Friday, July 13, 2012

Big names, tight lips at Allen & Co.

Attendees praise Sun Valley, protesters raise a ruckus

Express Staff Writer

Protesters from the Occupy Boise movement block a path near the Sun Valley Inn conference center Thursday afternoon. The group, which was calling for “free speech” and better access to the closed-door meetings, was removed by security.
Express photo by David N. Seelig

     This year’s Allen & Co. conference is off to a productive, though hush-hush start.

     Valley workers are clocking long hours, business reporters from both coasts are sniffing out breaking stories, and the conference attendees and their families are enjoying keeping busy and active in Sun Valley.

     The conference—which brings together technology and media moguls from across the globe—opened Tuesday night with an evening wagon ride to Trail Creek for a Western barbecue dinner.

     Wednesday morning’s schedule included a discussion titled “Into the Cloud” moderated by Willow Bay, senior editor of the Huffington Post and wife of Disney CEO Robert Iger. The discussion presumably covered the transition that the tech world is making from decentralized, private data storage toward “cloud” computing. The panel for this discussion included Andy Bechtolsheim, chief development officer and chair of Arista networks; Jeff Bezos, CEO of; and Aneel Bhusri, co-CEO of Workday.

     Later Tuesday morning, conference attendees listened to a discussion titled “Iran and Israel: On a collision course?” moderated by David Ignatius, associate editor of The Washington Post.

     Next on the schedule was lunch under the sun at the Sun Valley duck pond and an afternoon of mountain adventuring including rafting, biking, shooting and/or hiking. Many of the attendees took a stroll around the Sun Valley Village mall during their lunch break, giving reporters an opportunity to ask them how they were enjoying their time in Sun Valley.

     Most attendees wouldn’t give the Express more than a word: “Great,” (Philippe Dauman, president and CEO of Viacom); “Not bad,” (Tim Collins, CEO of Ripplewood Holdings); and “So far, so good,” (Howard Stringer, chair of Sony) were some of the answers. However, a sentence or two was available from some of the familiar names, including Facebook Chair and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

     “I always like coming to Sun Valley,” Zuckerberg said Wednesday evening just outside the front door of the Sun Valley Lodge.  “It’s beautiful.”

     Just then, a young child walked right up to him and said, “I want to learn how to program.  How do I get started?”

     “You should definitely learn,” Zuckerberg said. “The best way to get started is to just get started.  Ask someone who knows how to do it to teach you.”

     Apple CEO and conference first-timer Tim Cook seemed to be having a nice time in Sun Valley. When he was asked how the conference was going, Cook enthusiastically replied, “Great!” and gave a big thumbs up.

     “I love the town. Beautiful town, great place,” Cook said.

     Wednesday’s schedule kicked off with discussions titled “Energy: Independent at last?” and “China in transition.” On Wednesday evening, conference attendees and their plus-ones enjoyed a dinner on the deck of the Sun Valley Lodge.  The business chat was buzzing on the deck, but the press was not allowed within earshot.

     While Mom and Dad dined and schmoozed on the deck, the conference kids enjoyed a medieval-themed party on the lawn by the duck pond. Many of the attendees like coming to the Allen & Co. conference not just for the business deals, but also because both the conference and the Wood River Valley are so family-friendly.

     “I really like Sun Valley,” Fon entrepreneur and father of five Martin Varsavsky said during a short interview Wednesday afternoon at the Toy Store on the Sun Valley mall. “The conference is going well.  The conference has great material, but it is also great for the kids.”

     Sun Valley Co. figure skating instructor Stephanee Grosscup said spending time in Sun Valley is great for the conference kids.

     “It’s so safe here,” she said. “Parents can relax. There are open spaces and the kids get excited. You can’t get that close to a horse or go ice skating under the sun in the big cities. The kids sure have fun.”

     Reporters and cameramen from The New York Times, Bloomberg News, Reuters News Service, The Associated Press and more were covering the conference. The out-of-town reporters were more excited by the flurry at the conference on Wednesday morning than valley residents often are by a fresh Sun Valley powder day. They were hounding out the juicy stories and shots—some with better luck than others.

     “If you put it out there, there’s nothing you can’t do.” said Alexia Tsotsis, TechCrunch co-editor.

     However, the attendees, Allen & Co. employees and Sun Valley Co. employees were all extremely tight-lipped when it came to discussing business.

     One Sun Valley Co. employee said it would be nice to be a “fly on the wall” in the Sun Valley Inn’s Limelight room—where the private forums take place. She said she “appreciates the revenue the conference brings in.”

     Today’s schedule will include a lecture by Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Monti and discussions titled “The state of innovation” and “Politics today.” On Saturday, attendees will listen to discussions titled “The new breed” and an interview with CIA Director David Petraeus by Allen & Co. Managing Director and former CIA Director George Tenet. The Saturday morning talks will close with an address by Berkshire Hathaway Chair and CEO Warren Buffet, introduced by Oprah Winfrey.

     An exciting moment took place Thursday afternoon when Occupy Boise protesters stormed the Sun Valley mall. The protesters lay down on the pavers outside The Ram restaurant and blocked some foot traffic.  One had a sign that joked, “Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg walk into a bar.  The rest is secret.”

Brennan Rego:

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