Here's A Peek Inside Sun Valley's 'Summer Camp For Billionaires'
Updated August 20, 2021 at 11:08 AM ET
It's unlike any summer camp you have heard of.
After a one-year hiatus, hundreds of the world's most powerful people in tech, media and markets once again made a pilgrimage to Sun Valley, Idaho, to attend an exclusive conference organized by the investment bank Allen & Company.
Widely known as "summer camp for billionaires," participants from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to Apple's Tim Cook gathered for a week of outdoor activities like hiking and tennis – and of course, networking and plenty of dealmaking.
Because of the pandemic, the family-run investment firm cancelled the event last year for the first time in its history. This year, Allen & Co. seemed determined to pick up right where it left off. Or as close to it as possible.
Here are five takeaways from the 38th Sun Valley conference:
The pandemic changes things
It was easy to see signs of the pandemic reality all around, and how it has changed our notion of what's normal.
Participants in this year's conference had to be fully vaccinated, and upon arrival, everyone had to take a COVID-19 test. In the lobby of the Sun Valley Lodge, nurses from the world-renowned Mayo Clinic were on hand to administer them.
Because of the pandemic, more of the conference's proceedings were held outside. Programming took place in the Sun Valley Pavilion, an open-air amphitheater, against the backdrop of Dollar Mountain. Billionaires broke bread at tables near a pond outside the Sun Valley Inn.
Perhaps the most noticeable change had to do with children, or rather, the lack thereof.
Allen & Co. has usually been a family-friendly affair, and that has added to its can't-miss event status for moguls. In years past, the investment firm would organize trips to the pool, parties on Sun Valley Lake and games for children, and Allen & Co. would hire dozens of local teenagers to work as babysitters.
Not this year.
Because of pandemic restrictions, children were not allowed. Their absence made the event feel more subdued than in years past.
But then again, some things never change
It is "summer camp" after all, albeit for a rarefied set of people.
As usual, most participants traveled by private jets. Before the conference got underway, the manager of the Friedman Memorial Airport in nearby Hailey, Idaho, said he expected more than 90 private planes. On Thursday, several dozen of them were visible.
As in years past, there were lavish lunches and dinners, albeit al fresco. Caterers took over a restaurant in the middle of the resort to prepare meals. There were also plenty of opportunities for golf and kayaking, or just strolling to take in the mountain air.
And of course, there was also the dealmaking, all of it behind closed doors — or more accurately, behind high hedge trees and heavy security.
After all, Allen & Co. pays for the whole event with the understanding that it will eventually get a cut of any deal that emerges from its conference.
It's reported the AOL-Time Warner deal was hatched at the conference. So was Walt Disney's purchase of CapCities/ABC, and Comcast's deal for NBCUniversal.
This year's conference came soon after Discovery announced a deal to buy WarnerMedia, which includes CNN, HBO and Warner Bros.
So who was there this year?
Invites to the conference are highly coveted among tech titans and media moguls, but the conference's guest list doesn't change that much from year to year.
In fact, one of the favorite pastimes is to see who's spotted with whom. This week, for example, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos was seen walking with NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell.
Outside the Sun Valley Lodge, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell chatted with Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots.
When video game maker Activision Blizzard's CEO, Bobby Kotick, arrived at the resort, the founder of Imagine Entertainment, Brian Grazer, gave him a big hug.
Then there's the appearances that attract speculation for other reasons.
Only hours after The New York Times published an upcoming book excerpt describing a supposed falling out between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, the two executives appeared together, smiling and presenting a united front, in front of a group of photographers.
And often, the no-shows can attract as much attention as those who are there. Rupert Murdoch didn't make the trip this year, for example.
A big question was whether Bezos would make an appearance. It was no wonder why: He just handed over the reins of the company to a new CEO, Andy Jassy, and he is preparing to embark on a trip to space later this month.
In the end, the lure of Sun Valley was too strong, apparently. On Thursday, he and his girlfriend, Lauren Sánchez, strolled past a group of journalists gathered outside the Sun Valley Lodge. (Jassy also made it to the conference.)
Sshh... It's off-the-record
For reporters, the Allen & Co. Sun Valley Conference is a strange event to cover. Reporters and photographers are only allowed to ask questions and take pictures from a handful of "press pens" — small, fenced-in areas outside the Sun Valley Lodge and near the Sun Valley Inn.
Because so much of the conference took place outside this year, reporters were kept even farther away than usual. There appeared to be more security, and participants seemed less inclined to interact with journalists.
But of course, moguls have products and services to sell, and you can't do that without some media exposure. CNBC set up a studio on the side of a nearby mountain, and a several attendees sat down for interviews, including Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.
NPR scored its own exclusive interview with IAC Chairman Barry Diller, in which he argued the movie business "is over."
And at time when some journalists can be as famous, or even more famous than some of the participants, it's natural that some members of the media would attend not to cover the events, but to hobknob as participants.
Among members of the media attending the event were CNN's Anderson Cooper and Van Jones; Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times and CNBC; CBS News's Gayle King; and The Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
And then there's the Sun Valley fashion
Of course, no writeup of the Allen & Co. Sun Valley Conference would be complete without a reference to fashion – or the lack of it, depending on one's perspective.
Part of what makes it so unique is the dress code. Never mind if you are world-famous. Almost everyone wears casual clothes and a simple name tag.
In years past, Allen & Co. gave each participant a Patagonia fleece — a vest or a jacket, with the bank's logo embroidered on the chest. This year, perhaps because Patagonia has decided to stop adding corporate logos to its clothing, fleece was out.
Instead on chilly mornings, guests wore puffier outerwear. WndrCo CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, for example, wore a navy vest from the brand Zero Restriction, and so did Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino and The Home Depot founder Ken Langone.
And of course, this being the top brass of tech, there were the hoodies, like the one spotted by 79-year-old Diller.
Whether Sun Valley or hoodies, some trends, as they say, never go out of fashion.
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