Friday, July 4, 2014

Valley gears up for Allen and Co.

Secretive conference attracts international bigwigs

Express Staff Writer

Howard Stringer, former president and CEO of Sony Corp., left, walks through Sun Valley Village with Kazuo Hirai, current president and CEO of Sony, at last year’s Allen & Co. conference. Express file photos

    For a newcomer to the Wood River Valley, the secrecy surrounding the annual Allen and Co. conference resembles the beloved book and movie “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”: You’re at the Sun Valley Resort, hoping for a glimpse of the action, but deep down you know that the chances of swimming in the chocolate waterfalls and drinking fizzy lifting drinks are about as likely as finding a golden ticket in a candy bar.
    Allen and Co. is a famously private investment company that holds a yearly “meeting of the minds” at Sun Valley Resort in early July. This year’s five-day retreat begins July 8. It’s been going on since 1984 and a number of the world’s technological and business elite have attended the conference. The company hand picks a couple hundred guests and the event is often a catalyst for company mergers and buyouts. Last year, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post after the conference.
    Security is tight at the conference. Reporters from the New York Times, Bloomberg and the Associated Press typically find themselves cordoned off into a 4-by-7 foot “pen” while waiting for attendants to leave meetings in the Limelight Room conference center. Neither the public nor the press can attend the numerous discussions and forums led by big-name business moguls and media celebrities.    
    Residents, though typically unfazed by frequent celebrity sightings, see an influx in media and pretense when the conference begins. Though it’s incredibly hard for even the most persistent of journalists to break a huge business decision during the conference, it’s a little harder for Allen and Co. to keep the curtain up in this technological day and age. The invite list was invariably leaked this week by multiple news sources. Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Lean-inner Sheryl Sandburg and Jack Ma of Alibaba Group are a sampling of the big names asked to attend.
    The guest-list fragments floating around the Internet reveal a trend in app and website developers and owners receiving invitations. Though the names might not be widely known, the companies Dropbox, Square, Expedia, Pinterest and Groupon are said to have representatives on the guest list.
      Ma, one of the richest men in China, founded the e-commerce business Alibaba Group Holding, of which Yahoo holds a 23 percent stake. Bloomberg reports he’s been invited but isn’t attending, though the company’s August public offering should be a hotly discussed topic at the conference.
    Not that the conference is strictly a business trip; Allen and Co., with the help of Sun Valley Resort, truly rolls out the red carpet. The recreational appeal of the Wood River Valley is one reason that Herbert Allen chose the location for his annual conference 30 years ago. Invitees often bring their families to relax in luxury. Local outdoors businesses increase their activity around this time of year when some of the world’s wealthiest innovators take whitewater rafting trips and biking expeditions. From rental-car agencies to local eateries, the conference is undoubtedly a boon for local business. A party affiliated with the conference commonly rents out the entire Il Naso restaurant in Ketchum for dinner. However, it’s hard to gauge the economic gains from the conference guests, due to the closed-lips expectation that Allen and Co. trusts local businesses with.
    While financial reporters are reduced to fighting for the best glimpse of attendees lunching at the Konditorei or exiting the Sun Valley Inn, many valley residents and businesses undoubtedly enjoy a solid windfall from the conference. Organizers pay top dollar to many locals to serve as babysitters, guides and drivers, while the resort benefits from a week in the media spotlight.
    However, for most of us everyday folks, the glamorous life of the Allen and Co. attendees is, as Gene Wilder said in the 1971 film hit, “a world of pure imagination.”

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