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Thursday, August 01, 2013

Summit: Outside — From The Inside

Guest Post by Alex Lawerence

This is being reprinted with permission from the author.  It was originally posted at Startup Flavor.

Summit: Outside — From The Inside

Tents - NightMuch has been written about Summit, their events and the people that attend them. Summit, as a whole, now includes Powder Mountain and all of the property, employees and outdoor opportunities that come along with these terrific mountains of Northern Utah. They’ve been hosting events for years in different locations around the US but are now permanently based here with the PowMow purchase. As a result of that move, I live and work near their new home. As I’ve written previously, I think the future is brighter with Summit in town.
Many people, including those in the immediate area, throughout the State of Utah and beyond wonder, as I did, what goes on at Summit? Who attends? What do they do? How do you get invited? Being their new neighbor and introduced a few years ago by mutual friend Shervin Pishevar, it was time for me to finally experience Summit for myself. This post will share some play-by-play of what was going on, who was there, and my overall impression of Summit as an event, a gathering, and a new and important citizen of Northern Utah.
I’ll do my best to provide detail and opinions. I should note my ticket to Summit was not free and I have no financial or other interest related in any way to Summit. There is no doubt I want them to succeed, so my comments and opinions are definitely from a positive place. Having said that, I’ve been around the block a few times and don’t give them a pass on reputation alone. My opinions are my own and are unfiltered.

