To most Californians, Bakersfield isn't much more than an exit off State Highway 99. Arid even in spring, it's a town of oil wells, tract houses, and miles of straight, dusty roads connecting cotton and fruit fields. But every October for the past 10 years, just as the hands take to the fields, California's 14th-largest city--population 202,000--transforms itself into a Woodstock for business and political groupies.
Clustered in a canvas tent large enough to contain a pair of football fields plus seven basketball courts, 14,000 people gather to listen to the likes of George Bush, Shirley MacLaine, and T. Boone Pickens Jr. wax eloquent for 30 minutes apiece. The topics range from NAFTA to women's roles in the workplace. "We suggest [speakers] have a lot of jokes," says George F. Martin, a onetime rock promoter who organizes the daylong talkathon. "It's a long day."
CASH FOR THE CHIEFS. It's also one heck of a promotional event. Martin is managing general partner of the local law firm Borton, Petrini & Conron, with 125 attorneys in 16 offices. "Our firm doesn't advertise on TV or radio or stand on its head and eat a bug to get business," says Martin. Instead, it stages the annual Bakersfield Business Conference.
The powerful virtually line up to address attendees--most of whom pay $295 a head. In previous years, Martin has attracted the likes of Donald Trump and Lee A. Iacocca--with honoraria of up to $60,000 apiece. In 1992, Ronald Reagan came. Last year, three former Presidents--Ford, Carter, and Bush--showed up. On Oct. 15, Colin Powell is scheduled to stop by, fresh from his Haitian diplomatic sortie, and Larry King is due to bring his suspender-snapping shtick. The law firm also plans to reunite the three Apollo 11 astronauts for the 25th anniversary of the moon landing--only the second time all year that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins will appear together. In all, Martin plans to spend $600,000 this year for speakers and entertainment--including fireworks, Jay Leno, and Paul Anka.
If all the hoopla means added business, Martin won't quantify it. But his firm, which specializes in business litigation and insurance defense, attracts an enviable audience to its shindig. Among attendees this year: MCA, Paramount Pictures, DHL Air Express, and HealthNet. State Farm Insurance alone has 80 tickets for its executives.
To Kay Meek, a fund-raiser at Bakersfield College who has attended 10 conferences, the confab has become a one-day escape to a celebrity-studded firmament. A few years back, she ran into former British Prime Minister Sir Harold Wilson on the way to the refreshment tent. Then there was General Norman Schwarzkopf's appearance, six months after Operation Desert Storm. "People gave him a five-minute standing ovation," says Rachel Gamez, who owns three Mexican restaurants in town. "Tears were just running down people's cheeks."
None of this comes cheap. This year, the "hard costs" of the day--everything besides employees' time, telephone charges, and other costs the firm absorbs--come to $3 million. Of that, $250,000 goes to landscaping--which this year will feature a "moonscape near the beer garden" and a 7-foot-tall model of the lunar capsule sitting in a 100-foot-long reflecting pond. Another $1.2 million or so goes to paying for tents and audiovisual services.
HICKSVILLE IMAGE. Martin says the conference usually breaks even, though last year, when he decided to give away a car at the last minute, it lost $23,000. There are no plans for a car giveaway this year--but there will be a Ferris wheel.
About half of the conference's attendees come from Bakersfield, but enough spend the night to fill Bakersfield's 3,000 hotel and motel rooms. The convention bureau figures every overnight visitor brings in $111. Perhaps more important, say officials, the event also counters the image of the city as Hicksville. "We could not have gone out and bought this kind of respect," says Chris T. Frank, executive vice-president of the local Chamber of Commerce.
So it's not surprising that the Bakersfield gathering is spawning competition: San Diego will host its own one-day cavalcade of bigwigs only a month after Bakersfield's. Other cities are mulling similar extravaganzas. After all, any event that can turn a dusty little California town into a mecca for the rich and famous invites imitation.
WHO'S COMING TO BAKERSFIELD:
-- Colin Powell
-- Shirley MacLaine
-- Henry Kissinger
-- Jay Leno
-- Neil Armstrong
-- James Baker III
WHO HAS BEEN THERE:
-- Four ex-Presidents
-- Lee Iacocca
-- Henry Winkler
-- T. Boone Pickens
-- Mario Cuomo
-- Phyllis Diller