“Look at you, scanning for influence like a yuppie RoboCop,” says Roman Roy to his brother Kendall in the latest episode of Succession, both of them sporting lanyards and vests and sour expressions as they gaze across a cavernous, shiny wood room at various rivals. Wherever you go, there you are, and most of the Roy family is at a lavish conference for the point-oh-oh-oh-one percent, the kind of place where Airbus sponsors a sought-after hike; where the salads are not only not complimentary, they are 70 bucks; where at least one attendee, the poncho-clad Tom Wambsgans, raves that he feels as though he’s “fallen into a barrel of deal tits,” even if few others (those without a 300-year investing horizon or a standup gig anyway) seem to be having any fun.
To paraphrase Groucho Marx, no one really wants to be part of any club that would have their sorry asses as members. And to quote Karl Marx (no relation), “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” Nestled in the Venn diagram overlap of these two concepts—call it the lure of exclusionary lore—is this sort of modern ultraelite super-retreat that almost no one gets invited to anyway. “WELCOME TO ARGESTES,” reads a marquee sign somewhere on the sprawling premises of the paparazzi-happy event shown in Succession. “SEE, HEAR, DO, BE.”
This is catchier and more grammatically correct, somehow, than the botched new “WE HERE FOR YOU” slogan for ATN News that Tom and Cousin Gregory hatch up while standing beneath it; no one said that the ideas of the ruling class would actually be good. But where is all this seeing and hearing and doing and being (and doobie-ing, one would hope) meant to be taking place? What is the real-world equivalent of this satirical and specific stop on the thriving thinkfluencer-baron-tellectual summit-camp-aroo circuit?
As with so much of Succession, from the who’s who of its characters to the what’s it of its featured weekly corporate subterfuge, there are so many fertile sources of rich content to mine right here on planet Earth that, when it comes to clowning on the lucrative/exploitative habits of the world’s power brokers, it’s almost easier to ask what the show’s influence isn’t. Some of the to-dos listed below seem to have inspired “Argestes” directly, some will hopefully help shape future episodes in far-flung seasons, and all of them are part of the general socioeconomic ambiance once described aptly by Michael Hirschorn, then of The Atlantic, as the “clusterfuckoisie,” which would also be the perfect tagline for Succession.
The Platinum Passes
The World Economic Forum, (“Davos”): Ask someone to quickly lightning-round answer what comes to mind when you say “global ideas conference” or “place where CEOs take their private jets to go opine about the intersection of philanthropy and automation” and they will probably say Davos. It has become like the Kleenex or Jell-O of this world, the brand-name leader that has become shorthand for the whole Successories-on-steroids space.
In 1997, an editorial in the Economist described the event thusly: “Although 40 or so heads of state will troop to Davos this weekend, the event is paid for by companies, and run in their interests. They do not go to butter up the politicians; it is the other way around. Davos Man, finding it boring to shake the hand of an obscure prime minister, prefers to meet Microsoft’s Bill Gates.” And this was in defense of the whole thing!
A big CNBC feature in 2015 examined the storied history of the conference, which was first held in 1971 and has been the location of legitimate meetings of geopolitical import and of teaching bigwigs to meditate. The piece also quoted British financier Nat Rothschild’s savage summation of what Davos has since become:
Logan Roy was not happy that his family’s private plane had to circle and circle as everyone battled for just a few spots. Earlier this year, some 1,500 jets sought to park at Davos, all so their inhabitants could furrow their brows over climate change. People also jockeyed to get into party after party. “The people whom the forum asks to address the problems of global capitalism,” wrote Foreign Policy, “are often the very people who represent the problems of global capitalism (in the eyes of many critics).” Counterpoint: #NotAllDavos, tho!
Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference: Sunday night’s episode of Succession was mostly filmed at the Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid, New York, but just about everything else seemed to be most heavily influenced by the “media finance” conference that takes place in Sun Valley every summer and would be right up Waystar Royco’s alley. Kendall and Roman would fit in nicely on this 2018 Getty Images page titled “The Annual Summer Camp for Billionaires Gallery” and featuring the heads of CBS, Discovery, and Zynga all wearing ill-fitting vests. (Big fan of Rupert Murdoch’s T-Rex hand too.) Kendall and Roman wish they would fit in nicely alongside this now-famous 2017 photo of hella-jacked Jeff Bezos, nametag and all.