An email arrived inviting me to attend Summit and took me to Summit: Outside to register and setup a profile. I uploaded a photo, answered some questions they’d set up for all attendee profiles, linked my social media accounts, and boom — I was now a part of ‘The Collective’, a password protected site that showed me everyone else’s profile. Without sharing personal details, here are some of the 850 people that attended Summit — Outside:
CEO/Founder of many companies that you and I know and use every week. Trillions of dollars in value created from this group.
Authors/journalists that have written popular pieces and books or currently work for large, global news outlets (television, web and print).
Musicians, poets, fashion entrepreneurs, music executives, directors and people related to the film, music and entertainment industry. I met quite a few creative folks that are making movies, music, fashion and art around the world. Some of them are big names I’d heard of but many of them were new to me.
Founders and Partners at large VC and private equity funds. Some of the biggest names in investing were there. Boutique family funds with hundreds of millions under management, all the way up to the biggest billion dollar firms in the world.
A lot of PhD’s. Educators and researchers educated and working at the finest institutions in the World. Some are solving huge problems (medicine, education reform and more), others were part of a tech company or for-profit effort. Either way, this was a really smart grouping of talent.
Those doing “social good” — working for non-profits and helping with serious problems in tough places. A lot of people at Summit really were out trying to help the world be a better place. Hunger, disease, poverty, fighting inequality and other social injustices were what some attendees do full time.
There is another group of people that fall into the “I don’t know what they do” category. Some are just rich kids from rich families — they know some people and they do these kinds of things a lot I’d guess. Others are trying to break into one of the categories listed above, and some I’m sure are just friends of Summit founders. Overall though, the list of profiles in The Collective was the most impressive I’ve ever seen. I don’t think the State of Utah has had this much diversity and talent in one place since the Olympics of 2002.
After setting up my account and going thru the profiles, you were asked to choose what type of accomodations you wanted to pay for. The range was $3,000 up to $10,000 I believe. The cheapest being a large, shared tent with others all the way up to private RV’s with air conditioning and televisions. I opted for the lower end, a small tent to myself. It had a bed, some carpet that was rolled down, a foot locker with some towels, and that was it. Very sparse, but clean. There was also a light out front with a solar powered charger plugged into it. Here is a photo of my tent:
After selecting accommodations, there were a few emails between then and the actual event. The emails were mostly just reminders to bring things for being outside (boots, sunscreen, etc.) but also a reminder of what not to bring (your laptop and lighters/cigarettes). They also highly encouraged taking a Summit shuttle from the airport directly to the event. Rental cars were discouraged as there really was no reason to have a car.
Friday arrived and it was time to check in. Since I do live here, I drove up to Wolf Creek, which is where check in was held. I waited in a line of about 40 people or so. Everyone was really friendly and we all started introducing ourselves as we waited. The people around me were all so diverse. Different backgrounds, different interests, different careers, different ethnicities, different sexes, different locations that they came from. I met and talked to about 15 people in line that were all very interesting. Utah needs a lot more diversity in every sense of the word, and in the first 30 minutes I had experienced a lot of it.
After making it to the front of the line, I showed my ID, checked in and moved to another station. We were then given a leather bracelet, locked on with a rivet, to wear as entrance for the weekend. The girl putting the bracelets on told me that some people still had theirs on from last year. That’s kind of cool and kind of crazy. In case you are wondering, I took mine off the day I got home. Nothing against Summit, but I am not wearing a smelly leather bracelet for a year. We were also given a cool Nike backpack with some swag in it that was related to the event (headlamp, t-shirt, Nike Fuel Band to track our activities and more). After that it was time to head up to the main event location.
I drove my car up to the top of Powder Mountain’s main parking lot and got into a shuttle with about eight people in it. I rode up with my friend, Jessica from Founder Dating, along with a newly graduated Berkeley student here to work for Summit and a few other locals employed by Summit for the event. I would guess that hundreds of local people were hired for weeks and months to prepare for this event. I should note right out of the gates that I asked a lot of people working how they were treated, what they thought of the Summit team and so forth. I got genuine answers from all of them that were 100% positive. That they were treated great. That the founders spent time really talking to and getting to know them. They they were fed the same gourmet meals that the rest of the folks were eating. That they felt respected. All of them said versions of this and that made me really happy. I want locals to be treated well! And from the 20+ that I spoke with, it sounds like they definitely are. I’m sure that won’t always be the case, but overall, it was clear to me that Summit walks the talk.
Anyhow, back to the details…
We were shuttled past a few security checkpoints (all of us had to show our bracelets) and then dropped off at the main entrance at the top of Powder Mountain. The very top. There were people there to take our bags to our tent (or they were already delivered there, much like a hotel). I opted to carry mine down. When registering, there was an option to stay in the “quiet zone”, which meant the furthest away from the main stage. As a Dad that is old, married and Mormon, I opted for this area. Little did I know, I’d have the best location of anyone, the last row of tents meant my view was not of other tents, but rather the beautiful Utah mountains I love so much. I dumped off my single suitcase and new Nike backpack and immediately headed out for a walk to explore.
Summit was setup into six different areas. They were the tent city, main stage and pond, dining, adventure outpost, various discussion locations, and the electric forrest/stage. I’ll go thru my experience with each, but basically each day and night was spent floating between all of these venues. There were almost too many things to choose from (first world problems for sure). I found that most people enjoyed an early morning discussion or activity, a healthy breakfast (more on the food later), and then spent the day going back and forth between intellectually stimulating discussions, outdoor adventures and meals. The night was spent going to more discussions, having dinner and then enjoying music until as early, or as late, as you’d like.
Tent City
Tent City
As you can see from the photo, 850 people in tents take up a bit of space. This is where we slept, showered and used the restroom really. That was about it. The tents were nice and the showers/bathrooms were private (in portable trucks driven to the site), but it was minimalist, which was just fine with me. No power outlets anywhere either! I liked that, too. There were four different kinds of recycling bins at every turn, so there was a real effort to keep the mess to a minimum. Surely the pure outdoor enthusiasts will be unhappy that there were tons of trucks, power cords, and other things that will leave a mark on the area. Some trails were cut in for walking travel and some roads were made for vehicle travel. That will make many locals unhappy as they want every foot of land untouched, forever.

What I saw was a sensitivity to the land, a focus on recycling, and many things that were temporary that will leave next to no mark on the area whatsoever. Some things will though, and for that, I’m not sure what to say. Summit paid $40 million to own this land. They can do what they want with it. I really truly believe though that they will not try to harm it, nor will they ignore the beauty in their efforts to improve it. I think Summit will make more improvements (by far) than problems, and that the overall area will be much nicer because of the investments they are making. Again, some things will leave a mark, but more things will be improved. No matter what, there will always be a group of environmentalists that will not be happy though.
After exploring Tent City for a bit, I walked up to the Main Stage area. Near the main stage, and on your way to it, were four things. A place to grab free snacks (Clif Bars and so forth), a barbershop (no kidding – a place to get your haircut), a puppy adoption area (people adopted about 10 puppies from a local shelter that weekend) and an outdoor bar for drinks. This is a video I shot of the stage with a cool group called The League of Extraordinary Dancers (beat box with ballet, violin and breakdancing — it was killer). You can see the pond/swimming area to the right of the stage as well:

