Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Technology summit kicks off today

Heavy-hitters return to Sun Valley for annual Allen & Co. conference

Investment titan Warren Buffett and his wife, Astrid, walk outside of the Sun Valley Inn at last year’s Allen & Co. conference. Express file photo

Express Staff Writers

The tarmac at Friedman Memorial Airport is filling up with polished private jets. Elite restaurants in and around Sun Valley have stocked up on culinary treats and fine wines. Residents up and down the Wood River Valley have cleared their calendar for the week to take on odd jobs.

And while most everyone knows what the buzz is about, only a handful know who might be discussing what this week at investment banker Herbert Allen Jr.'s 30th annual conference of media and technology moguls. The conference starts today, July 11, and continues through Saturday, July 14, concluding with dinner and a chance to attend the Sun Valley Ice Show.

At Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, sleek jets are parked side by side next to the posh private terminal.

"We have no parking problems yet, but we do anticipate being very busy later in the week," Rick Baird, the airport's manager, said Monday.

Held at Sun Valley Resort each July, the conference has in the past hosted business and entertainment titans such as Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, Ted Turner and Tom Hanks. This year, Allen—who heads his own New York City-based firm called Allen & Co. and owns a residence in Sun Valley—has composed another grand list of guests. According to Bloomberg News, billionaires Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg will attend, along with a long list of executives linked to "new media" companies, including Nextdoor, Evernote and Uber. Google Chair Eric Schmidt, CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, News Corp. Chair and CEO Rupert Murdoch and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are also scheduled to attend, according to Bloomberg News.

Most guests started arriving earlier this week. Through Saturday, they will participate in a flurry of activities planned months in advance, including golf, tennis, hiking, fly fishing, yoga, knitting and whitewater rafting.

For the executives, however, the focus is on closed-door forums in the Limelight Room convention center. Highlights from this year's schedule include a discussion about "China in Transition" on Thursday moderated by retired news anchorman Brokaw. On Friday, journalist Charlie Rose is scheduled to interview Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti. On Saturday, former CIA chief George Tenet is scheduled to interview current CIA Director David Petraeus, and talk-show icon Oprah Winfrey will interview investment guru Buffett.

And while Allen & Co. generally picks up the extraordinary tab for the event, company executives hope the heavy doses of clean, mountain air and leisure activities will foster something other than summertime relaxation. What they're really after is a share of earth-shattering business deals that might take place.

Security for the event is tight. No press releases are issued, and only a select few outsiders—all of whom are instructed to keep quiet about the goings on—are allowed to view or participate in the events. Journalists are restricted from getting too close to the hub of activity, the Sun Valley Inn, where the conference center is located.

Typically, Wood River Valley residents—many of whom have been screened and hired by Allen & Co. to serve the guests as drivers, baby-sitters, caterers and tour guides—oblige in the company's requests to keep the event as low-profile as possible. In return, local employees earn steep hourly wages and generous end-of-the-week tips.

All the local employees are screened to ensure they will not be a security risk, and even baby-sitters are asked to sign confidentiality agreements assuring they will not divulge information on conferees.

This year, some of the pre-conference scuttlebutt has focused on the music-video website Vevo, which is reportedly looking for new investors. Sky News, based in the United Kingdom, reported that Vevo could use the conference as an opportunity to garner new investment or explore the potential of an initial public offering.

Some news reports had indicated that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was holding a fundraiser in Sun Valley on Tuesday, fueling speculation that he might also attend the conference. However, one of Romney's press officers said Monday that the former governor would attend fundraisers in Montana and Jackson, Wyo., this week but did not have a planned event in Idaho.

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