On the eve of the 27th Allen & Co. conference, Herb Allen III, president of the New York-based investment bank, refuted the notion that the economic downturn would cast a somber atmosphere on the annual gathering of technology and media industry titans.
"This is a pretty optimistic crowd looking to get things done—they're not anchored in the past," he said.
Sitting in a Sun Valley condominium Monday evening, Allen made it clear that his glass is distinctly half full.
"It's not an economic downturn, it's an opportunity," said Allen, the 42-year-old son of CEO Herbert Allen, Jr. "I'm not going to minimize what's going on in the economy, but it's exciting and the entrepreneurial spirit in this country hasn't changed."
Allen began working for his family's company in 1993 and has been president of the bank since 2002.
He said the conference, which brings in about 1,000 people including participants and their families, has not been scaled back this year.
The Sun Valley resort had seen bankers' associations from Utah and Washington cancel conferences this spring.
"For us, it's business as usual," Allen said. "We have had enough of [the negativity]. We had nothing to do with the heartache on Wall Street and don't know why we would punish our own company or Sun Valley."
But the state of the national and global economy won't be ignored during the conference, which runs from Tuesday through Friday. Allen said there will be one panel discussion on the economy and another on managing a company during an economic downturn.
There should be plenty of experts ready to weigh in. While the guest list remains shrouded in mystery, as it has for nearly three decades, regular attendees include billionaire investor Warren Buffett, media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Allen said about a third of the invitees this year will be attending the conference for the first time. That list could include Evan Williams, CEO of the increasingly popular social networking site Twitter, and NBA star LeBron James, whose presence Allen neither confirmed or denied.
The mystery surrounding the event has been a tradition both for the conference and Allen & Co. itself, which does not even have a Web site.
"It's an off-the-record conference and we try to respect the privacy of our guests," Allen said of the absence of public comment on the four-day event. "We just bring in guests that want a mix of information, current events, entertainment and to enjoy Sun Valley."
Allen's history in the Wood River Valley dates back to before the inception of the conference in 1982, having started coming to the valley to ski when he was about 4 years old. Now in charge of the day-to-day operation of the 170-person investment bank, Allen said he doesn't get to Sun Valley as often as he would like, but that he envisions the conference returning indefinitely.
"My father liked this town because it's a nice small town with good people that live here," he said. "It has changed a bit since I began coming here, but it's managed to hang on to its character, unlike some other resorts. It's not trying to be L.A. or New York. They're definitely doing something right here."
Two handcrafted titanium-and-carbon road bikes sitting in the corner of his condo gave away Allen's own recreational interest.
Allen said popular activities for guests include golf and hiking, and that water fights on the river help give the event a vastly different atmosphere than a typical boardroom meeting in Manhattan.
"I wouldn't say people let their hair down—it's hard to do that when it's soaking wet," he said with a smile. "Obviously for us it's a big event and energizes our organization internally, and helps us maintain and create relationships. But the truth is, we're just able to take advantage of what's offered here."
He said that although visitation may be down in the valley and development has slowed, he could only imagine better times ahead for the local economy.
"The outlook here has to be positive," Allen said. "This place is paradise whether or not there's an economic downturn."
Jon Duval: firstname.lastname@example.org