The Secret Retreats That Have CEOs, VIPs and Billionaires Jockeying for Invites
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The Secret Retreats That Have CEOs, VIPs and Billionaires Jockeying for Invites

Ultra exclusive conferences are booming. In Sicily, Aspen and Stockholm, Elon Musk and Margot Robbie mingle with bank leaders and media moguls. ‘There’s always another VIP level.’

By SARA ASHLEY O’BRIEN, EMILY GLAZER, JESSICA TOONKEL
Mon, Apr 22, 2024 9:24amGrey Clock 7 min

The crowd at the St. Regis hotel in Aspen, Colo., on one weekend last fall was handpicked, and if you had to ask to be invited, you wouldn’t be on the list. Guests, including Ron Howard, Karlie Kloss and Goldman Sachs Chief Executive David Solomon , were given Barbour vests, offered a walk-and-talk with Olympic running champion Allyson Felix, take a golf clinic with professional golfer Michael Block or bike with Gen. David Petraeus. The bike route climbs more than 2,000 feet starting from an 8,500-foot elevation.

One morning, a man in his 50s in a dark sweater was speaking to a group, while his security staff stood off to one side, an attendee recalled. He was Elon Musk , talking with the author of his newly released biography, Walter Isaacson , in an off-the-record conversation moderated by CBS anchor Gayle King. It was one of the hottest tickets on a packed agenda at the ultra exclusive and secretive conference known as the Weekend, co-hosted by Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel and other business, tech and finance leaders.

Musk and others attending the Weekend, and gatherings like it, get to exist for a brief time in a buffered safe space where CEOs, celebrities, athletes and political leaders know that no one will tweet a photo of them working out or waiting in line for Champagne. They are invitation-only, and attendees often arrive via private jet and tinted-out SUVs. The talks are off the record. No one who goes cares what it costs.

“There aren’t that many places for these people to have these conversations,” said Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff , who hosts his own intimately curated gatherings of business leaders and has attended other people’s as well. (In the parlor game of invitations, his dinners can feel like a rung up from anything called a conference.)

It has been 40-plus years since Allen & Co. put on its first so-called summer camp for the billionaire set in Sun Valley, Idaho, now an executive’s rite of passage, and more and smaller and intimate ultra-VIP conferences are exploding on the scene—from media mogul and venture investor Jeffrey Katzenberg ’s in Montecito, Calif., to restaurateur Danny Meyer’s in Tuscany. There are new ones popping up nearly every month.

Helping fuel the desire for invitations is the lore of what Sun Valley has spawned: Sam Altman connected with his most important investor, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella , at Allen & Co.’s annual July conference; Disney finance chief Christine McCarthy and CEO Bob Iger got some facetime over lunch at the same event a different year, a few months before Disney’s board ousted CEO Bob Chapek and reinstated Iger; Jeff Bezos ’ purchase of the Washington Post stems back to Sun Valley moments.

The newer events make the World Economic Forum’s Davos—with its pop-up media spaces and Getty photographers scattered about—look like a Vegas trade expo. There is a summer excursion to Stockholm for the humbly named Brilliant Minds gathering hosted by Spotify CEO Daniel Ek ’s foundation, which some attendees consider the most fun in the elite event lineup.

The Weekend in Aspen is in September, pre-ski season, but invitees to boutique bank LionTree’s conference called MediaSlopes head to Deer Valley, in Park City, Utah, in March and skiing is abundant in Davos in January. Google’s annual VIP camp has been held in Sicily at a resort with four outdoor thalassotherapy pools. The Brilliant Minds gathering included a cruise around Stockholm’s archipelago, and MediaSlopes offered high-intensity exercise classes taught by the CEO of video game company Take-Two, Strauss Zelnick , who prides himself on his physique. There is usually a concert—the Killers and John Mayer have played MediaSlopes (anyone who goes just calls it Slopes).

This account is based on interviews with people who attended the gatherings, event materials and social-media posts.

Benioff, who also owns Time, has attended the Weekend and Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley event, but says he “can’t do them all” and loves to host his own, even more exclusive events.

At Benioff’s gatherings, there is usually “a small group of somewhere between 25 and 35 people around a table,” he said, adding that he’s hired people he has met at such events. At a recent one, restaurateur Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin prepared the food and briefly spoke with attendees. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld performed and so has Japanese rock star and fashion designer Yoshiki. The gatherings have taken place in New York, Japan, Australia, France and the U.K .

Always a celebrity chef, he said. “We actually end up with a regular set of celebrities and entertainment who are our favourites, and there’s just people we feel very connected to,” Benioff said. “There’s the right level of quality.”

