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article imageFrito Pies and Free Beer: Digital Journal Goes to Dell Country

By Mike Drach     Jul 8, 2003 in Lifestyle
Digital Journal – In the end of June, the Dell Computer Corporation held a two-day media conference at their headquarters in Austin, Texas. More than 50 journalists from around the world were invited to attend a series of seminars, panels, presentations and interviews with the Dell brass. The intention behind the event, which must have been a costly and strenuous affair, was never made clear. When all was said and done, it’s still tough to say why it was held. Here is my account:
Day one: I arrive at the Marriott North Hotel in Round Rock from the airport, one day before the conference starts. Round Rock is a suburb north of Austin known primarily for its recent exponential growth, characterized by a terrifying cluster of sparkly white strip malls and a water tower that reads “” The city’s growth is entirely connected to the construction of Dell’s massive, sprawling campus in 1994, a stretch of grey and blue buildings that house the Dell direct-sales empire.
Because I came from Canada, I’m one of the first reporters to arrive; as it turns out, I’d be among the last to leave. I soon discover that sightseeing will not be an option. After calling my family, my editor, and someone from Dell’s PR, I settle into my king-sized bed, turn the air-conditioning to the max and order room service.
Satiated by American television, I unsuccessfully hit on the receptionist and take a short walk through the oppressive, sauna-like heat to a parking-lot carnival. Mexican families stroll around; everything smells fried. Frito pie, I’m delighted to discover, actually exists.
Day two: I meet with the Latin American contingent for breakfast and shopping, before the 1:30 conference begins. I’ve been “buddied up” with this group because there are no real Canadian Dell representatives around, and this was as close as it gets.
We pile into a shuttle bus driving us to, I believe, 1 Dell Way. The driver talks about the weather, and how he was attacked by scorpions the night before. My new amigos are chatting to each other in Spanish. Behind me, a couple of Brits comment on the “uninspiring” suburban homes endlessly straggled along the highway: uniform, unadorned, light brown and beige.
We enter a huge boardroom with oversized mahogany tables and Don Corleone-approved leather office chairs. I can’t believe how many journalists showed up, and that I’m the only one wearing a tie. Later I was told, “We don’t do ties in Austin.” Michael Dell himself was indeed tieless. Some of the British reporters were even wearing ratty T-shirts and jeans, taking “business casual” to bold new heights.
Senior vice president John Hamlin is the first speaker. He points out Dell’s incredible growth in recent years, its reputation as the second-most admired brand in the U.S. (Sony is first), its well-received computer recycling initiative, and its continuing, unprecedented success in the Asian marketplace. If it wasn’t presented so matter-of-factly, it might have been perceived as gloating.
Chief marketing officer Michael George speaks next, followed by a panel of everyday Dell enthusiasts which includes Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and a local woman who raises goats. The most uncomfortable moment of the day comes when one of the Brits asks the panel if they’re being paid to be there. They’re not.
Michael Dell speaks last. He comes across as friendly, if a bit cagey and unimpressed. Neither Dell, nor anyone else announces anything resembling a strategy or product release for the future. The company is very cautious in that respect, as Dell explains, only affixing their name to something once they can prove its popularity, and somehow differentiate or standardize it. As the Colombian guy sitting next to me points out, the company is a “marketing leader, but a technology follower.” I’m surprised he’s talking to me at all, after all the jokes I made when he said he wanted a Coke.
Later, we’re shipped even deeper into the jungles of suburbia, to visit Dell’s version of the “digital home.” It’s not quite the radio-controlled pillowcases and sassy-talkin’ toasters I was expecting, but each room in this Dell employee’s house is decked out with some sort of Dell-branded technology. There is also plenty of nouveau Texan food, drinks, and old-school video game consoles.
Two TiVo units are networked between a kid’s bedroom and the family room, allowing them to share digitally recorded television, mp3s and digital photography. On the Dell flat-panel monitors, we see demonstrations of their MusicMatch Jukebox service and Picture Studio software. State-of-the-art computers are installed in every room. One little girl’s bedroom was used to exhibit Dell’s new McAfee SecurityCenter offering; I felt a bit strange drinking a Guinness in there.
We leave the climate-controlled house into the brutally muggy evening. A Venezuelan PR lady takes a couple of us downtown and treats me to a Flaming Dr Pepper (lite beer, rum, amaretto), a specialty of the Austin nightlife scene. When I get back to my hotel room, there are nuts, pralines and peach-scented soap waiting for me on the desk, which I drunkenly consume.
Day three: More presentations and touring of the facilities, more heat, more room service and much more local television.
Day four: Shuttle to airport, duty-free whiskey, flight home. I’m left with nothing but good thoughts about the world's leading direct computer systems company.
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