Dot-Com Parties Dry Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Patty Beron steps inside a downtown skyscraper, slips out of her chic black overcoat and prepares to lie her way into yet another dot-com party--the first of several soirees tonight.

Splendora.com, an online firm that sells spa packages, is hosting a gathering for 150 bons vivants. The fare, which consists of a single table of sparkling water, is open to the public. The good stuff, tucked away in a VIP area, is in the back.

Beron, slender and sleek, gets a peek at the tantalizing display of goodies in the cordoned-off room. Free-flowing champagne and crudites. Soothing manicures and complimentary makeup.

It's a heavenly spread even for the 33-year-old Beron, a legendary yet jaded party crasher. She has slipped her way into hundreds of such events, which have become fewer and more elite in these increasingly hard economic times. For her and her friends, it has become a nightly outing that is part emotional thrill, part social ritual, part financial survival.

Slicking back her golden locks, Beron strides with her friends into the crowd of Prada-wearing women--all of whom have ponied up $60 for a Splendora.com membership card. Beyond a door marked "VIP," Beron can see the masseuses, the stylists, the makeup kits and bottles of body glitter that gleam seductively at her.

"Gina said she put us on the list," Beron says, cooing at a handsome greeter at the doorway. "Wait, it might have been someone else. . . ."

Sydd Hubbard, the guardian of Splendora.com's splendors this night, calmly shakes his head.

"I don't think so," he says with a sniff. "We are not giving handouts."

So much for being a cute blond.

Life these days on the beaten down, dot-com party circuit has become equal parts humiliation and backbreaking work, even for the likes of Beron.

Arguably the city's most celebrated party girl, she is known to Bay Area techies by her now-notorious Internet handle, SFGirl. Her party-crashing exploits have made her a cult icon among the young tech crowd, and a constant headache to some corporate event planners now charged with keeping out the ever-growing crowd of riffraff.

Economic Reality Has Rippling Effect

It wasn't so long ago that mass celebrations and an open-door policy were the norm on the Internet social scene. Parties were not meant to be intimate affairs, but sword-waving victory dances heralding the triumph of technology.

As money from Wall Street flowed as fat and wide as the Mississippi River, even the masses were swept into the good times. They weren't on the official guest list, yet the official attitude was the more the merrier.

But the hard slap of reality has hit dot-coms on their bottom lines. People like Beron aren't part of the Bay Area's ruling elite, the computer programmers and chief technical officers and venture capitalists who are the drivers behind the dream of high-tech wealth.

Instead, they are the industry's fringe players, the first to be fired when Internet firms tighten their budgets. And they are the first to be crossed off the party lists.

Milling outside the Splendora.com party, Beron can smell the smoked salmon piled high on the water crackers. Tuxedoed waiters carry silver trays heaped with fresh sushi rolls and glasses filled with purple cosmopolitans. The waiters look past Beron and her friends, who wander about like a troupe of rock music fans longing to sneak backstage.

"I thought they were going to have food in the lobby," moans Beron, glancing at a table shoved against a nearby wall. All she sees is empty glasses and bottles of water.

Keeping her cool, Beron slips back into her jacket. She and her friends walk out and head to the next spot.

There was a time when such rejection would have been unthinkable. Beron's nightly prowls started as merely a hunt for good times in the early, giddy Internet days. At the peak, Beron dined regularly on lobster and champagne, and danced until dawn at free concerts and underground nightclubs.

The Los Angeles native graduated from college in 1995: She sheepishly admits she earned a bachelor's degree in "recreation and leisure service management" from San Francisco State. After school, in 1998, she landed a job as a Web developer for Sun Microsystems. A year later, she longed to cut back her commute and return to working in the city.

"My husband and I had split up, and I realized I needed to go out and meet people," Beron said. "I didn't want to stay in the suburbs."

Living in an apartment in San Francisco's hip Haight Ashbury neighborhood, she supported herself with a string of Web design and consulting contracts with technology start-ups.

Long hours working at home by herself convinced her that she needed to explore the city at the height of the Internet boom. Never before had companies spent so much on their workers, as well as people who didn't work for them.

The ultimate decadent soiree was thrown by now-defunct Pixelon Corp., which put on a $10-million trade show party in Las Vegas. Hosted by comedian David Spade and featuring the Who, its lavishness is still marveled over and mocked by both multibillionaires and the salaried class.

After crashing hundreds of parties over the last year, Beron and her friends have gleaned an enormous amount of information--much of which they post on a Web site that attracts thousands of visitors each day. The site became their hangout, a place to gossip and meet.

More important, Beron said, it's a place to make friends. At a time when thousands of Bay Area dot-com employees are out of work, http://www.SFGirl.com helps these people know they're not alone.

"There is a method to my madness and a reason for my nightly engagements," Beron said. "I attend these events to build my community, by meeting others who are of influence and who are interested in joining SFGirl.com."

