco limo service you expect.