Chasing the rich and (some) not-so-famous
Sun Valley, Idaho
By Rick Wilking
In between covering tornadoes and forest fires this year I have covered several business conferences and related stories. Starting with the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, to the SALT hedge fund conference, to the Wal-Mart annual meeting I’m now at the big kahuna, the Allen and Company conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Never heard of the Allen and Co. conference? Well maybe that’s because most of the attendees are people you’ve never heard of either. Even though they are millionaires and billionaires, huge investors and big-time global CEOs, most of the people here stay far off the radar. Even if you have heard of their companies you probably haven’t heard of their leaders, let alone seen a picture of them.
But then there’s the “A-Listers” of technology and media companies attending. Many people have heard of Mark Zuckerberg (founder and CEO of Facebook) or Tim Cook (the new CEO of Apple, replacing the late Steve Jobs) or the venerable Warren Buffet. But have you heard of Philippe Dauman? (CEO of Viacom, the company behind networks like MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central and movie studio Paramount.)
How about Rakuten and its CEO Hiroshi Mikitani? It’s the Amazon of Japan and he’s a billionaire.
Covering the conference is more challenging than it might appear. The media here is tolerated but only to a point. The host only allows you on the (private) property mostly because we all stay at the hosting Sun Valley Resort and are thus also guests. They won’t credential us or give us any access to the meeting itself at all. David Zaslav, the CEO of Discovery Communications (one of the few CEOs who actually are willing to talk to us) put it well today when he said to me while waiting outside the meeting “they want you here but they don’t want you here. They do want the pictures though.”
And it’s true. Allen and Company don’t have a media liaison that helps us but the security team they have hired does their best to accommodate us to the limits Allen sets. They let us stand in places where we are sure to see the attendees arriving or departing, but again, it’s all outdoors, never in the building. And we can’t shoot anything else, not the outdoor lunch, not the activities, only the walking back and forth.
There are two entrances to the venue and if you guess wrong about which one to stand outside of you could miss the key names of the day.
After you get past figuring out where to be, the next challenge is knowing who to shoot.
With around 300 people attending, and maybe only 50 of those people who we actually need to get photos of, it’s tricky. Remember what I said about obscure people? It does help that the attendees are required to wear name tags but you still have to know the business news of the day, what company might be trying to buy who and you have to know the CEOs of major companies that are not famous, like the heads of companies like Groupon, Evernote and Square. Even if you think you have learned a lot of these people (as I have by covering the conference multiple times) you still have to be careful – some of these guys no longer work for who they did last time around.
After you get by those hurdles it’s a piece of cake – shoot people walking down a sidewalk, hope they do something interesting in the 100 feet you see them and you’re golden.
After all is said and done, if your picture, instead of the competition’s, is in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, you get to come back next year and do it all again.