Each night there were a variety of musical performances and talks given on this stage. Here is a small list of some of those:
Jonathan Batiste
Esther Perel
Andrew McAfee
The White Buffalo
Chase Iron Eyes
Jon Young
Thievery Corporation
Big Gigantic
Gabe Liedman
Sneaky Sound System
And a whole bunch more. This is a backstage video I shot of Big Boi performing on the main stage during the final evening:

There was also a stage out in the middle of the forrest, what was called the Electric Forrest in fact. This was were a DJ would spin music until the wee hours of the morning. It was an amazing site to see all of these LED’s floating from the trees. Here is a photo of what was a beautiful and creative way to light up the night:
During the day we had the opportunity to attend many interesting discussions as well as have some fun outdoors. The choices were difficult to make. Did you go to a discussion about the future of medicine, or mountain biking? I did both (as did pretty much everyone else). The days and nights were packed with activities and options. Here is a very tiny, tiny list of some of the choices.
The University Is Dead, Long Live The University
Becoming Bulletproof: Six Biohacks To Supercharge Your Life
Black, Brown, Yellow, White: The Face of Future America
Our Struggle For The Internet
UNICEF — Revolutionizing Education
Love, Sex and Power: The Intricacies of Desire
Office hours with Loic Le’Meur, Ryan Sarver, Tony Hseih and other talented people
Each of these were generally in small groups and in the case of office hours, one on one. The topical discussions felt like interactive TED talks with small groups instead of audiences, and chats instead of presentations. I loved the format. Here is a photo of the one I attended about higher education:
higher ed discussion
The subjects covered a very wide variety of issues including race, class, gender, equality, environment, business and more. It truly was a smorgasborg of worldwide talent and you could pick and choose where to learn for an hour before going somewhere else do to the same. I could have spent a week just going to all of these options, they were that good and that interesting.
The outdoor activities allowed everyone to really experience Utah and the outdoor beauty it has to offer. I personally was really happy to see this fully integrated into Summit. You went to the Adventure Outpost (pictured) to check in and go to your activity.
Adventure Outpost
Some of the choices we had included:
Mountain biking
Horseback riding
Trail running
Yoga and Pilates
Survival Workshops
Nature Walks
Hammocks for naps in the woods
I saw and talked to a lot of people who live in big cities. They just don’t get the opportunity to do a lot of these things like I do. It was really fun to see the pure joy on their faces and in their reactions as they got closer to nature. I heard dozens of times things similar to “I can’t believe you live here and get to do this stuff all the time.” Those comments made me smile, too.
I loved talking to people about Utah, Ogden, Weber State and all of the things going on in the area. So many people were genuinely interest in Startup Ogden. They wanted to know what was going on with startups, entrepreneurship and other business related stuff in my immediate area and in Utah as a whole. I hope I was a good ambassador for Utah and gave them the answers they sought. It was fun to be able to be the local though.
The Food
Wow. Just wow. Summit knows how to do food! Having owned a few restaurants myself over the years, I know how hard it is to serve 850 people anything, anytime, anywhere. This was 850 people on top of a mountain, and the food was truly magnificent. One of the most impressive, and coolest things they did was building a table to seat all 850 of us together in a meadow. Summit wanted all of us to break bread together, and we literally did that on Saturday night. Here is a photo of that 1/4 mile table — quite the site to behold!
1:4 mile dinner
Most of it was incredibly healthy, organic and whenever possible, made using local Utah crops. Summit has a lot of world class chefs as friends and they came to cook the meals for all of the attendees. Some of the chef teams included:
Viet Pham
David Varley
Jesse Barber
Marcel Vigneron and Haru Kishi
I’ll be the first to admit, I have no idea who these people are. What I do know? They can cook! I also met some terrific chefs from all around the USA that were here to make their famous meals for all of us. These talented folks allowed me to enjoy Korean BBQ wings prepared by a great chef from New Orleans, Creminelli Salami and Beehive Cheese as a snack, fresh homemade organic ice cream from an ice cream truck driving around and other fun choices throughout the day. Lunch and Dinner included the finest fresh ingredients from Utah to support lean cuts of bison, fish and other terrific dishes that were both tasty and healthy. I cannot even describe half of the meals, because the ingredients were too varied and unique for me to recall.