The episode’s name, “Argestes,” refers to the Greek word for cloud-clearing northwesterly winds, like the ones blowing Nan Pierce back to Tern Haven. New York Times reporter Edmund Lee, who covers the business of media, saw the episode as a clear nod to Sun Valley, though he pointed out a few differences, namely what the heck was Greg doing there? Lee also noted that at the real conference, there are not nearly as many underlings and handlers diluting the scene.
Hey media reporters, do you feel a chill in the occipital? Tonight’s #Succession episode: SUN VALLEY edition!!!— Edmund Lee (@edmundlee) September 16, 2019
• it’s not summer
• cousin Greg would never make the cut
• there’d never be any handlers
• there wouldn’t be a nightclub
• also, no branded vests?!
Still, there’s plenty of wheeling and dealing both good and bad. The seeds of the disastrous AOL–Time Warner merger were said to have first been planted in Sun Valley, as were those that led to Google’s buying YouTube. A merger between video game behemoth Activision and international conglomerate Vivendi was finalized during the conference in 2008, the same year Viacom and CBS head Sumner Redstone, who wasn’t even present, still managed to make waves around Sun Valley when he went on CNBC during the event and “said flatly that his daughter [Shari] was no longer the company’s heir apparent and that she would leave the board,” per The New York Times. Hmm, sound familiar? (For what it’s worth, Shari Redstone was recently named chairwoman of the board of ViacomCBS.)
Also in the mix: The Aspen Ideas Festival began in 2005, but has roots that date back to the ’50s, which is when an industrialist from Chicago sought to improve the postwar image of his ancestral Germany by holding a 20-day event to celebrate the 200th birthday of the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. (The chosen birthday boy, wrote Ian MacAllister-McDonald in the Los Angeles Review of Books, was “decidedly German, but couldn’t be too harshly blamed for the catastrophes of the Third Reich, having been safely dead for the past 117 years.”) That turned into the Aspen Institute, which now holds the Ideas Festival, where one can sample “paleo-inspired ManCave brand chicken jerky” and think not at all about the Germans.
The Old Guard
Renaissance Weekend: Time was when Supreme Court justices and Peggy Noonan and the entire Clinton family descended on Hilton Head, South Carolina, year after year for what the L.A. Times in 1992 called “a five-day ‘intellectual house party’ conceived as an alternative New Year’s celebration” and described as kicking off with 500 “luminaries and their families” holding hands and singing “God Bless America.” (By 1997, The New York Times was noting that “the President skipped the self-improvement sessions and headed straight for the golf course.”)
Since then, though, the star has faded on the once-hot get-together. It’s now more of an overarching brand than anything else; in the next 10 months alone there are four scheduled Renaissance Weekends, in Ojai Valley, Charleston, Amelia Island, and Banff. And the website FAQs—“How can I get a sense of the distinction & variety of past Renaissance Weekends’ participants with whom I might be familiar?”—are apparently written in the tone of a person ready to complain to a manager, or at least to ask their people to do it.
Bilderberg Group: It’s oddly comforting to know that even when a bunch of statesman types first started meeting in the Netherlands in 1954 to open better dialogue between Europe and North America, a corporation was involved: The Dutch head of Unilever was one of the initial participants in the secretive annual meeting that is now held in Switzerland and recently drew the likes of Jared Kushner, Joe Pompeo, the obligatory Kissinger, the Dutch King, and Stacey Abrams. With its off-the-record opacity and its supposed insistence that no additional guests, whether wives or boyfriends or bodyguards, are allowed to attend, the Bilderberg Group has become a target for the sort of conspiracy theorists who imagine lizards in robes and shadow governments and the real Illuminati.
Also in the mix: The annual Kappa Beta Phi roast may not be a physical getaway, per se, but Kevin Roose’s undercover report demonstrates that it is definitely a moral retreat. More wholesome, though probably too inclusive for this list, is the annual pilgrimage to Omaha, Nebraska, the land of Warren Buffett, for the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Meeting. Even events with headliners who are in their 80s and 90s can get pretty lit.
