Holiday Parties Unwrapped: A Local Primer

By Sonner Kehrt

Thanks to these gurus, the region’s innovative spirit is on full display during the month of December. 

Jay Siegan Presents. “Parties aren’t just a big bowl of Caesar salad and a disco ball,” says Siegan.

You know the old holiday party standards — red and green linens, festive decorations, some twinkle lights. Oh, and a snow carver to produce life-sized igloos on demand with a couple of drones battling in the background. And maybe Jay Leno, too.

It’s no surprise that the holiday party season in Silicon Valley can be a touch more extravagant than in other locales. Social media here lights up with shots of bespoke cocktail bars and champagne-toting aerialists. Some of the more over-the-top aspects of Silicon Valley parties have made national news in recent years — sometimes with their share of criticism. But whatever your take, it’s hard to deny that the innovation and work-hard, play-hard mentality of the Valley gives Peninsula festivities their own particular flavor.

“Silicon Valley is a very creative place,” says Jud Yaski, an event planner and director of the San Francisco-based Inspire Productions, which has produced parties for the likes of Uber, Amazon and Mozilla, among other clients. “People want to see something different and dynamic, [they] are always looking for the next unique thing.”

That culture means things are done a little differently. When the event designer Robert Fountain began his career over two decades ago, he was planning galas for the San Francisco opera and ballet. But these days, his client list is almost exclusively high-profile Silicon Valley types. The shift, he says, has changed the way he plans parties. 

“They trust me and they trust what I’m going to do,” he says. “They don’t have time for micromanaging.” 

Fountain is tight-lipped about who his clients are for the upcoming holiday season, but there are plenty of them: His Decembers are typically fully booked five years in advance, often with repeat customers looking for that extra something. At a Christmas party, for example, he might blow in literal tons of snow, enough to make an actual sledding hill or stage a snowball fight. There’s cookie decorating and make-your-own galoshes stations — something for everyone. The idea, he says, is to capture a little bit of childhood magic and recreate it for the grown-up you.

“It’s not 100 people doing the same thing — 100 people having cocktails followed by 100 people dancing,” he says of his parties. “That’s typical of the Silicon Valley crowd. They’re not the sort of people who want to sit at a table between two people for two hours.”

Parties, for the holiday season or otherwise, particularly bigger ones thrown by top tech companies, tend to be fully immersive events these days. “You get into a world and you’re completely engaged,” says Yaski. “You maybe lose a little of a sense of the outside world.”

Inspire Productions. The San Francisco-based company, run by Jud Yaski, has produced epic, only-in-Silicon-Valley parties for Amazon, Uber and Mozilla.

The transformation starts right at the beginning, whether it’s red-carpet step-and-repeats for arriving guests, complete with paparazzi and a company-logo backdrop or a literal entrance into a fantasy world — for instance, through a speakeasy door or down Alice’s rabbit hole to Wonderland.

“We have a spinning lighting effect that makes it look like you’re walking through a dream,” says Rick Herns, whose Redwood City company Rick Herns Productions has a client list that ranges from Google to Stanford to the 49ers. He noted that Alice in Wonderland is a perennial holiday-season favorite, but the trick is making it bigger and better than anyone could have expected — 14-foot-tall flowers, character actors greeting guests, a humongous Alice that seems to pop through the venue’s roof.

Bigger, better, beyond expectations — it’s a tall order when the expectations are already sky-high.

“There’s some big, big parties going on,” says Jay Siegan. His company, Jay Siegan Presents, has become the go-to for tech companies looking to secure world-class performers for private events. “We’re in a really big wave right now. And it’s a really fun, creative wave. Parties aren’t just a big bowl of Caesar salad and a disco ball.”

The goal isn’t to look overly extravagant, says Herns. It’s really about giving guests an unforgettable experience and showing them something they haven’t seen before. Often, in keeping with the local spirit, that something is cutting edge: This year, expect to see things like interactive virtual-reality stations, projection mapping that transforms blank walls into snowstorms and robotic centerpieces. 

It’s also about tapping into the particular Bay Area creativity that runs through scenes such as Burning Man or Maker Faire. Herns says he’s got a 16-foot-tall rocket ship under construction in his prop shop. Yaski once brought in hundred-plus year old steam tubes to power a turn-of-the-century letterpress.

Other times it’s special guests that can nudge a celebration over the top, particularly if they’re unexpected. 

Rick Herns Productions. Just a few of Herns’ A-list party clients: Google, Stanford and the 49ers.

“A big-name artist brings the cache and the buzz. You can watch Instagram blow up when a celebrity walks on stage at a private party, especially if the guests don’t know they’re coming,” says Siegan. His company has staged spectacles like bringing together The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Black Eyed Peas and the Foo Fighters for a single Genentech event. He brought U2 in to play a private Oracle party (“I don’t know where you go from there,” he says. “You’ve won.”)

Like so much of the technology we use today, Silicon Valley parties are about customizable content. From an entertainment perspective, says Siegan, that à la carte approach is like a jukebox — except the songs are played live. He recalls a large tech firm that wanted an ’80s party. He suggested a popular local ’80s cover band. The company countered. “They said, ‘Oh no. We want the real thing.’”

The real thing, for starters, meant bringing in Martha Quinn, the iconic MTV VJ, to host the event on Treasure Island. Then there were the bands: Devo. The Bangles. Tears for Fears. Flock of Seagulls. Howard Jones. The B-52s.

“It was just one artist after the other,” says Siegan. “They had the budget to procure the original artists.” He pauses. “All of them.”

The holidays are about celebration, and in a place where an idea that can change the world is just around the corner, maybe there’s good reason to make the excitement of the season, well, a little more exciting. 

“The ‘sit down pretty party’ doesn’t work for them,” says Fountain. “I’ve learned to throw great parties because of who Silicon Valley is.” 


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