This year marked my first visit to the CCBill/Cave Creek-run Phoenix Forum, and I'm glad I finally made it. Now in its fourth year - it used to be called the Southwestern Webmasters Gathering - the organizers moved the event to the Doubletree La Posada Resort while keeping it thematically consistent from shows past, and a good move that was.
Not only did attendance double for this year's get-together, but apparently (while no one was looking) the Forum has become one of the industry's most appreciated "niche" events, emphasizing poolside networking, laid-back parties, and daylong seminars that provide sponsors with a plethora of pitch time. Mix in the region's spectacular desert landscape and ubiquitous breezes, and a smattering of off-site events featuring killer scorpions, immobilizing cacti, and painful paint pellets, and it's little wonder than several adult Webmasters made a point of declared to me in no uncertain terms that the Phoenix Forum is their favorite gathering of all. And how could I argue?
If truth be told - and with all due respect to my beloved January Internext - a choice between attending hyper-inflated, anxiety-ridden Las Vegas or easygoing, hard-to-spend-my-per-diem Phoenix is really no choice at all.
I have a theory why the Phoenix Forum is so successful, why it feels so homey and inviting: because it is homey and inviting, literally. CCBill is a family-run company, with CCBill CEO Ron Cadwell's father, mother, and sister intimately involved in the day-to-day operations. When I was told that - and the fact that the male Cadwells, junior and senior, both used to be (and presumably still are) chiropractors - everything fell into place. It explained the temper of the weekend, where lots of things were planned but no one was going to hold your hand while you figured out where or when they were being held. I felt as though I'd been invited to someone's large family reunion, and I kind of liked it that the only excursion to a strip club was an unscheduled one, and that some people who went spent an hour or more searching for the place. (I can be cruel that way.)
But even at the most leisurely event there's still a lot to do, especially if you're the only editorial person in attendance (like me!), and this one was no exception. Less than an hour after arriving - with the surprise lift from the airport courtesy of a booze-stocked CCBill bus - the "Desert Hummer Tour" was ready to depart for off-roads unknown, and the pressure was already on to get with the program. I could have used a dip in the pool and snooze in the sun instead, but Hummers don't like to be kept waiting, so I slipped into something rugged (jeans with a rip in the knee) and steeled myself for adventure.
Sponsored by the good people at Goodthinxx, the desert tour killed two birds with one stone by giving the Webmasters something to do even as the Austrian-based company promoted their "2003 Hummer Giveaway Contest," the details for which can be found on their Website. It lasted from 3:00 - 6:00 p.m., and whetted everyone's appetite by providing the intestines with a hearty jangling as the five vehicles clamored over the well-worn trails that snaked their way north toward the mountains. My immediate party was a pretty tough crowd, accustomed to getting knocked around, and looking forward to substantially rougher stuff than we were dealt, but death defying isn't what it used to be, and liability is now the name of the game. All in all, it was a fun time and a gorgeous evening tour, and if fear was one of the desired factors, there were plenty of dangerous cacti to keep an eye on, and the always present threat of a massive scorpion attack to make one long for the safety of a lounge chair. Oh, and rattlesnakes, lots of them, according the guide, very active this time of year, so watch where you place your feet.
I don't think I looked up once.
There were "official" opening night festivities, and then there were "unofficial" opening night festivities. I only made it to one of the "official" ones, the welcome reception held at the Casa Grande in the Plaza, before the day took its toll and I crashed. The reception crowd was loud and diverse, and swarmed around the bars and food in proud Webmaster fashion. The other official party was a gay after-hours one, sponsored by ManSites.com, but sadly I missed it. Apparently, there was another bash - and I mean that literally - held by Lightspeed Media in a suite somewhere, and all I really know about that one is what I'm reading on the boards. Seems there was some damage to the rooms, and a bill to be paid for damages, which were reportedly of the cigarette burn/broken mirror sort. I have little to say about that kind of conduct, except that it seems to happen to one degree or another at every show, and that personally I think it's neither amusing nor acceptable. I'm sure the various hotels don't really care about it one way or the other, as they just pass along the costs, but I'm equally sure the companies footing the bill do care.