What I Didn’t See
I’ve seen some locals talk about Summit and their fear that raging parties are what Summit is really about. While I am sure there are and will be Summit employees and/or attendees that will do inappropriate things, have parties, and keep people up late, this is not what I saw and I do not believe this is what Summit is about. The founders and attendees of Summit cannot control every person for every minute. There will indeed be growing pains for the Ogden Valley associated with people related to Summit. This is a very conservative place, so even things like drinking will cause problems for some residents. The first time someone related to Summit gets in trouble or comes into a local restaurant and is rude, or rents a home nearby and throws a wild party — all of the locals will tell me “I told you so!” — so I’m preempting that. It will happen. When you have hundreds and even thousands of people working at and associated with an event or company (as is the case with Summit), you will have problems. Count on it. Here is the key though, in my opinion. I think it will be rare, I think Summit will take care of it appropriately when it happens, and I think it is so far outweighed by all of the other positive benefits that it’s almost a non-issue altogether.
I looked closely for crazy things to happen. I’m a conservative person and an active Mormon living in Utah. I’m pretty sure I’m about as boring as it gets in terms of drinking and drugs, too. In fact, I’ve never tried either in my entire life. So I looked and listened intently for many of the things I thought the locals of the Ogden Valley would find offensive. Summit said several times in email, and at the event, that there was a “zero spark” policy on the Mountain — meaning no smoking of any kind. Regardless of the rules, that’s going to be difficult to control in a setting like this. Heck on an average winter day on the slopes of any ski resort in Utah it’s impossible to control. There was wine at each dinner and two “saloons” that were near the two stages. Mixed drinks were served at both along with various beers. As a non-drinker myself, I watched as others enjoyed drinks to take with them to listen to music and just hang out. I saw no one who was drunk, although I am sure some did drink enough to get there. I just didn’t see it. The reason I didn’t see it, or feel like it stuck out, is because it felt like most other music events at night. A number of people weren’t drinking at all, but some were. Some drank more than others. But the nights were about music and fun — not alcohol. So again, no craziness here. People danced until 2 and 3am in the morning each night. Heck, I tried my best and made it until about 2am one night. It was a lot of fun to dance. It was good, clean fun though. People were laughing and smiling and dancing. I enjoyed myself and as a conservative Mormon felt totally comfortable at all times.
Invite Only
As most of you probably know, Summit is an invite only event. A lot of people don’t like that. I have no problem with it though. There are many great events in the world that I cannot get into and will not be invited to. I’ve tried to get into All Things D’s big tech event a few times and no luck. I’ve never been invited to the main TED event in California. I’m fine with that because that’s just the way it goes. When kids are little, I think it is great that all of them get a medal for participating. But we are adults, not all of us need a medal, right? Besides, if Summit were not in my backyard, giving me opportunities to meet and work with the Summit team, I doubt I would have been invited as well. No medal for Alex.
The reason that they are invite only though is very important to note; the attendees are meant to be innovators from around the world. Many are innovators in business and I met tons of technology entrepreneurs. I met, heard from and read about attendees that are true innovators in many other areas as well including science, health, education, art and more. There is no doubt that not every single person there was an innovator though. In fact, I don’t consider myself much of an innovator or all that unique — so there were times I wondered if I’d be invited back since I felt very unaccomplished compared to many of the people I met. Having said that, some of the conversations I overheard were quite shallow and some of the people definitely were there to take more than to give. But much like the few other negatives I mentioned, this was such a tiny minority that it didn’t really register for me until I wrote this blog post.
Overall, I like that invitees are curated and that the number of people that can come is capped. I don’t want an unlimited amount of people coming. I like that it is small, special and unique. I’ll still like it if I never get invited back. I think that is part of what makes it special. There are tons of events every year that all of us can go to.
Summing Up Summit
The people were amazing, talented, diverse and truly innovative.
The food was off the charts good.
The music was eclectic and had a nice variety of styles and flavors.
Quality was everywhere and a vibe that felt healthy and positive abounded.
The event was incredibly well organized and well thought out.
I’d take my wife and kids if I could.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Utah is very lucky to have Summit here. I predict it will add more to the Utah economy and the Utah reputation than Sundance. I’d rather have Summit over Google Fiber or Sundance. Truly, I think the benefit of having the worlds most innovative people in your backyard one or more times a year trumps fast Internet speeds or independent film making. Please note, both of those things are awesome for Utah! Just comparing the impact I think each has had or will have.
Many, many brilliant people will come to Northern Utah that otherwise would never, ever visit here. Some of them will buy homes. Some will buy timeshares. Some will come to vacation. Some will just come to Summit once a year. If you live in Ogden Valley and never want it to get bigger and never want anyone different than yourself to move in or visit, than Summit is bad news for you I suppose. But for the rest of us, that like controlled growth, diversity, new ideas and new people, the addition of Summit to Northern Utah is terrifically exciting. Thrilling in fact. I welcome Summit visitors and hope more of them come more often. They are a classy, talented, inspiring group of people. I hope they feel welcome when they are here.
Because they will come again, AND THAT WILL BE AWESOME!
About Alex Lawrence
Alex has been a successful entrepreneur for 20+ years. His current venture Lendio ranks #34 on the Inc. 500 list. Alex earned a BS degree at the University of Utah and his MBA at Weber State University, where he is Vice Provost and Director of the Entrepreneurship Program. If you want to talk with Alex about business and entrepreneurship (or other questions), email him (alex AT startupflavor DOT com), or you can find him on Twitter @_AlexLawrence.


