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Inside the yearly ‘summer camp for billionaires’ for Silicon Valley execs and media bigwigs


If the net worth in Sun Valley, Idaho, spiked this week, there’s one likely source: Allen & Company’s annual conference that began on Wednesday. Informally known as “summer camp for billionaires,” it’s a whos-who of Silicon Valley execs, media power figures, other elite CEOs, and even political leaders. They flock to the Sun Valley Resort for four days every year to unwind, network, and golf. Last year, the total wealth of those attending the conference was reportedly more than $1 trillion. 

But rather than trading friendship bracelets or singing by the campfire, these campers are busy making deals. Famed regulars include Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Apple’s Tim Cook, Disney’s Bob Iger, and OpenAI’s Sam Altman are some of the many names who settled in the midwest for a short stint this week. 

The nearby Friedman Memorial Airport calls it an “annual fly-in event,” per Idaho Mountain Express, as many fly in on their private jets (an increasingly controversial mode of transportation). But not a whole lot is known about the event, which is closed to the press and notoriously private, just like the boutique investment bank that hosts it (Allen & Co. did not respond to Fortune‘s request for comment).

Here’s what we do know. 

How did the Sun Valley Conference start?

Allen & Co. began hosting the famed weekly Idaho excursion in 1983, decades after Charles Robert Allen, Jr. founded the firm in 1922. The family business is just as elusive as the event it hosts. “On Wall Street, where consolidation has been the rule, family firms are a scarce commodity,” Fortune’s own Carol Lomis wrote in 2004. “To say the firm is unusual would be an understatement.” 

Keeping the business small gave an elite feel to the firm, as Alice Schroeder explained in the biography she wrote, “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.” It “made the firm a partner rather than a mere servant to its clients, who were the elite of Hollywood and the media world,” she wrote. Former president of the company, Herbert Allen created a shroud of exclusivity so that “his guests felt privileged, rather than like captives pitched by salesmen at every turn.”

Sun Valley Lodge hosts some of the biggest CEOs every summer.

Courtesy of Sun Valley Resort Photographer: Steve Dondero

Only 35 guests attended the inaugural conference, who then CEO Allen Jr. allegedly had to beg to join, according to the Wall Street Journal. Today, the yearly conference is a major part of the company’s brand, showing off who Allen & Co. knows and who they can connect. The company’s bread and butter is “forging long-lasting and lucrative relationships with corporate leaders,” Loomis noted, adding that these relationships are the key to its success. “Almost everything about the Allens’ world signals wealth.”

What happens at camp?

The Sun Valley Conference’s agenda is never public, it has your classic upscale camp activities: hiking, rafting, and golfing, Loomis wrote—only billionaires are on the playground instead, and there’s an agenda reportedly chock full of lectures, too. At night, there are typically cocktail parties and dinners.

It’s a place where connections are made and where Allen & Co. wheels and deals with brand names like Coca-Cola, Google, Ferrari, and LinkedIn. It’s reportedly where Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, Comcast bought NBC Universal, and where the Disney and ABC merger went down. Yet, Deadline’s Dade Hayes points out that the conference isn’t as lush with deals as it’s been portrayed; it’s more about laying the groundwork.

Allen & Co. is “capable of sitting and waiting and building a long-term relationship with a client with the hopes of doing a deal every four or five years,” Drew Pascarella, senior lecturer of finance at Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management, told NPR of the firm’s business model, adding that it “culminates in a large fee when the time is right.”

The conference is ruled by “unspoken hierarchies,” Schroeder wrote in the Buffett biography, where guests practice elephant bumping—a phrase coined by Buffett’s friends in which high-profile people get together to check each other. By being next to an “elephant,” or A-lister, you were one too, and the fact that you could only attend if you were invited made it all the more reassuring, she added. 

Where does everyone stay?

The general vibe seems to be, unsurprisingly, decadent. Attendees stay in the luxuriously rustic Sun Valley Lodge, which bills itself as “the country’s first destination ski resort” (the lodge declined Fortune‘s request for comment). The cabins are anything but simple, with warmly decorated suites often furnished with a fireplace, walk-in closets, and granite floors.

The atrium of Sun Valley Lodge.

Courtesy of Sun Valley Resort.

The resort has a 20,000-square-foot spa, pool, bowling lane, and café, according to its website. There’s a fitness center for those not satisfied by just the outdoors, where guests can take part in activities like skiing and ice skating in the winter and horseback riding and fly fishing in the summer.

Who’s at camp this year? 

The guest list for the Sun Valley Conference is one of the only things publicly available about the famously confidential and exclusive event. On it this year are Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, Discovery’s David Zaslav, and Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai, to name just a few. Etch A Sketch artist Christoph Brown was also spotted in Idaho this week.

Spotted: Alphabet Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai.

David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

But this year, tech and media executives are coming together during a contentious time for their industries, to say the least. Some have issued rounds of layoffs and have fallen under heat for overpaying themselves while not meeting the demands of their unions. They’re also contemplating the impact of a possible recession and inflationary pressures that have created an economic climate that might make deals harder to come by. Disney’s up-in-the air ownership with Hulu, CNN’s quest for a new leader, unmonitored A.I., and the Writer’s Guild Strike are just a few things that have likely come into focus this week.

“It really is elitism on full display,” Colin Gillis, a media analyst and VP of Investor Relations at Kaleyra, told NPR. “But actually, it’s a very private event; so, I shouldn’t say ‘on full display.’” 



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