Burning Man: The service (counter) culture

The first time I had heard about Burning Man, I was probably in my early teens, when a colleague of my father was speaking of an art/music festival that was taking place in the Nevada desert about 90 miles (145 km) north of Reno (during Burning Man, the ride can take up to 12 hours, depending on traffic). The only reason I knew where Reno was at that time was a function of having been on a family ski vacation to Lake Tahoe one winter a few years before — we were far from an avid skiing family, but enjoyed the time together on the mountain.  Reno, as it turned out, was where we flew in order to get to Squaw Valley; there was also a phenomenal diner we went to on several occasions that week that marked the turnoff from the mountains to Reno (I wish I could recall its name — it had killer breakfasts, and I remember there being a joke about the rib dish because a scrawny dog was always outside).

Until last month, I had not been to those parts since I was 11 or 12 years old. While I cannot really remember the major differences at the airport (if any) nor of the topography, the experiences could not have been more different. At the same time, they were similar enough to draw some parallels.

For those of you who are somewhat — or entirely — unfamiliar with Burning Man, I can say the following: Words cannot possibly come close to describing the spectacle, and pictures don’t come close to doing it justice. To feel that free, that expressive, that inclusive and that friendly was, at its root, liberating.

Burning Man, founded in the late 1980s in San Francisco, is seen as a counter-cultural, radically hippie, artistically derived and musically fueled display of creative process and human connection. The founders developed a set of 10 principles that have guided the annual festival:

  • Radical inclusion
  • Gifting
  • Decommodification
  • Radical self-reliance
  • Radical self-expression
  • Communal effort
  • Civic responsibility
  • Leaving no trace
  • Participation
  • Immediacy

Taking the words literally and directly, some may come off as a little hokey and out there, but when synthesized and classified, they represent tenets hoteliers have strived to encompass. 

These guiding principles really are the key to a hotel’s existence and should be followed, maybe not religiously as a zealot, but as a commitment to the art of serving others. We, as hoteliers, try desperately to include our customers in almost everything we do while providing them an experience we hope they will desire to repeat in the future.  We hope that our practices align with their moral compass. We want our customers to feel unique, not as if they are a number in the system, and we go to great lengths to appease them by providing amenities and anticipating their every desire through our own efforts to get to know them individually, via systems and surveys that capture their interests and preferences.

Burning Man isn’t too much different. The festival is not for the faint of heart, it is not for everyone and by no means am I suggesting everyone who reads this jump on the (now more commercial) bandwagon and get lined up for tickets next year. But if you know someone who did go, try to get them to discuss with you their experience — it may open your eyes to something new and exciting.

At the very least, you’ll have a great discussion with the side of someone you may not have known was ever there. The stories may be jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, mystical and/or legendary, but they certainly won’t be boring. 

I’d like to think my introduction to the experience that is Burning Man qualifies as not boring. All of my friends and fellow campers arrived early, and, as usual, I was the last one to show up at the party. But how I got there can only be explained as something that “would only happen at Burning Man.”

The world only ever seems to grow smaller, and having had the pleasure of trying my hand at hitchhiking for the first time from the Reno Airport to Black Rock City (the town that can be Googled and only exists for the single reason of playing host to Burning Man), I was welcomed with open arms by a couple who took me in on their way to The Burn. Naturally — or, as if otherworldly powers were intervening — the husband/wife pair were a) in the hotel industry, b) had mutual friends/colleagues, c) were from Miami and, most importantly, d) gave me a true Burner primer on what to “expect” (nothing can prepare you fully until you arrive) on La Playa (the colloquial name ascribed to the desert on which Burning Man takes place). In the end, it was for them that I was able to locate my friends and home base where I would spend the next four days.

I, for one, cannot wait until I get to La Playa next year to have new experiences and meet new people that I can learn from and be inspired by — I can only hope my presence will be equally received. #campjoda2014