robertkunz said...

As a local, I too was able to attend Summit. I commend Alex for his thorough review of his weekend at Summit and agree with his sentiments. With that being said, I can only comment on the Summit Series event and as far as that goes it was as unique, inventive, surreal and absolutely utilitarian & useful, and more importantly far, far more fun than the many idiotic conferences I've attended in Las Vegas. I'll actually remember this event and remember many lessons learned.

watchu2 said...

Thank you for the commentary, but nobody can address what their plans are for the ski resort....not the land. I am still fearful that the ski resort will be no more after the collective convention city really start rolling. I wish somebody would truthfully tell me something differently.

robertkunz said...

I cannot imagine that a community like the one Summit is describing can exist without the ambiance and support of a vibrant PowMow. Personally, I prefer old slow lifts, ancient lodges and no crowds but regardless of what Summit is doing, PowMow has definitely gotten a reputation as a great ski mountain and skiers are coming.
With demand on the rise for PowMow upgrades are inevitable. I think the opportunity to create something unique instead of another Snowbird type resort is available. The Summit group does seem to roll to a different beat, which I hope corresponds to PowMow not following the development craziness found at PC and the Cottonwoods and can keep offering a great 'SKIING' experience.

Steve said...

Some of us, who have actually lived in other places, find the diversity in the state of Utah to be wholly adequate. There are diverse measures of diversity, and finding it among "the relatively wealthy" is something of a testament to the country in which we live. But please, PLEASE stop touting diversity and its benefits as something uniquely attainable by upscale, invite-only events held annually at a private resort. Instead, use your skills and influence and wealth to mingle among the good people of this state in trains, busses, downtowns, rural settings, resorts and walmarts, and you are likely to have similarly rewarding experiences at a fraction of the cost, any day of the year, with much less impact on the environment, potentially. I'm not opposed to elite, invite only settings, and I'm sure you are a wonderfully intelligent, well meaning, good person. I only take issue with the comments about diversity which is a construct which can mean so many things and be so incredibly subjective and relative, that it becomes rote and meaningless outside of the context.

Also, I'm not opposed to Summit group's takeover of PowMow, per se, but I certainly am wary of a newcomer that wields enormous influence with the press and the elite. Their public meetings are laudable, but time will tell what kind of attention they give to the feelings and ideas of others, and what impact their development ideas and motives ultimately have on the community, resort, state, and environment. Nobody is perfect in that regard, but 3, 5, 10, and 20 years down the line, us locals and the rest will have a better idea of the consequences of their choices. I'm cautiously optimistic.