RENO, Nev. — Burners returning to the playa today may find a more egalitarian Black Rock City after last year's backlash over what some believe are violations of the 10 Burning Man principles.
In recent years, a portion of Burners have turned to "plug-and-play" camping, which requires little effort other than the payment of money to a camp. The camps are set up by hired staff, serviced by hired staff and taken down by the same.
Burners say such turn-key camps conflict with the principles of self-reliance, participation and inclusion. Social media was brimming with discussion about class and wealth inequality, and rumors even surfaced about pranks upon the plug-and-play camps this year.
"Last year, it was more out in the open. If there are plug-and-play camps this year, they're not talking about it," said Beth Lillie, who became a Burner celebrity last year when she exposed what was going on behind the scenes at plug-and-play camps.
Lillie described being a "sherpa" worker for the Caravancicle Camp in a blog post in September.
She called the camp a "disaster" and said the participants didn't clean up their trash or respect the people working there. Jim Tananbaum, who ran the camp, resigned from the Burning Man board in April without explanation from the Burning Man organization.
"I think if you enter these plug-and-play camps, it can take away from the experience. It can cause (disruption)," Lillie told the Reno Gazette-Journal on Tuesday.
She only stayed at the camp for a few days before she quit. Still, she was disturbed by the assortment of other plug-and-play camps she found while at Burning Man.
"I don't remember what this camp was but it had Persian rugs, it had a bar. The guy that was there, that was bartending, he was miserable. It was so weird, I had never seen anyone that was like that," said Lillie, who is returning to the event this year.
Aside from Burners' own social media storm about plug-and-play, Burning Man also has expressed opposition to elements of plug-and-play, though it has not outlawed the style of camping, yet.
Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell addressed regional Burning Man leaders at the Global Leadership Conference in March, saying the organization was "absolutely committed to ceasing the plug-and-play culture."
In May, organizers contacted Festivals Concierge Services, a European company that breached Burning Man's policy by offering Black Rock City VIP services on its website, where they advertised a packaged, luxury Burning Man experience.
"This is all completely unauthorized by the Burning Man organization," Burning Man organizers stated at the time.
However, publicity about the plug-and-play camps increased business for Festivals Concierge Service, a company offering assistance to Burning Man attendees. Antoine Sepulchre, the company's founder and CEO, said he's seen an uptick in interest from potential attendees who want to participate but aren't sure where to start.
Festivals Concierge Service helps "place" customers into specific theme camps, with prices ranging from $200 to $25,000 — on top of the ticket price, which can range from $390 to whatever the secondary market will bear — depending on what the camp offers. While cash is generally not used at Burning Man, theme camps may seek financial contributions from attendees to cover everything from hot showers to world-renowned DJ appearances. Sepulchre said his company is stressing to clients — last year a Saudi prince was among his customers — that they'll still have to actively participate in Burning Man.
"We can help prepare, help them understand what's going to on, what they need to do to prepare, but one they're there they have to manage everything for themselves," said Sepulchre, who will be attending for his fourth year. "If there are only plug-and-play communities, Burning Man would die."
Burning Man asserted that it would take several steps to protect the nonprofit's principles. According to a May blog post, Burning Man planned to:
—Notify outside and air carrier services that they would be denied access to Burning Man were they to do business with any concierge services. Also notify mutant vehicle services and operators that they were not to provide services or camping to concierge services companies.
—Restructure the outside services program, though it was unclear how Burning Man was doing this.
—Notify the Bureau of Land Management that concierge service companies had no contract with Burning Man and were not to be granted permits to operate.
—Work with the ticketing team to prevent concierge services companies from purchasing tickets to resell to clients, though it was also unclear how Burning Man was doing this.
Whether the steps taken will make a difference at this year's event remains to be seen, as there is only so much that Burning Man can do considering that much of the business aspect of plug-and-plays takes place off-site.
Not to mention, there have long been "lavish" camps at Burning Man, but ones that were put together by volunteering camp members, according to Megan Miller, a spokeswoman for Burning Man.
"We're hopeful the policies we put into place after last year will have a positive impact, and we'll continue our acculturation efforts to make sure participants are getting immersed in the Burning Man ethos," Miller said.
Some companies, regardless of whether they have to, have been working to make sure that Burning Man does not get up in arms over their operations.
"We only work with companies that are approved by Burning Man," said Ryan Geist, CEO of Burner Air, in June.
Burner Air books flights for Burners who want to fly directly to the playa for Burning Man.
While Burner Air, just one of the many services that cater to Burners who want more convenient ways to travel and live during the week of Burning Man, works primarily to connect Burners and charter flight pilots during the event, the company works festivals throughout the year. The majority of clients are wealthy and many are international, Geist said.
The majority of plug-and-play campers are wealthy considering the high participation fees that campers often are required to pay if they choose the plug-and-play way; many also are newer to attending Burning Man.
"The amount of established knowledge, in particular camps, is lower. For the virtual pop-up camps that don't exist until the day they arrive, they have no cultural information," said Nina Horne, social policy consultant who has been following Burning Man's evolution for the past three years. She noted that most veteran Burners do not stay in plug-and-play camps because they hold the principles so dear.
"The people who have the oral history and the oral knowledge have been limited from sharing with their own camps and certainly beyond their own camps."