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Powerful summit in Idaho isn’t small potatoes

For a few days each summer, Idaho gives Wall Street a run for its money as the nation’s capital of capitalism, thanks to a crop of billionaires who jet in from all over the country.
Dara Khosrowshahi
Dara Khosrowshahi, president and CEO of Expedia, Inc., leaves for a break by bicycle during the annual Allen & Co. media conference.Elaine Thompson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For most of the year, this state is known more for its potatoes than its financial firepower.

But for a few days each summer, Idaho gives Wall Street a run for its money as the nation’s capital of capitalism, thanks to a crop of billionaires who jet in from all over the country to attend a media and technology summit held at an exclusive mountain resort.

This year’s powwow, which began Wednesday with a series of closed-door meetings, is expected to attract 18 billionaires with a combined net worth of $140 billion — exceeding the individual gross domestic products of more than 170 countries, including the likes of Morocco, Singapore and New Zealand.

Virtually all of the other 200 or so guests invited by investment banker Herb Allen are multimillionaires.

Impressive guest list
“When you look at the guest list, you realize it represents the economy of the civilized world,” said Idaho Governor James Risch, who is attending the conference for the first time. “It’s a lot of fun for us to have them all here.”

It also presents an opportunity for Idaho to become known for something else besides its famous potatoes, which account for $2.5 billion, or about 15 percent, of its gross state product.

Risch is encouraging the conference participants to invest in Idaho, either by bringing more business to the state or by joining the list of celebrities like actor Tom Hanks who own homes near Sun Valley. Hanks is even on hand to help punctuate the point.

The cluster of immense wealth congregating in Sun Valley’s village-like atmosphere can create some surreal scenes.

Barry Diller, Warren Buffett cross paths
For instance, it’s not every day that veteran media mogul Barry Diller goes for a short bike ride and pedals past someone with a fortune 32 times larger than his estimated net worth of $1.3 billion.

But that’s what happened Wednesday as Diller cruised by investment wizard Warren Buffett, the world’s second richest man with a $42 billion fortune, according to Forbes magazine’s annual survey of wealth.

Buffett brought the biggest bankroll to this year’s meeting only because another conference regular, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, isn’t attending.

With Buffett and Gates showing up almost every year, this part of Idaho has become used seeing the trappings of wealth. The approximately 40 private jets parked on the tarmac of the local airport is just another part of the summer scene here.

Bloomberg and bodyguards
Almost all the billionaires seem to feel comfortable enough to roam the publicly accessible resort without bodyguards. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrived at Wednesday’s sessions with his own security team, but that appeared to have more to do with his political position than his estimated $5.1 billion fortune.

Allen’s company has hired a security detail to patrol for the event, mostly to ensure that the reporters hovering outside the private meetings don’t badger the guests for interviews and pictures.

Although the crowd attending this confab is exceptionally rich, the event shares something in common with just about every other business conference — free gifts for the guests.

After she completed a presentation Wednesday, eBay Inc. CEO Meg Whitman — the only woman billionaire in the group — gave out phones that work with the company’s Internet phone service, Skype. It appeared to be a popular item. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, worth an estimated $6.5 billion, left the meeting with two of the phones tucked under his arm.