“Burning Man” is a celebration of creativity and community that pops up for nine days every year before Labor Day in the Nevada desert. (Turn right at Reno, go about 100 miles, and when it looks like you’re actually driving on the moon, you’re there.) It started as a simple bonfire for a handful of creatives on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. Since then, it’s become a see-and-be-seen destination for 70,000 social media influencers, celebrities, and Silicon Valley billionaires, with $425 tickets and the “guest of honor” standing up to 105 feet high before the ceremonial Saturday night burn.
Burning Man champions decidedly anti-capitalist values like “decommodification,” “giving,” and “communal effort.” “Burners” have to schlep in their own food, water, and shelter, and leave no trace when they leave. They can’t use cash with each other at the event. (Cash? It’s 2019.) But those rules don’t stop tech titans like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk from dropping millions to helicopter in for luxury RVs, private chefs, and even concierge services to set up camp, then break it all down. Imagine “the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills go camping,” and you get the picture.
If that sort of flamboyant spending sounds like something our friends in Camp IRS would frown on, well, trust your gut. But like it or not, the IRS is helping foot the Burning Man bill, as Bloomberg magazine suggests in a recent article, “Going to Burning Man — and Expensing It.”
Plenty of Bay Area companies send staffers to pitch camp for CEOs and higher-level execs who attend the event for networking, PR, and business development. Bloomberg quotes one organizer whose first job at a social network startup involved buying tickets, renting trucks and RVs to build a camp, and arranging for 11 people to fly in from London to the event. Those are generally deductible business travel expenses, so long as they aren’t lavish or extraordinary. (It’s hard to argue that a desert camp without water is “lavish.”)
But now some companies are encouraging employees to attend together simply to spur creativity and community at work. They even invite employees to file the tickets on their expense reports. We can assume those same companies will wind up passing those expenses on to the reports they file with the IRS. But hey, if stuffy Fortune 500 giants can write off sending cube monkeys to mind-numbing HR training in drab hotel conference rooms, why shouldn’t hip tech startups get to write off sending the “talent” into the desert?
These companies see Burning Man as a valuable team-building exercise. But Bloomberg suggests they might want to keep a close eye on how far they take those teams. One camp offers clothing-optional group showers which, admittedly, sound like a real luxury in a community with no running water. Of course, any manager who sends his team to that camp is probably begging for a #MeToo violation, and paying extra to have it overnighted. (They might want to steer employees away from the recreational psychedelics, too.)
Having said all that, the IRS may actually break even now that gentrification has reached the white-hot Burning Man sands. Any time the tech bros start flying in models from New York, you can be sure there will be too much income flying in, too. And the IRS will be happy to claim their share. You just don’t want them claiming it from you. We can help you create some nice new deductions before your next employee retreat. So call us before you spend, and don’t be shy about inviting us, too!