Who’s invited, and where?

At last year’s Slopes, which attendees call the cool Sun Valley, Margot Robbie swapped her Barbie pink for black to be jointly interviewed with Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz by LionTree Chairman and CEO Aryeh Bourkoff. Bourkoff has been one of the most prolific dealmakers in media, including as a lead banker in AT&T ’s 2022 $43 billion spinoff of Warner Media to Discovery. This year, Lionel Richie performed.

The competitive juices flow, too. Univision CEO Wade Davis has won annual slalom races. And there is a game-show style quiz focused on trends in tech, telecom and media. This year included the question: Who is the biggest streamer? (Answer: YouTube)

The Verdura resort, with “230 hectares of sun-kissed Mediterranean coastline” in southern Sicily, has been home base for what’s known as Google camp in recent years—the tech giant’s annual, invite-only retreat.

Google camp’s theme for 2024, according to a bare-bones website, is artificial intelligence’s role in scientific breakthroughs and addressing global challenges. The site doesn’t say if this summer’s camp will also be in Sicily.

Alicia Keys performed one year on a stage set against ancient ruins. YouTube star Lilly Singh snapped a photo amid the ruins with actress Charlize Theron. “We’re going to change the world. @charlizeafrica  #GenEndIt  #GirlLove ,” @Lilly posted on Instagram. Google owns YouTube.

Google said the majority of guests are customers and partners of Google and discussion sessions make up most of camp. It wouldn’t confirm names.

Jolie Hunt , who advises CEOs among others as founder of marketing and communications firm Hunt & Gather, said she increasingly fields calls from executives and powerful people about which VIP conferences are worth their time, alongside how to get a Birkin bag and book the best driver for Davos.

Part of building the allure of the events is the selective invite lists, with nobody there to pitch their agenda out of turn, some attendees said. Organizers manage the guest list, looking for buzz and mix, and asking for an invite isn’t a good look.

Midnight sun in Sweden

If Sicily didn’t make the calendar, summer’s lineup also includes Stockholm’s Brilliant Minds gathering—the brainchild of Spotify CEO Ek and Swedish entrepreneur Ash Pournouri, who hosted the first one in 2015 before establishing a foundation by the same name three years later.

Actor Jared Leto, Reddit co-founder and startup investor Alexis Ohanian and VaynerMedia CEO Gary Vaynerchuk were among 2022 attendees who boarded a boat for a tour around Stockholm’s archipelago that included a stop on one of the islands for dinner. Their cocktails were garnished with slices of fresh watermelon, and they took in a private concert by Florence & the Machine.

The intention is to bring together creative and influential figures with a goal of creating an impact, a representative for the organisation said. Brilliant Minds’ theme this year is “Discovery,” and so far, Harvard Business School’s Debora Spar , self-help personality Jay Shetty and Stockholm School of Economics Wellbeing, Welfare and Happiness professor Micael Dahlen are expected to present. Past attendees include former President Obama, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, Snap’s Evan Spiegel , NBA All-Star Draymond Green and Malala Yousafzai.

Anu Duggal, founding partner of the Female Founders Fund who has attended Brilliant Minds and interviewed Trevor Noah and Yousafzai there, said the formal programming runs from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., adding that the gathering emphasises bringing people together through fun experiences. “They take advantage of the natural beauty of Sweden,” noting the late sunsets at that time of year. Her firm invested in a startup that took part in a pitch competition where she served as a judge.

Stagecraft opportunities

Sometimes attending Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley conference is about making a very public statement from a very secluded place. Bill Gates used the gathering in 2021 as a soft launch for his return to public after the announcement of his divorce from longtime wife Melinda French Gates . Gates was spotted walking and chatting with Evan Greenberg , CEO of insurance giant Chubb . Gates wore khakis and a navy sweater, and both business leaders had white name tags.

In the summer of 2021, as reports emerged of a deteriorating partnership between Facebook ’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and then-Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg , the two appeared in photos strolling together along the lush grounds. Sandberg, in a T-shirt with the words “just love” scrawled in cursive, smiled as Zuckerberg, in a navy hoodie, looked at her, also smiling.

Marc Ganis, founder and president of the sports-industry consulting firm Sportscorp, said he has been attending more invite-only retreats or gatherings than ever before, estimating he attends three or four a year in addition to industry-specific events.

“This is where the ideas for business can be developed,” said Ganis. “What makes one better than the other is who actually attends.”

