I was floating in the turquoise waters of Tulum at the southern end of the beach just before the luxury boutique hotels yield to the protected biosphere. Covered in Mayan clay, along with some 20 or so other people I’ve only just met, we had just finished meditating on negativity and fear and were ritually washing it all off and, according to our guide, floating toward our futures. I felt empty and grateful, yet with a lingering sense of FOMO that no ritual cleansing could erase the packed calendar of activities that awaited me on shore.
Before the meditation, some of us had been in artificial intelligence discussions, diversity strategy pow pows, cryptocurrency lectures, and reconnecting with our true selves in a sweat lodge. I still needed to sign up for the stand-up paddleboard yoga in the cenotes, strategize my pop-up, get an open-fire-cooked dinner in town, and rest up for a late night DJ session in the jungle or a set of ironic Montreal soft-pop by the pool.
Such is Summit Tulum, a kind-of conference, kind-of all-inclusive play-hard, network-softly, change-the-world long weekend that’s part of the Summit Series. If you haven’t heard of Summit, here’s the capsule description: it’s a series of conferences and gatherings that take place in downtown Los Angeles, D.C., New York, the Mathews Mountains of Kenya, and once on a cruise ship. Past speakers include Richard Branson, Bill Clinton, and Esther Perel. You must apply to attend. Its home base is on Powder Mountain, a 10,000-acre estate outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, where the Summit Institute resides. The company owns the mountain and are developing an intentional community of multi-million dollar vacation homes. There are weekly events at Soho House in Manhattan and dinners and gatherings around the country. Summit’s stated mission is to “create unique gatherings to catalyze entrepreneurship, creative achievement, and global change to create a more joyful world.”
With its intentional community ethos and progressive mandate, it has a deeper appeal than WeWork and other co-working spaces that aim to create a sense of community among disparate entrepreneurs. While I’d heard of other co-working organizations like Roam and Outsite with more of a travel bent offering various combinations of “workcation,” my schedule hadn’t allowed me the opportunity to go full nomad. But over two weekends, one in Tulum and one on Powder Mountain, what I experienced was the natural next step of the convergence of co-working, co-travel, and bleisure (that’s shorthand for business and leisure). Summit’s curated mix of start-up founders, tech titans, thought leaders and investors mark the highest expression of blurred work, play, and travel: call it entrepretourism.
While this could tilt into a vacation ruined by business card swapping, or a work trip made worthless by boozy brunches, Summit lays out some rules that attendees actually follow, because it’s a relief from the real world: no pitching business, no social media, be present and open and generous with all attendees. Don’t fanboy the big shots and don’t ignore the startup kids. And then it builds enough madcap mindfulness that any sense of self-seriousness is going to be challenged.
On the opening night of the Utah weekend, part of the ongoing, nearly monthly Summit Mountain Series, I found myself pummeling the back of a stranger with open palms as, in turn, my back was being pummeled by another stranger. We were two of approximately 200 people doing the same at tables draped in white linen, dotted with bottles of wine and hard Kombucha, candles illuminating us as a primitive thrum echoed off the beams of the dining room. We hit each other at the behest of a spoken word artist named "In Q". And no matter whether attendees were VCs or vedic meditators, cannabis startup founders or bold-faced TED talkers, they all happily complied. It was apres apres ski, which might explain how impressionable we were.
Yes there were good drinks—mezcal and Spanish-style gin and tonics in goblets in Tulum, hard kombucha in Utah—but the food is perhaps more central to the Summit ethos as dining is communal by design, with long tables where guests are encouraged to sit with new people each meal. One member of the Summit team who helps curate the culinary portion is Michael Hebbe, who got his start organizing pop-up dinners in Portland before they became passé. And the food itself and the table is the litmus test for advocating for admission into the community. After you submit your application to attend a Summit event, it’s vetted by the team. Hebbe says the most important question they ask as they consider admission is: “Would we have this person over for Thanksgiving Dinner? It’s the perfect test. You need to trust them. You want to want to spend time with them. You need to feel they won’t be an asshole to anyone, and they won’t embarrass you or your guests.”
In Utah, I embarrassed myself as I nearly blistered my fingers hand-wrapping copper wire around an arrowhead made of obsidian, a crystal I’m told can transform negative energy into a positive. I learned to fold dumplings while discussing the challenges of interstate commerce with two edible cannabis entrepreneurs who’ve come up with a proprietary THC infusion process. I heard Sam Kass, culinary advisor to the Obama Whitehouse, and Alice Waters debate how to best solve the childhood hunger. A debate about artificial intelligence and the reinvention of the recipe spontaneously happened outside the men's room. Someone posited a new platform for empowering microfinance documentary filmmaking. And people skii'd. And there were music performances. And an attendee told me my therapeutic showers aren’t long enough and that I need to do four minutes to reach maximum mental clarity. He told me he learned this biohack from extreme athlete Wim Hof at the last Summit event. On the final day, as people depart the mountain and the beach, cell phone numbers were exchanged and lunches scheduled. As a group of us head to the airport in a rental car, we debate the definition of what experienced. Was it a vacation? Yes, in that we left normal behind, but something like work transpired. Yet it didn’t feel like work.
I asked Jeff Rosenthal, one of the founders, if he had any insights into this feeling we all came away with. He said that Summit is designed partially to create what he calls “the triangulation of goodwill if you’re doing interesting work.” And that if you go to Summit with an open mind, you’ll find that “your vulnerability and authenticity is what moves you forward.” As I headed into my work week after my two Summit experiences, with fading memories of drumming my hands on a stranger’s back and spontaneous free-form idealistic debates under palapas in the tropics, I wondered how long that feeling would last. Back in L.A., I bumped into a friend at the gym after a workout and he espoused a sauna to cold shower treatment. I asked him how long his cold shower lasts. He told me 60 seconds tops. I told him he should do it for four minutes for maximum mental clarity. He asked me where I learned that. I started to say at a conference, and then I almost said a vacation, but I answered as honestly as possible by saying a phrase with at least two meanings that are true: “a trip.”