"So what's your best giveaway so far?" asked an entertainer hosting a raffle for a collapsible bike at the 2014 RSA Conference USA. It was an understandable question: Sprawled across three massive buildings in San Francisco's Moscone Conference Center, booths featured giveaways and contests for all kinds of things, although tech gadgets from televisions to Google Glass were the most popular. Many more featured free swag like t-shirts or candy. It's all par for the course at one of cybersecurity's largest and most ostentatious get togethers.
Cybersecurity firm RSA developed the conference in 1991 as a forum for cryptographers and the Internet security industry. Since then, it's had international iterations in Europe and Asia. Last year, the main U.S. conference attracted over 24,000 attendees and 350 vendors when using only one of the Moscone Center buildings.
More so than hacker conferences like DefCon and BlackHat, RSA is about the business side of cybersecurity -- a place for companies to show off their wares, network, and score deals. Playing ball at RSA requires a serious cash commitment. This year, exhibit hall space ran $82.50 per square foot, with a 20 feet x 20 feet going for $33,000. But furnishing and staffing booths could cost even more.
One company with a booth of that size estimated setting up the booth and hiring attendants cost upwards of an additional $50,000, including around $6,000 for a rotating sign hung from the exhibit hall's rafters. Its total cost for the conference was close to $100,000.
Some companies built out elaborate multistory booths in the 20x20 spaces.
Other gimmicks abounded. One vendor had a Matrix-style character rear-projected onto a custom cut slab of glass to give the appearance of a futuristic hologram.
Another had a full-fledged boxing ring set up, complete with "ring girls" passing out invitations to an after hours party.
Both the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency maintained 20x20 booths, although a DHS press person on site declined to comment on how much the government paid for the space. The NSA booth featured an actual World War II Enigma Machine.
Even a relatively modest 10 feet x 10 feet booth cost over $8,000 and closer to a minimum of $15,000 to furnish and staff for the week long event.
And exhibit hall space was actually cheap compared to "Diamond" sponsorship status, which for $330,000 came with a keynote speaking slots of 25 minutes (speaker requires prior approval) with web recast, 30 feet x 60 feet exhibit space, a "partner pavilion" for up to 12 associated groups, and the company's name embroidered on the official conference bag, among other opportunities. Microsoft and Juniper Networks made that level of investment in their conference presence.
Then there are other added "opportunities," including thousands to get a branded pen in the conference bag or host an "old-fashioned popcorn cart." Fifteen thousand dollars could buy "room drops," where branded material is delivered to the doors of conference attendees at nine different area hotels. "Inside room drops are available at an increased cost."
For the bargain price of $10,000-$12,000, companies could reserve a "meeting suite" consisting of "a 10' x 10' hard walled room with locking door, carpet, 42" round table with 4 chairs, one floor lamp, and a logoed identification sign outside the room" near the Southern conference hall. The upgraded versions included a ceiling, and word on the conference floor was that the basic units didn't muffle sound very effectively -- which sort of defeats the point of a private meeting space.
And costs don't end with the official agenda. After the conference day winds down, the after parties start up. Most major cybersecurity firms were sponsoring or co-hosting an open bar party at a nearby club -- something that could easily cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. One party on Wednesday night featured a huge disco ball swaying over two bar levels, a photobooth, and arcade machines in addition to freely flowing booze.
Another party a block away had huge canopies to cover the outdoor half of the event space from rain spitting down outside. Inside, a young woman with a bleached blonde pixie cut led a dance party while standing on a couch. A chartered shuttle bus delivered attendees between these and other evening events free of charge.
However, for all the spectacle, conference really isn't that unlike the splashy events held by other industries from drones to retail. While it's not without controversy this year, as a handful of presenters boycotted citing concerns over RSA's handling of a specific NSA contract and are running an alternative event called "TrustyCon" down the street, vendors say it's worth it: This is where many of their biggest contracts come from and spending $100,000 on a big show to land a multi-million dollar deal is a bargain.
But the scale of the conference still can be overwhelming at first -- especially considering the relative size of the cybersecurity threats vendors are here to guard against. "All of this," said Carbon Black CTO Ben Johnson gesturing to the technologies on display around the exhibit hall,"is here to stop a 20 kilobyte executor from infiltrating systems."