A relative newcomer is an invite-only conference for sports executives put on by Bruin Capital and Penske Media’s Sportico held on Kiawah Island in South Carolina. Bruin CEO George Pyne and Penske Media CEO Jay Penske bring together about 150 attendees including billionaires, commissioners, team owners and investors to play golf and talk about more than sports. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the former prime ministers of New Zealand and Finland, Jacinda Ardern and Sanna Marin , spoke this year—the event’s third year—as did former Pimco CEO Mohamed El-Erian .

The world’s biggest advertising agency, WPP, calls Stream, its invite-only event for about 300 invitees, an “unconference.” Attendees, this year in Santa Barbara, Calif., determine discussion topics, which have included “Should we teach robots how to lie?” Its website describes “two days of off-record debate alongside dancing robots; slam poetry; drone races; a space launch” and more.

WPP CEO Mark Read says the event is unique for its lack of PowerPoint slides and that the idea is to foster chance meetings among people in the business. In 2023, Linda Yaccarino spoke after Musk at Stream—a few days before she resigned from NBCUniversal and Musk announced her as X’s new CEO. Also last year, Paris Hilton ran a breakout group, said Read. “We had one famous music executive who turned up and couldn’t deal with the lack of structure and left,” he said.

The surge in exclusive events comes as the World Economic Forum’s conference, held in January in Davos, Switzerland, has ballooned over the past several years. In 2024, more than 800 CEOs and chairs attended Davos, in addition to government leaders and others, according to a WEF spokesperson.

Musk has knocked Davos, tweeting in December 2022 : “My reason for declining the Davos invitation was not because I thought they were engaged in diabolical scheming, but because it sounded boring af lol.” Organizers for the World Economic Forum later said Musk was not among the invited.

But at the Weekend in 2022 Musk got personal. During a conversation with Carlyle Co-Chairman David Rubenstein as Musk’s acquisition of Twitter was pending, Musk said he lost 25 pounds, attendees recounted. He said—in a self-deprecating way—that topless photos of him on a yacht from the summer that circulated around the internet motivated him to lose weight, which he said he did through intermittent fasting.

“It’s craziest when you’re around people like this—there’s always another Champagne room, always another VIP level,” one attendee said, and quipped: “Even the CEO of Goldman Sachs isn’t treated like a VIP. That’s a third-tier guest.”



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The sticky economic factor making an interest rate drop unlikely this year

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The consumer price index (CPI) rose in April to an annual rate of 3.6 percent, which was 0.1 percent higher than in March, raising doubts about an interest rate cut this year as inflation starts looking stickier than expected. This is the second consecutive month of small rises, potentially indicating that Australia is experiencing the same stalled progress in bringing inflation down that is being seen in the United States, as both nations approach their central banks’ target inflation bands.

In Australia, the target inflation band is 2 to 3 percent, with the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) aiming to achieve the midpoint under its new agreement with the Federal Government following a formal review. In its interest rate decision-making, the RBA does not give as much weight to the monthly inflation data because not all prices are measured like they are in the quarterly data. On a quarterly basis, inflation has continued to fall. In the March quarter, the annual rate of inflation was 3.6 percent, down from 4.1 percent in December, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

CBA economist Stephen Wu noted the April data was above the bank’s forecast of 3.5 percent as well as the industrywide consensus forecast of 3.4 percent. He predicts the next leg down in inflation won’t be until the September quarter, when we will see the effects of electricity rebates and a likely smaller minimum wage increase to be announced by the Fair Work Commission next month compared to June 2023.

The most significant contributor to the April inflation rise were housing costs, which rose 4.9 percent on an annual basis. This reflects a continuing rise in weekly rents amid near-record low vacancy rates across the country, as well as significantly higher labour and materials costs which builders are passing on to the buyers of new homes, as well as renovators.

The second biggest contributor was food and non-alcoholic beverages, up 3.8 percent annually, reflecting higher prices for fruit and vegetables in April. The ABS said unfavourable weather led to a reduced supply of berries, bananas and vegetables such as broccoli. The annual rate of inflation for alcohol and tobacco rose by 6.5 percent, and transport rose by 4.2 percent due to higher fuel prices.

Robert Carnell, the Asia Pacific head of research at ING, said they no longer expect a rate cut this year after seeing the April data. Mr Carnell said an increase in trend inflation was apparent and “rate cuts this year look unlikely”. In the RBA’s latest monetary policy statement, published before the April CPI was released, it said: “Inflation is expected to be higher in the near term than previously thought due to the stronger labour market and higher petrol prices. But inflation is still expected to return to the target range in the second half of 2025 and to reach the midpoint in 2026.”

 

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