The site is filled with stories about their adventures--who slept with whom, who danced on stage, which company gave away the best gifts--and, most important, where they are heading tonight.

On Alert for Party Crashers

Lately, however, even for pros like Beron, the opportunities have thinned--an omen of harsh times. The companies have gotten a lot meaner.

Just ask the staff at Respond.com, which threw a party late last year for 2,000 people. Another 2,000 party crashers showed up, Patty Beron among them.

"If that happened today, she'd be out," said Amy Swanson, a spokeswoman for Respond.com, a shop-by-request Web site that links customers with sellers. Anyone throwing a party today knows to keep a sharp lookout for the legions of party crashers who have taken Beron's cue, she said.

"Not that we could even afford to throw a party now," Swanson added.

As dot-com parties have evaporated, Beron and her troupe have been forced to fill the void with industry mixers and trade show soirees, where budgets for open bars and expensive tchotchke remain flush. In any given week, companies throw 10 to 20 parties in San Francisco--and spend an average of $40,000 to $60,000, said Heather Keenan, president of the party planning firm Key Events.

"Instead of 'Let's get them as drunk as we can,' these companies are telling us they want to keep things small and focused," Keenan said. "It's all about getting results."

Beron scoffs at such tough talk. A year's worth of experience has taught her at least a few tricks and the art of fortuitous timing.

Days before the Splendora.com affair, Beron walks into the Metreon mall in the middle of San Francisco, her sights set on a promising gig hosted by a group of party planners hawking the mall as a party hot spot.

Her stomach growls with hunger. She hasn't eaten dinner yet, partly because she didn't have time and partly because the earlier parties didn't offer her the chance.

Besides, money is tight. She funds her Web site herself and pays for her living expenses as a marketing consultant and developer of strategic growth plans for local companies.

She takes a few breaths, deep and slow and calming. An army of women, name tags clipped to their lapels, stand guard.

Beron smiles. "Hello."

The women smile back as Beron casually scans the dozens of white name tags that cover a table in neat rows of plastic squares. She frowns, confused. Where could her tag be?

A couple of awkward moments pass, then her face brightens, as if to say Aha! There I am.

The door mavens ask Beron for a business card. Busted.

Suddenly, miraculously, her cell phone rings.

God has not saved Patty Beron, but a subtle flick of the phone's power button has. While faking the call, she picks up a random name tag.

She's in and, using the same ploy, so are her friends. Tonight, they munch on appetizers: mini crab cakes and smoked sausages.

Getting caught sauntering into a party is a minor risk for people who, recently fired, have little to lose. Beron's best friend, Dawn Balzarano, discovered that her entire department was being cut--on the night before her first day at work.

Jennifer O'Donnell, a project manager, says she feels lucky: When she was laid off last month, her company agreed to pay for her medical coverage through the end of the year.

"I'm looking for something to tide me over for the next six to 12 months," O'Donnell said. "Just something to keep me going until all this blows over, and things get back to normal."

This is normal. That's what Beron's fans don't--or won't--understand.

Last year's party excess created a sense of entitlement among workers, many of whom believed that just being young and technologically savvy was enough to deserve riches. Today, that belief has given way to an almost desperate need to stay in the heat of the dot-com action, even as it cools.

Looking back on that night, Beron rates the party as "pretty good," but not as great as last summer's offerings when her friends walked away with a bounty of freebies: two Palms, a closet of T-shirts and a brand-new snowboard.

"I'm going to sell the [snowboard] on EBay," Balzarano said. "It's like free money."

But there's always another night, and another list of parties.

Coming Up Short on Free Food, Drinks

After leaving the Splendora.com party, Beron and her friends remain confident and consider their options. They get into one networking party sponsored by TheSquare.com, but there isn't any food. Another, by trade magazine Business 2.0, has shut down.

Some of Beron's friends grow tired and begin to leave. She and a small, hearty crew push on. Ultimately, they do the unthinkable: Buy their own drinks.

Cosmopolitan in hand, Beron begins flirting and schmoozing with a couple of men. Crinkles frame her dreamy light-blue eyes as she grins, and the men admire her clean-cut, surfer-girl appearance.

"Maybe they can buy our next round [of drinks]," Beron whispers.

No such luck. Hours pass and the women head home, tired and relatively sober.

It's Thursday morning.

Pain, a thumping and grinding behind her eyes, wakes Patty Beron at 7 a.m. The sweet taste of last night's fun has turned sour in her mouth.

Must. Get. Aspirin.

She kicks off the covers, stumbling over the black leather boots and lacy bra she peeled off at 3 a.m. Her roommate is already up, ready for work and grinding the coffee beans.

Man, that's loud.

Yawning, she picks up her purse and rummages through the packed bag, seeking relief. Dozens of business cards collected from the various parties spill onto the cold, hardwood floor.

Beron rushes over to her computer, knowing that her community will be awake and curious. Even at this hour, Beron's e-mail account overflows with queries.

"Where's the party, SFGirl? Where's the party?!?"

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