The last waltz of new media's giddy youth?

With bad economic news everywhere, tech and publishing execs spent a reflective three days at the lavish WebbyConnect conference. They say it was productive. But it's also opulence at a time when budgets are getting slashed.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
6 min read
At sunset, the beachfront Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel resort, home to this year's WebbyConnect conference. Caroline McCarthy/CNET News

DANA POINT, Calif.--When the economy heads south, anything involving beaches and luxury resorts is a terrific recipe for guaranteed bad press.

That's why there was a fine line to be walked at the WebbyConnect conference, the second annual retreat-slash-ideafest organized by the directors of the annual Webby Awards. In the diverse vegetable patch of media conferences, this one is the organic arugula. The venue was the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel resort, a sprawling beachfront complex and occasional filming spot for MTV's haute-reality soap Laguna Beach, just down the road from the St. Regis hotel where American International Group executives famously spent $440,000 on a spa getaway days after an $85 billion government bailout.

But even with wallets shrinking and belts tightening across technology, digital media, and advertising, the people who shelled out more than $2,000 for a WebbyConnect ticket insisted on one thing: this event, unlike so many others on the industry's calendar, is worth the price tag.

"What an amazing, diverse group of people we have gathered under this roof, and I know that's a cliche but like most cliches, it's true," Jamie Pallot, editorial director of Conde Nast's CondeNet, observed while moderating a panel on Wednesday. "We all work for a bunch of very different companies, we play wildly different roles in those companies...what brings us all together here and what we are excited about is the innovation that technology can bring, and how that can change the places where we work, and what we can do in those places."

An oceanview deck at the Ritz-Carlton that hosted a WebbyConnect reception on Tuesday night. Caroline McCarthy/CNET News

Getting to the intimate, 200-person conference from the entrance to the Ritz involved winding through groves of palm trees and ponds of bright orange and white koi, past stunning ocean vistas dotted with surfers and pools surrounded by the resort's usual clientele, wealthy retirees in town for Orange County's famed golfing. The three half-days worth of conference panels featured a slew of digital media's glitterati, from The Huffington Post CEO Betsy Morgan to The New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., to Aaron Koblin, the Google Creative Labs designer who worked on the video for Radiohead's "House of Cards."

In the afternoon, the attendees--mostly from media and digital advertising companies, or "digital strategies" types from entertainment and fashion--were encouraged to network, mingle, and spend time at the beach before the conference reconvened for evening activities. Those included cocktail receptions, dinners, or on Thursday, a heated geek-culture trivia competition. (Sample questions: name the five noble gases, name Pitchfork Media's top band of the 1990s, name the most-viewed video on YouTube.)

People at WebbyConnect were not oblivious to the image issues. "I feel like we'll be seen as the next Camp Cyprus," said one conference-goer, who works for a digital marketing agency in New York. He was referring to the recent gathering of spry young dot-commers (many of whom work at Facebook) on vacation in Turkish Cyprus, who demonstrated an extraordinary amount of pluck but a mild case of bad timing when they posted to the Web a video of them dancing and lip-synching to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" as the global financial markets were in crisis mode. The media gossip press went ballistic.

But the same attendee who brought up "Camp Cyprus" insisted that under the surface, the only similarities between WebbyConnect and the goofball geek vacation were the ocean views and the after-hours parties (which, truth be told, did get fairly Spring Break-worthy among a few of WebbyConnect's younger attendees, who caroused into the early morning hours in Webby President Rodger Berman's deluxe suite.) Though WebbyConnect is only in its second year, people who go have already come to expect an exciting conversation, fresh ideas, and a chance to connect with smart people--on the beach.

"When I go to conferences I just can't do a whole day of panels," Webby Awards executive director and conference organizer David-Michel Davies said in an interview with CNET News, sitting in a beach chair and watching the dozens of surfers in the water. He added that WebbyConnect, planned months before the financial crisis took root, did not see cancellations or cutbacks after Wall Street's woes began to hit the media and tech industries.

WebbyConnect is consciously highbrow, carefully avoiding anything too corporate. At a pre-dinner reception at the resort's Dana Point Lawn, as bartenders poured California wine and waiters passed around canapes like truffled chicken on endive lettuce, a Webbys representative explained to me that the conference was designed as a civilized alternative to the brashness of large-scale tech and media expositions, where business cards are passed around like currency and the magic word is invariably "monetize." That, she said, gets in the way of ideas and discussion. "Every panel's discreetly about making money," the Webbys employee told me, "but we purposely don't use the word 'monetize' or anything like it."

Anecdotally, there were signs that the retreat-y vibe of WebbyConnect was working. On the beach on Wednesday afternoon, a marketing director for an online video production company giddily announced to one of her colleagues that she'd met some of the digital-strategies representatives from big fashion brands and that they were interested in hearing about sponsorship and advertising possibilities. A few yards away, two start-up founders in sunglasses and swim trunks were debating whether it was more cost-effective to hire an external public relations firm or to employ someone in-house.

It was impossible to find anyone at WebbyConnect who didn't sing the event's praises. "This was the most productive conference I went to last year. I met more people and sold more work than at any other conference," said Rick Webb, co-founder of Internet marketing firm The Barbarian Group, which sponsored this year's WebbyConnect. "I'm coming for life, man."

At traditional conferences, "the speakers come, they talk, they promote their thing, they leave," David-Michel Davies said. "Coming here, people don't want to leave. It's a much deeper sort of conversation than you would have otherwise."

Davies continued: "I'd rather have the room be really full, and have people really interested, than have people just getting conference fatigue." His logic: in tough times, people will be more likely to pay $2,000 for a high-quality experience than $750 or $1,000 for a crowded expo that will be more hit-or-miss.

The tough question is whether by this time next year the recession will mean they choose not to pay for either, or whether a lack of sponsorship dollars will preempt or tone down many industry conferences in the first place.

"I think some conferences will disappear, and some conferences will totally thrive," said Betsy Morgan, CEO of liberal news site Huffington Post and one of the WebbyConnect speakers, "and you're going to be much more discriminating as an executive or manager who decides who in your company goes to conferences."

But Morgan said that for an industry like digital media, gathering and sharing ideas is particularly crucial. "I think the medium is still hugely evolving and we're still trying, whether you're a start-up company or a big media company, you're still trying to figure out how it's all going to work, and so actually gathering people to talk through that process, and see other businesses, and see how other people are doing it, is enormously valuable," she explained. "I just feel like it would be too depressing to go into 2009 saying the sky is falling on all fronts."

Sunset over the Pacific on Thursday night. Caroline McCarthy/CNET News

Some people, however, would say that it is. Outside the stucco walls of the Ritz-Carlton, tech and media companies were laying off dozens of employees in order to get costs down, and stay in the business, and big tech companies like Yahoo, eBay and Xerox were announcing major layoffs.

So where does that leave the conference? This year's WebbyConnect was put together and paid for before Wall Street started to collapse, which won't be the case for next year's conference, or for the next Webby Awards early next summer for that matter. In 2003 and 2004, with the deep pockets that fund the lavish Webby Awards crippled by shrapnel from the dot-com bubble, the ceremony was canceled and replaced with an online awards presentation.

"Organizationally, I think we're much smarter and more professional than we used to be," said Davies, who was not in charge of the Webbys until 2005. But he wouldn't speculate too much about an uncertain future.

"We want to be reflective of what's going on," he mused, looking out at the ocean and a few WebbyConnect attendees who were trying to surf, their heads bobbing above waves that quickly flipped them back underwater. "We'll see where we are at that time."