As soon as we packed up and left the playa this year, some disconcerting stories and questions began to emerge about camps reportedly engaging in behavior counter to what Burning Man is all about.
Questions range from the logistical – how do these camps operate in BRC? Does the organization provide them with resources? — to the more philosophical – is the event fundamentally changing as a result of Burners bringing their luxurious lifestyles to the playa? What does this mean for Black Rock City and Burning Man culture?
At Burning Man Headquarters, we’ve been asking ourselves many of the same questions. And we’ve received thousands of pieces of feedback. We’ve read hundreds of emails, heard personal stories face-to-face and seen many more online.
So what is the organization doing? Over the past two months, we conducted interviews with hosts and producers of camps receiving the bulk of the negative attention following the 2014 event. We gathered information internally and externally, and held a roundtable discussion with the Burning Man Project Board of Directors.
We then held a series of internal meetings with participation from three of Burning Man’s founders, event operations leadership, and the key teams poised to address this issue directly (Placement, Community Services, Ticketing and Communications). After proposing a list of reforms and drafting this post, we elicited feedback and input from various stakeholders and community members, including the Regional Network leadership.
It took time to respond because we were determined not just to say “this is what happened” but also to say “this is what we plan to do about it.” We’ve created a list of frequently asked questions to address some of the most pressing concerns and identified the policy changes we’ve made so far.
We have a lot of work to do in the coming months. This FAQ, along with Burning Man founder Larry Harvey’s essay, “Equality, Inequity, Iniquity: Concierge Culture,” is the first step.
One of the first challenges we faced in addressing issues related to turnkey camps was defining what, exactly, they are.
While not new to the event, turnkey (or “plug and play”) camps began gaining wider attention in 2012. That year, the Burning Man organization started a dialogue on the topic with this post and, following a series of meetings and discussions, developed these turnkey guidelines.
The term “turnkey” has been used to describe camps with paid teams that set up infrastructure before other camp members arrive. This general definition could be applied to many camps, including many well-known, beloved and highly participatory theme camps.
Turnkey is a category that includes a variety of camps along a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum are camps that offer major contributions to the playa and depend on infrastructural support to do their work and provide their offering on the playa (the Temple Camp, for example); these camps have a team that provides support services, enabling their fellow campmates to focus on giving in ways that benefit the wider BRC community.
On the other end of the spectrum are “plug and play” or “concierge camps” (A.K.A. hotel camps, resort camps, commodification camps), where vacation-type experiences are sold in package deals at exclusive prices, often with no expectation or commitment by campers to contribute to the larger community. It is this latter type of camp we are addressing here.
How is it okay for camps to market the Burning Man experience?
Packaging, advertising and selling the Burning Man experience is absolutely not okay. A camp that is truly commercial in nature, meaning that it seeks to reap financial gain, publicly advertises for customers and does not contribute to the greater community, is not in line with Burning Man’s principles.
Trolling for campmates that are unknown to fellow campers and charging a higher than normal camp fee is tantamount to filling hotel beds with total strangers — which means the camp’s purpose isn’t about community and connection, it’s about bodies and budget. These concierge or commodification camps undermine the social fabric of our community, which is unacceptable.
Further, bringing a VIP lifestyle experience — with velvet ropes and wristbands — introduces an element of exclusivity into a culture that values inclusion, and those that opt in to these kinds of camps miss out on the transformative power of the event. Black Rock City offers a unique opportunity to collaboratively create an experience for yourself and everyone around you. Coming to Burning Man and living in an area that’s self-contained while avoiding engagement with the broader community directly contradicts the spirit of the event.
What is the Burning Man organization doing to stop this?
Each year, we encounter a handful of companies advertising luxury, all-expenses paid package tours of Burning Man. When they make use of the Burning Man name or logo, our intellectual property team works to curtail promotional efforts by forcing any reference to ‘Burning Man’ to be removed. One of our greatest assets in this effort is Burners themselves, who are quick to report companies advertising on Facebook (where the lion’s share of promotions first surface) and elsewhere on the interwebs. We encourage you to be part of the solution by reporting these operations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If Burning Man stops businesses from selling things in BRC, how can it allow for-profit theme camps that package and sell experiences in our gift economy?
Burning Man does not condone this activity. Commodification camps are not only in direct conflict with our culture, they are also not allowed by the terms of our permit. Individuals and groups operating commercially on Federal land are required to have a special recreation permit issued by the Bureau of Land Management. A commodification camp operating without a permit risks citations and fines from the BLM. The Burning Man organization is exploring ways of monitoring this more effectively in the future – we will have more information available in advance of the 2015 event.
Who is making money off of elaborate plug and play camps?
Many other large-scale events sell luxury boutique camping options. Burning Man organizers have never provided these services (and don’t intend to – that’s just not who we are). Because Burning Man doesn’t provide these types of accommodations, some producers saw an opportunity and began to offer them.
