Allen & Co. gears up for annual invasion of Sun Valley

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Kobe Bryant may have four championship rings, but it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James who wrangled an invitation to hobnob with billionaire moguls at this week’s Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.

James, who already has ties to the New York-based investment bank and is busy building his own empire, will be in good company. One would think with the economy in tatters and layoffs and cost-cutting everywhere, attendance at what’s been described as ‘summer camp for billionaires’ would be down.


Apparently there’s still some petty cash lying around as more than 260 old and new media chieftains, investment bankers, venture capitalists, politicians, agents and academics have been invited to participate in the five-day schmooze-fest. Among those expected are Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bewkes, Sumner Redstone, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Maybe Booker’s going to try to lure big media to New Jersey since New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg appears to be skipping the confab this year.

The Murdochs are having a mini-family reunion, with oldest son Lachlan expected to pop in to visit with his father, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, and younger brother and latest heir apparent, James. In fact, News Corp. may be the most well-represented company at the conference. Besides Rupert and James Murdoch, new Chief Operating Officer Chase Carey is also on the list, as is Jonathan Miller, new chairman and chief executive of the company’s digital media units, and Owen Van Natta, chief executive of MySpace. Ex-COO Peter Chernin is also expected to be on the grounds, albeit as a mere producer nowadays.

All four major sports pro commissioners are usually there as well. Excuse NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, though, if he appears a little tired. He’s scheduled to arrive in Sun Valley after finishing a climb up Mt. Ranier.

In between rafting, knitting, yoga, chess and bridge (Buffett’s a big bridge player), big deals are known to have been hatched during the conference’s 26-year history. The most famous marriage with roots in Sun Valley was Disney’s deal to buy Capital Cities/ABC in 1995, which came out of a random meeting in the parking lot between then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner; CapCities board member Buffett; and the company’s CEO, Tom Murphy.

The gathering of the uberclass and the media who stalk it overwhelms Sun Valley and the neighboring town of Ketchum. If you are looking to rent a bike there this week, forget it; Allen & Co. has snagged them all. Tiny Friedman Memorial Airport will be overrun with private jets and the streets will be filled with town cars. Ironically the name of the main street into the Sun Valley Inn, a resort which for the week houses a good chunk of the Forbes richest list, is Dollar Road.

Like ‘Fight Club,’ the first rule of the Allen & Co. conference is you don’t talk about the Allen & Co. conference. The event is closed to press and attendees are discouraged from even acknowledging whether they’re attending and talking about the conference. Even the agenda is clouded in mystery, with the preliminary schedule that went out to attendees late last week providing scant details on which companies are making presentations. The conference isn’t cheap to stage. Allen & Co. has been known to spend as much as $10 million on the festivities in the past.

The secrecy fuels media attention and helps the conference keeps its cachet as the place to be seen. In its early years, the event might draw a few big-city scribes who would use it as an opportunity for some after-hours sourcing. Now CNBC and Fox Business Network have their cameras parked outside the lodge where most of the meetings take place.

Executives often hold court on the grounds in between sessions. Allen & Co. can’t stop gabby executives from talking with the press -- but, interestingly, they do ask that if the moguls do talk, they do so on the record (perhaps so they don’t get into hot water with regulators in a post Sarbanes-Oxley world). The whole place has been wired with Wi-Fi clearing the way for reporters to blog and tweet the day away.

Photographers are at the ready to take less-than-flattering shots of executives dressed down in their summer clothes. Apparently, many a mogul has forgotten the fashion rule famously passed on to Tony Soprano that a don doesn’t wear shorts.

While Allen & Co. tries to discourage media scrutiny, the firm isn’t above using big-name journalists to jazz up the program. Among the more famous scribes and TV personalities invited to take part this time around are the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius and CNBC’s Erin Burnett. For a few years, celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz would shoot the event for Vanity Fair.

The conference is still relatively short on women. The highest profile female attendees are Susan Decker, the ex-Yahoo president, Hearst Magazines chief Cathie Black and fashionista Diane von Furstenburg (Mrs. Barry Diller).

And they’re really short on basketball players. LeBron will be challenged to put together a good pick-up game out there.

-- Joe Flint