The New Guard
Summit Series: “We want to create the Allen & Co retreat for young people,” Summit Series organizer Elliot Bisnow told CNET in 2008 during a retreat in Cancun that he and his team named the “Young World Leaders Summit.” The first of these retreats consisted of 19 people in Park City, while the second, in Mexico, had closer to 60 people involved and sponsors ranging from Goldman Sachs to Staples. By 2013, the Summit founders were living together in a mansion in Malibu and had bought a whole freaking mountain in Utah, purchasing the ski resort Powder Mountain for $40 million. By 2016, 3,000 youngfluencers set sail for a four-day cruise called Summit at Sea. Recently, Architectural Digest called Powder Mountain “the hottest design destination you probably haven’t heard of,” while Summit’s website describes it as “a global community of entrepreneurs, academics, athletes, artists, astronauts, authors, chefs, engineers, explorers, philanthropists, spiritual leaders, scientists, and beyond.” All invite-only, natch: Prospective guests are “screened and interviewed to ensure they display the correct ‘psychographic’ (or mindset) for the events.”
The Weekend to be Named Later: All good movements are bound to have a schism, and about 15 years ago Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, decided to break away from the fusty old Renaissance Weekend and start his own exclusive retreat, this one called the Weekend to Be Named Later. According to a 2015 article in The New Yorker, TWtBNL is a “highly scripted annual conference held between Christmas and New Years” to which attendees bring the whole family and spend their days tackling big existential questions and their nights playing games. (It’s unclear whether being named as a key location in a 2011 federal suit involving Cory Booker, rapper Snoop Lion, and the crafting of jewelry from AK-47s was part of the script.)
Also in the mix: Rest in perfection—Further Future, the “transformational festival” that made a brief splash as “the tech-centric, unapologetically luxurious alternative to Burning Man, complete with personal assistants, spa treatments and fine dining,” was postponed in 2017, and has lay dormant ever since, waiting to reactivate and wreak havoc one day just like a prehistoric pathogen buried under the snows of Siberia! And then there are TED talks, which have lost some of their oomph now that just about any chucklehead can claim to have delivered one at some satellite event. But there was a time not that long ago that they could be described as venture capitalist David Hornik did in 2010. “Don’t look now,” he remembers a friend telling him about the people sitting near them at a TED event, “but if this row blows up, The New York Times will report 7 people died today, five of whom were Herbie Hancock, Yo-Yo Ma, Frank Gehry, Rupert Murdoch and [someone amazing who I can’t remember].”
The Silicon Valley Universe Crossover Episode
Sci FOO Camp: Just imagine: Waystar Royco somehow accidentally acquires Pied Piper and Roman Roy finds himself staring down Martin Starr’s character over s’mores at Sci Foo Camp; it will be canon. It’s an absolutely iconic flex to name one’s sought-after tech getaway something that sounds like a Saturday-morning cartoon. But when you’re a guy like Tim O’Reilly, who went from writing computer manuals to popularizing the term “Web 2.0,” the smartest people in the room are happy to literally set up tents on your company HQ’s lawn. TechCrunch has called this event “Shangri-La for geeks.” Celebrating a decade of the event, one of its organizers explained that it puts the “un” in “un-conference.” (For some, though, the event more so puts the “un” in “unable to adapt in a meaningful way to the moral quandaries of climate change.”)
The Lobby: As every jaded retreat/conference-goer loves to tell people, the real good conversations are the ones that take place in the hallway outside the fancy-schmancy panels. And lo, the Lobby was born: an exclusive weekend in Hawaii that eschews antiquated concepts like “panels” or “speakers” altogether in favor of attendees being “randomly combined into six-person teams to play The Game, a three-hour series of puzzles and riddles.” Honestly, terror fuel.
Also in the mix: South by Southwest may be overdone by now, but it’s still the place where Twitter essentially debuted and where you need billions in disposable income to afford a hotel room. Silicon Valley already portrayed a TechCrunch Disrupt type megaconference, but imagine a bored Shiv attending one to scout some competition and sleeping with Russ Hanneman? And finally, the Nevada-based Burning Man needs no explanation, just this photo of Ray Dalio, your favorite investing legend’s favorite investing legend, a 70-year-old dude with a net worth of $18 billion, expanding his horizons out on the playa.
Just back from Burning Man. Reminds me of Woodstock with better art (installations) and less good music. What a great vibe and what amazing creativity!— Ray Dalio (@RayDalio) September 2, 2019
Photo is with my pal and coworker Jeff Taylor at his great music camp Root Society. If you go next year, 1-5am is best. pic.twitter.com/ua5UIbRlxo
Suck it, Sun Valley.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.