While there may be some camp producers hoping to benefit financially, in all of our conversations with the hosts (the person or persons with the idea of the camp who are footing the bill) of numerous camps – including those gaining wide attention after this year’s event – we have yet to identify a single host who profited from their camp (or more importantly, ever intended to). To the contrary, hosts often end up paying out of pocket to cover the high costs of their elaborate camps.
Note: calculating a camp’s revenue using the estimated number of campers and its published camp dues is faulty, since most camps have a sliding scale for camp dues and often have non-paying guests.
Does the Burning Man organization benefit financially from plug and play camps?
No. Camps are entirely personal endeavors and the organization is not involved in the production of any plug and play or concierge camps. And no camp can pay Burning Man for extra privilege in Black Rock City.
What about actual scam camps?
This year, as in the past, there were a few reports of scam camps — in which organizers misled participants into paying for services that were not delivered. This is egregious and will not be tolerated. For 2015, we’ll work to educate participants on what to look for when considering joining a camp, and remind folks that joining an organized camp is not a necessary part of going to Burning Man. Thousands of Burners opt for living in unreserved camp spaces, walk-in camping, or to create small camps of their own that don’t require paying any camp dues.
What is the Outside Services (OSS) program? Why does Burning Man have it?
Years ago, theme camps and artists began renting generators, heavy equipment, and receiving other deliveries that arrive in semi trucks and trailers. Processing these arrivals at the gate put considerable strain on BRC’s infrastructure. In response, Burning Man created the Outside Services program.
An OSS contract ensures a company delivering to the playa follows the Leave No Trace principles, does not engage in commerce on-site (with the exception of fees for pumping), follows certain behavior expectations, and does not remain at the event without proper entry credentials. It also stipulates that each company should cover its logos – this is not something we’ve rigorously enforced (for practical reasons) but it’s important in terms of acculturation. All contracts with participants must be pre-arranged and money must change hands prior to being on site. The organization charges a fee for the OSS entry credential, which goes to support the administration of the program. More details can be found here.
Were tickets taken out of the Secure Ticket Exchange Program (STEP) and sold to plug and play camps?
Nope, not a single one. In fact, in addition to tickets contributed to STEP by participants, the Burning Man organization put an additional 2,500 tickets for sale in STEP in 2014, which went to those waiting in the queue. Tickets are never removed from STEP by the Burning Man organization for any reason.
So where did plug and play/concierge camps get all those tickets?
Concierge camps purchased tickets through all of the same avenues available to other participants and other large camps, including the early Pre-Sale, the main Individual Sale and on the secondary market. A few of these camps also purchased tickets through the Burning Man Project’s Donation Ticket Program (see below).
What’s the Burning Man Project Donation Ticket Program?
The Burning Man organization is actively building the foundation for a nonprofit with a global vision. We have seen how Burning Man culture can positively influence the world, and each day we’re approached with new ideas, projects and partnerships in the ever-growing community of Burners worldwide. This endeavor brings with it new challenges and costs.
In the first year of this program (2013), less than 300 tickets were sold. In 2014, 1,200 tickets were sold through this limited sale intended to raise funds for the new nonprofit. The Donation Ticket Program sold tickets between May and July. No tickets were sold through this channel after August 1. Tickets were sold for face value plus a $250 tax-deductible donation to Burning Man Project. Invitations were sent to participants who had previously contributed to Burning Man Project, or who had expressed interest in doing so, including some in plug and play and concierge camps. Other well-established theme camps also purchased Donation Tickets to cover a shortfall in tickets for their build crews and campmates.
What’s up with the different ticket prices, anyway?
Years ago, Burners expressed an interest in purchasing tickets for the following year to give as gifts during the holidays. This coincided with the organization’s financially lean months — the time after event production costs were done but before tickets went on sale for the next year. So, in 2008 we introduced the Pre-Sale at a higher price point. The money raised from these higher priced tickets offsets the 4,000 tickets sold to cash-strapped Burners through the Low Income Ticket Program for $190 each. In 2014, the additional funds from the $650 Pre-Sale tickets matched almost exactly the amount ‘lost’ through the Low Income Ticket Program. In other words, the Pre-Sale tickets came within $400 of covering the cost of the low income tickets. We encourage those who have the financial means to participate in the Pre-Sale, which helps to make the trip to Black Rock City more affordable for others. The Donation ticket program was separate from the Pre-Sale, though the ticket prices are the same.
Placement / Interactivity / Leaving No Trace
Why did some plug and play camps receive placement in 2014?
Placement is granted to theme camps, staff camps, volunteers camps, mutant vehicle camps, art support camps, and camps providing critical infrastructure and event production services. We expect every camp that is placed to offer something to BRC.
