Sun Valley’s ‘Summer Camp for Billionaires’ Returns – Will Big Deals Follow?

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Disney chief Bob Chapek are just a few of the execs headed back to Idaho for an exclusive conference

In the latest sign nature is healing, dozens of top media and tech executives will once again descend upon Sun Valley, Idaho, this week for boutique investment firm Allen & Co.’s annual conference. The event, which was scrapped last year due to COVID-19, offers a safe space for bigwigs running multibillion- (and trillion-) dollar companies to relax, enjoy good food, play some tennis and yes, discuss potentially industry-shaking deals. (More on that in a moment.)

If you’re not too familiar with the conference, that’s by design. The exclusive week-long event is carefully guarded by Allen & Co., which has been hosting the event since 1983. Its clandestine nature — combined with it being a one-stop spot for heavy-hitters to talk shop — is a key selling point for regular attendees like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who are expected to be returning this week.

With the conference kicking off on Monday, here’s what you need to know about Sun Valley 2021, aka “summer camp for billionaires”:

The People

Much like parties, these tech conferences rise and fall on their guest lists. And this year’s event, like in years past, has plenty of big names from both Hollywood and Silicon Valley lined up.

This year’s guest list, according to Variety, includes: Apple CEO Tim Cook, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Netflix co-chief executives Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos, and Bezos, Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg from the tech side. Mattel Chairman and CEO Ynon Kreiz, a regular at the conference, is also there. Intellectual property from toy giants like Mattel (Barbie, Polly Pocket) has never been more valuable to content makers.

Media executives like Disney CEO Bob Chapek, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, ViacomCBS’ Shari Redstone, Comcast’s Brian Roberts and Discovery CEO David Zaslav are among others who received invites. Outside of tech and Hollywood, the eclectic guest list people includes wiz investor Warren Buffett, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in Sun Valley in 2018 (Getty Images)

The Scene

The conference, as usual, will take place at Sun Valley Resort. The swanky hotel is a favorite destination for skiers in the winter and boasts breathtaking mountain views year-round. The resort is fully booked this week, but even if you were looking to crash the conference last-minute, it wouldn’t be cheap: a hotel representative said room rates start at about $500 per night and can jump to around $1,500 for fancier rooms. No wonder the resort’s hallways are lined with pictures of ex-presidents, Hollywood royalty and star athletes playing golf.

As for the event itself, a former Allen & Co. executive previously told TheWrap that panels are a key component. These panels take place in conference rooms throughout the hotel, with audiences ranging in size from a few dozen people to more than 100. Power lunches and outdoor events, like biking and horseback riding, are also staples.

Privacy is paramount. The event operates in a “cone of secrecy,” as BoiseDev reporter Don Day previously told TheWrap, with reporters’ access often curtailed to a tiny slab of real estate outside the resort. “They put you in these little pens,” as Day put it, waiting to snap pictures or throw a quick question at a passing billionaire.

And taking a macro look at the conference, it’s easy to see why Sun Valley is a favorite of the tech and entertainment elite. (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Gates, Zuckerberg, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Oprah Winfrey have all owned or currently own Sun Valley property.) Located in the middle of the state, the town is remote, even by Idaho standards — about a 2.5 hour drive from Boise, the state’s capital and largest city. Aesthetically, Sun Valley can resemble a mix of Laguna Beach and Aspen, with cute one-off stores, fancy day spas and first-rate restaurants, all nestled between the Smoky Mountains.

The Potential Deals

This is what it’s really about. The conference has been at the center of several mega-deals in the past, including the AOL-Time Warner merger in 2000 and Comcast’s buyout of NBCUniversal in 2011.

This year’s conference looks primed for more match-making, so here are a few things to keep an eye on this week:

A new leader at WarnerMedia? Jason Kilar’s days running WarnerMedia look to be numbered, after AT&T decided to offload its media business to Discovery in May. Zaslav, Discovery’s CEO, could use this as an opportunity to vet potential replacements or, at minimum, gain more insight into the type of executive he wants running HBO.

• Does a Tech Giant Make a Run at a New Sports Rights Deal? This one doesn’t appear to be much of a leap. Both the heads of the NFL and NBA are expected to be in Sun Valley, and both leagues are quickly moving toward the expiration dates on their current TV deals. Amazon, fresh off securing “Thursday Night Football” exclusively for the 2021 season, could look to make inroads with the NBA on a similar deal. And Facebook, now with a market cap north of $1 trillion, could also be looking to score a deal to draw more eyeballs to Watch, its TV hub.

• Can ViacomCBS Find a Match? As William D. Cohan noted in his Dry Powder newsletter, Shari Redstone has repositioned ViacomCBS as an attractive target by recombining Viacom and CBS. And with scale being the name of the game right now, ViacomCBS may look especially enticing, offering a potential buyer a laundry list of assets that includes Paramount Pictures, MTV, Comedy Central and Showtime. (Several analysts recently sang Amazon’s praises for this exact reason when it acquired MGM, allowing it to beef up its own content slate.) At the same time, ViacomCBS could also look to go the other way and find a match to help beef up its Paramount+ streaming service. Either way, Redstone will have her fair share of industry insiders to talk to this week.


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