Moguls, Deals And Patagonia Vests: A Look Inside ‘Summer Camp For Billionaires’

Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Vice President of Partnerships Dan Rose and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg walk together at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in July 2018 in Sun Valley, Idaho. Top tech and media moguls descend on the resort every year for a week of activities — and deals.

It sounds like your typical summer camp: a week of tennis, long hikes and whitewater rafting in an idyllic setting.

Except in this particular summer camp, in Sun Valley, Idaho, participants are set to arrive in private jets, and in between all the leisure activities, they may just plot some of the biggest deals in media and tech.

Welcome to what’s known as “summer camp for billionaires.”

This week, the top executives at the biggest and most influential companies in tech and media, including Apple’s Tim Cook and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, will get together at the Sun Valley Resort, a getaway that dates back to 1936, in a tiny town by the Sawtooth Mountains.

It was suspended last year because of the pandemic. But this year, these top moguls are traveling again to Sun Valley for an annual weeklong gathering organized by a boutique investment firm called Allen & Company that is known as intensely private. The firm doesn’t have a website, and, of course, it didn’t respond to NPR’s request for an interview.

Run by the same family since it was founded in 1922, Allen & Co. may be small, but it has developed some deep relationships that have led to roles in some of the biggest tech and media deals and initial public offerings in the last half decades.

It was an adviser in Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable, a $45 billion deal that ultimately failed, and Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp for $19 billion. Allen & Co. was an underwriter on Google’s and Facebook’s IPOs.

And for almost 40 years, its annual Sun Valley conference has been central to its mission.

Allen & Co. takes care of everything, from the accommodations to the entertainment, and they attract a who’s who of the tech and media world. Regulars have included Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, and Oprah Winfrey.

This week, the aggregate wealth of the men and women staying at the Sun Valley Resort is likely to reach more than $1 trillion.

“It really is elitism on full display,” says media analyst Colin Gillis, the head of research at Chatham Road Partners. “But actually, it’s a very private event; so, I shouldn’t say ‘on full display.'”

The Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference is a spectacle. The dress code is casual and outdoorsy. Power suits are out, and fleece vests – often Patagonia – are standard.

During the day, there are activities galore: tennis matches and golf games, hikes in the Sawtooth Mountains, and rafting trips down the Salmon River.

But this is more than just a week of fun or a week to unwind.

Prominent politicians – including heads of state – give talks and take questions. Mike Pompeo attended when he was the head of the C.I.A., and Mauricio Macri was a guest when he was the president of Argentina. Then, at night, there are cocktail parties and lavish dinners.

And participants are not wined and dined by just any banker. Among Allen & Co.’s deal makers are prominent former members of Congress, including Rep. Will Hurd and Sen. Bill Bradley, and George Tenet, the former director of the C.I.A.

These are “folks at the prime of their careers, with all the relationships already built,” says Drew Pascarella, an associate dean at Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business.

The Sun Valley conference has gained such importance that analysts and investors pore over photos of conference participants, looking for clues about what could be the next big deal in media and tech.

It is an unorthodox business strategy that has been very good for Allen & Co.’s bottom line. That’s because the gathering is geared towards one thing: building relationships that may one day pay off in the shape of a major deal.

Bezos reportedly decided to buy “The Washington Post” when he was in Sun Valley.

“They’ve organized the biggest matchmaking service for media companies,” says Steven Davidoff Solomon, the head of the Berkeley Center for Law and Business.

And Allen & Co., expects to take a cut from any deals that emerge from that week of fun in the sun.

“It culminates in a large fee when the time is right,” Pascarella says.

“They are 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,” Pascarella adds.

That is the model on which Allen & Co. built its business, and it’s how it continues to operate.

So, in between gawking at top executives in casual clothes, playing tennis or golf or riding horses, keep this in mind: Next time there’s a transformative deal in media or tech, odds are it may have been hatched during a whirlwind week at a luxury resort in Central Idaho.

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