Twelve plug and play camps that committed to providing interactive experiences for BRC were given placement in 2014. We did this because, in addition to receiving a reserved camping space, placement means getting on the map, which helps the organization manage population density issues, prevent land-grabbing, monitor Outside Services deliveries, hold camps accountable for MOOP, engage camp leads by assigning them a representative in the organization, and provide access to theme-camp specific communications.
Did plug and play camps take the place of theme camps that wanted to be placed?
No. We placed 12 plug and play camps outside of areas previously reserved for theme camp placement. In 2014, there were 1027 placed theme camps, villages and camps within villages. Only 58 additional camps completed questionnaires and were not placed. If you add art project support camps, staff camps and others, we placed over 1250 camps in 2014, making plug-and-play camps approximately 1% of the total number of placed camps.
Why were so many plug and play camps placed on K Street?
We placed plug and play camps in several locations throughout Black Rock City, one of which was on K Street. We placed them near the “public plazas” at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock in areas not reserved for theme camps, as we believed they would draw life and attention to the outer streets of BRC and possibly create civic space together.
Did plug and play camps pay a fee to get placed?
No. The placement process doesn’t have anything to do with money. Placement is decided by a group of volunteers who make decisions based on a specific set of criteria. No one can pay for preferential placement. No one can pay or make a donation to the Burning Man Project for preferential placement.
If plug and play camps are going to get placement, shouldn’t they have to demonstrate what they are contributing to BRC?
Yes. All camps that receive resources from the organization must demonstrate their contribution to the broader community. For 2015, all camps (other than infrastructure support camps) will be held to the same standards in order to receive placement, early arrival passes and access to the Directed Group Sale (see below for details).
Burning Man Project Board of Directors
What about allegations of wrongdoing by members of the Burning Man Project Board of Directors?
The Burning Man Project board is made up of 18 individuals representing a cross section of the Burner community. It includes the six Burning Man founders, leaders in business, nonprofits, the public sector, artists and a Burning Man Regional Contact.
Several board members have built and lead camps and other projects at the event – in 2014 and in past years. These are entirely personal projects; the Burning Man organization was in no way involved with the production of these camps and the camps were required to follow the same processes and procedures as all other camps at the event.
Being a member of the Burning Man Project Board does not grant any authority to make decisions about, or influence the operations of, the Burning Man event. This also applies to resources at the event.
Regarding Tickets – We have eliminated the Burning Man Project Donation Ticket Program. Ticket sale information for the 2015 event will be announced before the end of 2014. Please read the Jackrabbit Speaks or check tickets.burningman.org for updates.
Regarding Placement – Other than event infrastructure camps, all camps will be held to the same standards of inclusion and participation regardless of how the camp is structured. All camps will be evaluated according to the following criteria:
- Camps should be visually stimulating, have an inviting design and a plan for bike parking and crowd management.
- Camps must be interactive. They should include activities, events or services within their camps and they must be available to the entire Burning Man community.
- Camps must be neighborly. This includes keeping sound within set limits, controlling where camp generators vent exhaust, and easily resolving any boundary disputes that arise.
- Camps must have a good previous MOOP record (for returning camps).
- Camps must follow safety protocols designed by the organization (this includes traffic management on the streets, proper handling of fuels, and any other areas defined by the organization’s production team).
Post event, all placed and registered camps will be reviewed on the criteria above, as well as MOOP score and strain on resources (whether a camp requires extra BRC infrastructure support, which could include undue communication or interactions with Rangers, DPW or the playa restoration team). Camps that have received negative feedback will be contacted in the Fall after the event, and will have to make substantial changes to their camp plans if they are to qualify for placement or the Directed Group Sale the following year. Camps found advertising are violating principles and cultural norms and will not be placed.
Regarding streets lined with RVs – We will strongly encourage camps to explore visual creativity and lighting options along streets to make them more welcoming, interesting and engaging for pedestrians.
Regarding entry to BRC and Early Arrival passes – All ticket-holding participants enter either through Gate Road or the BRC airport. There have never been special Gate Road lanes for members of theme camps, and there will be none in the future. There is no “concierge camp” fast lane, nor is there a fast lane for any other camp. We are exploring the possibility of making early entry passes non-transferrable for 2015, but need additional time to examine the administrative and operational impacts.
Regarding Outside Services – All outside service providers that pay for credentials pay the exact same rate for those credentials. There are no special “VIP” credentials available for higher prices. As a result of comments from 2014, we are reviewing all of our contract terms to determine whether there are additional ways we can continue holding Outside Services permit holders to the highest standards of behavior.
Regarding DMV licenses – All mutant vehicles are subject to the same licensing process. Every vehicle on the playa is taken to the DMV for licensing and is subject to the same licensing criteria, no matter the owner’s resources or connections off playa. In 2014, we heard of the rumor, but can find no evidence internally that any camp received handicapped stickers for non-disabled golf carts or other conveyances.