SAN FRANCISCO -- The

Ritz-Carlton

hotel was stinking with secrets.

I could smell them even before I walked in.

Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette

was hosting its

Internet Conference

here, and the press wasn't invited. And where the press is barred, the place has got to be seething with juicy tidbits.

I was patient. I bided my time. I loitered but didn't skulk. I staked out a number of strategic posts in the hotel. I was accosted by a lot of overly energetic Ritz employees, who insisted on trying to help me find my way.

First Post: The Terrace Cafe.

Somewhere in the Ritz, Steve Case was bellowing away his game plan for

America Online

(AOL)

in a keynote speech. Meanwhile, I sat down casually next to a group of businessmen hoping to overhear their investment agenda for the day. No such luck. They got up just moments after I was seated.

Waiting for another chance to eavesdrop, I ordered a pot of tea and a bagel with raspberry jam. I soon decided this spot wasn't panning out with the kind of investor information I'd hoped for, so I sipped up my tea down to the leaves, wiped the bagel crumbs off my lapel, and paid my check. Wow, $7.97 -- this is the high life.

Second Post: The lobby outside the Terrace Cafe.

On my way upstairs, I happened upon some more suits. As it turned out, they were the CEO and CFO of

Realtor.com

, one of the private companies presenting at 10:30 a.m. I made my move. "Does this mean you're getting ready for your IPO?" I asked. "I can't comment on that," said Stuart Wolff, the company CEO. "You probably knew I'd say that." Just the facts, Stuart.

Third Post: Stage left, the Ritz lobby.

Case's 55-minute keynote address was just about over and I was hoping to catch some juicy tidbits from those heading to the lobby to get a better cell-phone connection.

The lobby was less than bustling, but several attendees came out of the elevators with phones pressed against their ears. Mark Koulogeorge, the managing director at

First Analysis Venture Capital

who broke the fashion protocol with a tan sweater, paced around the lobby with his phone before heading back to the third floor, a sanctuary from the prying press.

"The AOL presentation was underwhelming," Koulogeorge said. "I answered a lot of email during that one." He said Case told the group that AOL signed up 180,000 customers in the week after Christmas. He said Case also reiterated that AOL shoppers had spent $1.2 billion with AOL partners in the fourth quarter.

"I'll try and steal a badge for you," said Koulogeorge. He never showed up again.

"I'll try and steal a badge for you," said venture capitalist Mark Koulogeorge.

Fourth Post: Stage right, the Ritz lobby.

This side was a bit busier with hotel guests, and it was harder to nonchalantly intercept fund managers and investors heading from the elevators to the main door.

I caught up with Marco Herrmann, a sleepy-eyed money manager for

BKG

in Munich. He was having an extra hard time adjusting to the nine-hour time difference in the wake of the

GeoCities

(GCTY)

presentation from CEO Thomas Evans.

"He said they have 29 million homesteaders, and that's not far behind

Yahoo!'s

(YHOO)

35 million registered users." Now Herrmann was contemplating the $300 price difference in stock prices. Yahoo stands at 368; GeoCities at 69. Finally, we're getting somewhere.

It was easy to spot the attendees. They're the only ones who'd dare carry the DLJ standard-issue canvas bags: dopey green-strapped, cream-colored things that look like hell with a dark suit, slightly better with a tan sweater. "I'm here to review business models and shake hands," said a money manager, who's owned Internet stocks for three years. Some of his favorites include

Sterling Commerce

(SE) - Get Report

,

Exodus Communications

(EXDS)

and

Verisign

(VRSN) - Get Report

. Of the companies presenting at the conference, he was most interested in seeing

Entrust Technologies

(ENTU)

, a Verisign competitor, and

Excite

(XCIT)

.

As for the day's presenters? It didn't matter to this guy as long as it was Internet-related. "They're here to sell their stock," he said, "and I'm here to buy." But as of 9:40 a.m., this manager had not seen any presentations. "I couldn't get out of bed. I had too many Irish coffees last night." Irish coffees? And DLJ is letting

him

in?

Fifth Post: Continental Breakfast Zone.

Switching strategy, I decided to see who was taking advantage of the Ritz's breakfast set-up. I happened upon a DLJ employee pecking away at the keyboard of his laptop computer. When I asked him why reporters weren't allowed into the presentations, he said, "Maybe it raises the fervor, the curiosity level." Well, I'm hanging out in a hotel lobby, so apparently it's working for the press.

Sixth Post: Terrace Cafe.

At lunchtime I headed toward the cafe with Emmy Sobieski, a portfolio manager for

Nicholas-Applegate

. We got stopped by an overenthusiastic DLJ employee who wanted to ensure that no one heads to the free lunch without the appropriate pass.

Sobieski was also interested in the private companies at the conference. She said the big e-commerce winners will be the companies that sell goods without holding inventory. "That's the beauty of

eBay

(EBAY) - Get Report

."

Back at the Fourth Post.

I met up with Josaphat Tango, who works for the VC firm

Highland Capital Partners

. Tango's firm invested in

eToys

and

NextCard

, an online credit card processing company. As for eToys, "it's not 'if' an IPO, but 'when.' "

He talks as one who has known the Net rapture, mentioning

Amazon.com

(AMZN) - Get Report

in exalted tones, talking of shifting tides in commerce. "There's been a great turnout. Given the retail interest of e-commerce, it's not a question any more of will this take off," he said, "but which one to back." He also says there's nothing secretive happening on the third floor.

Nothing secretive -- hmm. Maybe that odor just belonged to the residue of too many Irish coffees.