The next morning, as the sun shone and my colleagues gathered around the pool for a protracted day of laborious networking amid the lounge chairs, bikinis, cocktails and shrimp salads, I shouldered my gear and headed off to the seminars like a good soldier. I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow of each of them, but suffice to say that the CCBill organizers have found a rather nice balance between "taking care" of their sponsors by allowing them keynote time and providing the attending Webmasters with some useful information dispensed in hour-long Q&As. Friday's topics, partitioned by a delicious, leisurely and free patio lunch, were "Managing Your Billing Solutions in 2003," "Creating, Protecting, and Selling Your Content," "Sponsors' Keynotes," and "The State of the Industry."
But for the keynotes, which are really just mini-advertisements (some of which were hilariously delivered), none of the discussions bored me. To the contrary, I found them stimulating and interesting, mostly due to the razor sharp questions offered up by scary smart Webmasters like Karl Edwards of Bedfellow.com, who rigorously drilled each speaker to the point of tears. (I exaggerate.) There were other great questioners, of course, and Karl is a well-regarded seminar speaker in his own right, but I was tremendously impressed at the specificity of his questions, the insistence of his follow-ups, and the palpable authority that supported his remarks. I may be overly optimistic, but I think it's a sign of a healthy industry when so many speaker assertions are not left unchallenged.
Shamefully, I also missed two Friday night events, the "Gay Webmaster's Party," held at the Amsterdam Bar, and the "Lightspeed Paintball War," which I actually signed up for and was eagerly anticipating, but had to skip, much to my disappointment. I did make it to the "Friday Night Sport's Party," held at a popular local club called Coach & Willies, where spirits and sports and soporific conversation was readily available. I was looking after one of my compadres who was imbibing the night away, a somber task that weighed heavily on me, and was also unable to make it to the "unofficial" Hustler dinner, which I heard was a splendid affair with victuals to tempt even the most selective vegan. So it goes.
Saturday broke clear-skied and cold - "cold" being what 72 degrees is referred to in Phoenix - and a pre-planned meeting kept me from making it to the morning's discussions, which included "How to Convert Traffic into $$$" and "Make Affiliate Programs Work for You." I'm sure they were informative, but I can't clone myself... yet. I did make a little keynote speech after lunch, in place of AVN Sales Manager Jennifer Rosenblatt, who was sick, and sat on a newbie panel after that, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was a little nervous at first - all those critical Webmasters, you know - but after realizing that YNOTBob would always save my idiotic remarks with a perfectly timed joke, it was sweet sailing.
Overall, I think some important themes were addressed in the discussion forums. First of all, there was a lot of optimism in the room, mostly coming from the IPSP speakers, who insisted that Visa/MC were not going to stop processing online adult transactions any time soon. This glass-half-full outlook is expected of them - it's their job, after all - but my sense was that not only did they really mean it, but that they were also vigorously trying to impart that same forward-looking enthusiasm to the crowd, a tough sell in any industry. In various forums, the topic of Acacia came up, as did shaving - both very touchy subjects - and indeed nothing truly constructive came out of these discussions, but at least they were out there and people now know that Acacia is real and has to be dealt with, just as the big affiliate sponsors now know that shaving may be "accepted the same as death and taxes are," as LA Jay so delicately put it, but it still bugs the royal shit out of every small to mid-level Webmaster, who knows s/he's being ripped off right and left by the very people they depend on. (Hey, kinda sounds like our government, doesn't it!) No, no seminar or roundtable or discussion will ever solve these industry-wide problems, but at least they're out there, and who knows, maybe public pressure will one day win out.
I was invited to visit the CCBill offices by Frank Cadwell, the dad, just after that, which meant that I had to miss the "Gay Website Marketing" discussion, but I couldn't say no. Mr. Cadwell also invited Joan Irvine, the executive director of Adult Sites Against Child Pornography, and off we went to visit the offices they keep in an industrial park section of the city. The grand tour was awfully impressive. I could go on and on about the design of these offices, but it was the small everyday touches that were most interesting, like the fact that CCBill offers its employees lunch free every day, cooked in their own kitchen by a real chef, as long as the employees eat it at their desks. Mr. Cadwell explained that people could go out if they wanted, but most didn't, and the saving added up to... well, who knows how many hundreds of work hours a year, easily offsetting the expense of providing the meals. I'd never seen that before. I thought it was an ingenious solution to a problem that every employer deals with on a daily basis.
I have to wrap this up, but not without mentioning the last party of the show, the "Bash by the Pool," complete with catered dinner, an open bar, and a live band. It was a perfect ending to a fine weekend, and a more than successful conclusion to a little show that tries, and succeeds.