SUN VALLEY, Idaho – Only at the Allen & Co. conference are you likely to stumble on the sight of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – No. 4 and No. 5 on the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people — taking a leisurely stroll on a street as aptly named as Dollar Road.
The two mega-minds of digital and business were seen doing just that on Thursday evening as the annual gathering of business, political and philanthropic movers and shakers at the ritzy Sun Valley Idaho mountain resort began to wind down. Disney’s Bob Iger and incoming Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav were out and about during the day but headed for the airport in the late afternoon. That was around the time Gates and Zuckerberg were seen walking and talking on the road that runs along the southern edge of the resort complex in the Sawtooth Mountains.
The billionaires huddle of Sun Valley has been something of a cancel-culture trial balloon for Gates. The Microsoft co-founder has faced unflattering media coverage of his private life, especially on the heels of the announcement in May that he and his wife, Melinda French Gates, will divorce after 27 years of marriage. Gates’ image problems have been fueled in part by his past association with noxious world of Jeffrey Epstein, the now-dead convicted sexual predator who courted the billionaire class as a financial advisor.
But Gates was clearly welcome among the business elite and the 1% who make up the Allen & Co. invitation list. He is expected to address the issue of climate change with a presentation on Friday. It’s literally a hot topic for the region as Idaho this week is showing the signs of summer heatwave that has slammed the western states.
Jeff Bezos, the ranking No. 1 on Forbes’ capitalist scorecard, kept a low public profile on the first day of the gathering but was more visible Thursday, walking arm-in-arm through the resort in the afternoon with girlfriend Lauren Sanchez.
The precise number of attendees at Allen & Co. is a moving target but sources said it typically ranges from 300 to 400 people. Multiple sources noted that this year’s gathering had a smaller number of people overall because of COVID safety considerations – children and nannies were asked to stay home this time — but it made for a more business-focused atmosphere.
In a nod to the public health threat that even money can’t totally tame, organizers erected a giant outdoor pavilion to facilitate a form of speed-dating among conference participants. A range of companies and institutions held court at dedicated tables while the most prominent business leaders in the world made the rounds of meetings that ran no more than 30-40 minutes. Multiple sources said the Allen & Co. gathering this year was much more tightly scheduled than usual. The absence of younger family members kept guests focused on business in the afternoon rather than hiking and biking and kayaking. The meeting spree lasted from after lunch until about 6 p.m., sources said.
“It was a lot less impromptu. But there was an openness to it this year that made it interesting,” said a prominent CEO who is an Allen & Co. veteran. “No one had seen anyone in a long time, so it was good to see people.”
Sources noted that Disney’s two Bobs – executive chairman Bob Iger and CEO Bob Chapek – took a series of meetings together. Bezos wasn’t seen doing the meeting shuffle but his successor, Andy Jassy, definitely was. “He seemed to have an easy-going vibe. He went from meeting to meeting. He was a real presence,” the source said.
Jassy’s boss, who segued this week from CEO to executive chairman, did not stop to talk with reporters who were full of questions about his planned July 20 trip into suborbit through his Blue Origin private space exploration company. The plan is for Bezos and a few other passengers to achieve weightlessness for about 10 minutes and to see the curvature of the Earth before returning to the home planet. It will be a milestone flex of private wealth and power if he can pull if off.
Bezos wasn’t chatty but he was polite.
“Nice to see you guys,” he shouted back to the press line as he and Sanchez walked into the Sun Valley Lodge.
Thursday’s events also included a surprise early birthday celebration for Allen & Co. regular Brian Grazer, who turns 69 on July 12. A number of cakes were brought out to help the Imagine Entertainment chairman mark the occasion.
Other tidbits from day two:
** Ted Sarandos is feeling the joy of togetherness after all of 2020’s COVID cancellations, which the included Allen & Co. conclave. “It’s good to see humans again. Everyone is in 3D,” the Netflix co-CEO and chief content officer quipped during a break in Thursday morning’s sessions.
** Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg didn’t stop to talk with reporters despite many invitations. But Sandberg was spotted later in a sit-down conversation with Dylan Byers, NBC News senior media reporter and author of its “Byers Market” media biz newsletter, at the complex’s Konditorei café.
** Gaga for gingham: Colorful checkered oxford shirts were all the rage this year for the male rustic-casual look. Apple’s Eddy Cue, WarnerMedia’s Jason Kilar, Snap’s Michael Lynton, Time Warner alum Jeff Bewkes and CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin were among the conference-goers sporting gingham this year.
** Iger declared this year’s gathering to be a “good conference” as he waited in the driveway for his car to head out. He’s been a regular since 1994. As the Disney chairman shot the breeze in the circular driveway with a few reporters, Apple’s Tim Cook and Cue walked behind him into the lodge. In Sun Valley, it’s a small world, indeed.
(Pictured: Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates)