SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Townsfolk here are moonlighting as activity planners and couriers. They are doing double duty as fishing and rafting guides. They are pulling down $1,000 (before tips) this week as baby sitters and chauffeurs.
For 21 years now, the annual conference hosted by powerful New York investment banker Herbert Allen has taken over -- and enriched -- this mountain community by importing a who's who of the nation's entertainment, technology and investment elite. This week, tiny Friedman Memorial Airport will be among the nation's leaders in private jet traffic. On Thursday, 70 sat on the tarmac.
The 500 or so guests in attendance include such moguls and power brokers as Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Michael Eisner, Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone, InterActive Corp.'s Barry Diller and, as always, billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
These captains of industry come with their families to fraternize and frolic in the Idaho Rockies, amid the shimmering cottonwoods and crystalline, trout-filled streams. They stay in the Sun Valley Resort, a sprawling compound with skating rinks, tennis courts, swan-filled ponds and an opera house. Hollywood stars have flocked here since the heyday of Ginger Rogers and Gary Cooper.
But work also is in the clean air. The five-day retreat featuring panels and presentations has held a reputation as the birthplace of some of the biggest media and entertainment deals in recent history. In some respects, the scenic surroundings are second to inspecting the competition up close.
"One of the great things about coming to this conference is you get exposed to great people," said media titan Redstone, 80, who has missed only one or two conferences in the last 16 years. "I always learn something."
That's more than the general public can say.
Secrecy is a hallowed conference tradition, largely honored by guests and townspeople alike. Chauffeurs must apply months in advance because of extensive background checks. And baby sitters must sign confidentiality agreements. Allen, the press-shy and private head of Allen & Co., would not be interviewed for this story. As always, his company, which spends an estimated $10 million on the fete, refused to provide the guest list or the week's agenda. He asked guests not to share these secrets either.
"We have a community culture here of not talking about the celebrities and stars who come here," said Carol Waller, executive director of the Sun Valley/ Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau. "We have no maps to movie stars' homes. We respect the right to privacy, and that is one reason why Allen & Co. continues to come to Sun Valley every year."
That said, they're grateful for the largess of Allen & Co. and its guests, especially after the two-year decline in resort travel.
Most of the money goes to Sun Valley Resort because that's where guests spend most of their time. "It's a very good piece of business," said Jack Sibbach, director of sales, marketing and public relations for the resort. "We love them."
So do some of the local merchants who have managed to carve out followings among the guests.
"I know their names and they know mine," said Rochelle Runge, owner of Elle Rose, an upscale designer boutique. "I often deliver to their hotel rooms.... Seven ladies just left."
With the concentration of wealth here this week, security is tight.
New York City Police Officer Mike Stapleton has held a contract for eight years to provide protection. This year he brought a crew of 25 from the city, his biggest ever, in part because CIA Director George J. Tenet and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow are giving speeches.
Airport security also has been tightened, although no one at Friedman Memorial would discuss the influx of jet traffic.
"We don't even acknowledge they're here," one airport staffer said.
Allen spares no expense courting his guests, current and perhaps future clients. He leaves flowers and fruit baskets, T-shirts and hats as gifts in their rooms. He pays for the hayrides, fly-fishing, horseback riding, skeet shooting, golf, yoga and skating lessons. One former tour guide in town estimates that some 250 people go on a one-day rafting trip, creating a caravan of 30 boats.
Of the 208 executives on the invite list, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, only a dozen are women. Still, Allen has been credited with making a concerted effort to include more women.
Every year, analysts and others track the conference for any hint of a mood shift -- or the next big deal. Away from telephones, management meetings and other distractions of daily corporate life, moguls have hatched major deals here over golf, tennis, a mountain hike or bike ride. Disney's $19-billion purchase of Capital Cities/ABC in 1996 originated from a chance meeting in a parking lot here among Eisner, Cap Cities chief Tom Murphy and Buffett, a large shareholder of the TV company.