Utopia in Utah: A Ski Town for the Biggest and Brightest Names in Tech

© Tim Pannell / Forbes Collection / Corbis Outline

The founders of the Summit Series (think Davos meets Burning Man) are planning a modern utopia on a Utah mountaintop, where innovators—including investors Richard Branson and Chris Blackwell—can live, ski, and change the world.

At the top of the Utah mountain with the widest swath of skiable terrain in America, near the town of Eden, four young men are building a utopia for thought leaders and creative elites from the ground up. The hub of this community, the 7,500 square-foot Valley Lodge, is already in place, as is a yurt that serves as a gathering spot for impromptu dinner parties. More infrastructure is on the way, including 500 home sites and six boutique hotels. A hostel will rent rooms for $18 a night to silence any whisper of exclusivity.

This is the plan for Summit Powder Mountain, where innovators of every stripe will be able to live among the pines and—perhaps over coffee, perhaps after a lucid-dreaming session—come together and basically blow one another’s minds.

A little background: In 2005, Elliott Bisnow, then a 20-year-old college dropout, launched a successful e-newsletter empire with his father, radio host Mark Bisnow, in Washington, D.C. Three years later, in search of his next big idea, he cold-called some start-up founders he admired and invited them to go on a ski trip with him to Alta, Utah. He charged the weekend to his credit card and schussed down the slopes with philanthropist and Tom’s Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie, the Vimeo and College Humor founders, and the guy who launched Thrillist. This was the start of what would become the Summit Series.

Part TED Talk, part Davos, part Burning Man, Summit has grown into a global collective of some 10,000 members who range from astronauts to yogis to CMOs and musicians. Bill Clinton, Brian Grazer, ocean explorer Sylvia Earle, and The Roots have attended Summit Series events. Prospective members are vetted through “curators,” and if they make it in (the process is closely guarded), they are invited on “hosted weekends”—a chartered cruise to the Bahamas with 1,500 passengers, for example, or a White House event for 20. “It’s hard to get people together and inspire them in a windowless conference room,” says Bisnow. “It’s easier on a ship that’s headed to an uninhabited island in the Caribbean for three days, with amazing music.”

More than two years ago, Bisnow and his partners (close friends Jeff Rosenthal, Brett Leve, and Jeremy Schwartz) decided it was high time this nomadic collective planted some roots. So they got 115 people to invest more than $40 million to purchase the 10,000 acres adjacent to the cult 1970s ski resort Powder Mountain. They took out a $20 million bond with Eden and built a new road and a sanitation plant. “Preferred” architects will build up to 500 homes that vary in price from $150,000 for a treehouse to $3.2 million for a fully built cantilevered Mountain Modern house with direct access to fresh powder. Several treehouses will be ready by fall, and other homes will be close to completion. None will be larger than 4,500 square feet.

Investors include Mycoskie, Richard Branson, snowboarder Danny Davis, WPP chairman Sir Martin Sorrell, hotelier and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, and General Electric CMO Beth Comstock. The point of Summit Powder Mountain isn’t to be neighbors with Blackwell and Mycoskie, though proximity may lead to some unforeseen encounters. “They set a vibe that encourages people to be people first and professionals second,” says Powder Mountain investor Gayle Troberman, the CMO of music-streaming platform iHeartMedia, conceding that “a lot of connections happen during hosted weekends.” The annual fee for all this camaraderie is $4,000.

The project has its skeptics. Greg Lindsay, senior fellow at the New Cities Foundation, is one of them. “There is an obvious antecedent to this, which is Aspen,” he says. “I don’t think they ever will get to the density required.” Lindsay argues that Summit Powder Mountain is “a network play—as in, ‘I want to hang out with Richard Branson!’ It sounds like a membership club, and that becomes deadening.”

Rameet Chawla, 32, founder of the app-development company Fueled, disagrees. He invested in Summit Powder Mountain not so much because of what it might be but because of what it already is. At one hosted weekend on the mountain, Chawla spent 40 minutes in an ashram talking to author Esther Perel, and at another, significant time chatting with architect Bjarke Ingels. “Everyone is invited to the same party,” he says. “And everyone in the room is worth meeting.”