by Rina Raphael: The exclusive, invite-only event series dubbed “Young TED meets Burning Man” is building a mountain village full of communal gathering and wellness-infused programming…
Could it become the go-to destination for entrepreneurs on a higher mission?
Under the open sky of Powder Mountain, Utah, a sea of yellow wildflowers sways back and forth in the gentle breeze. Deer graze in the tall grasses, beetles scurry past dirt trails, and a Mercedes G Class speeds by a giant yurt.
The yurt exteriors are nothing extraordinary: a bland taupe structure reminiscent of a traditional campsite. But inside awaits a cozy oasis of tufted velvet pillows, overlapping Persian rugs, and detailed wooden beams. Calming spa-like music plays as soon as you enter. A beverage stand holds court, with dirty dishes magically serviced when you’re not around.
Welcome to the communal “living room” of Summit Series, an exclusive event series launched in 2008 that has since evolved into an ambitious real estate development in the posh ski resort area of Eden, Utah. This unorthodox residential clubhouse is located within walking distance of newly established homes housing the global elite. It is one of several ways the invite-only group intends to facilitate high-powered connections.
That’s because Summit seeks to attract more than just seasonal vacationers. They’re playing a long game here: The founders want to build the experiential neighborhood of the future—one built on wellness, community, and influence. That entails selling homes on the premise that this is where you can dine on organic food with your neighbors in the outdoors while potentially recruiting an investor—or, as the visionary founders like to say of such transactions, change the world.
Think of it as Aspen Institute meets Park City, Utah, with a dash of Esalen thrown in. It’s all positivity and gratitude and every other millennial self-care buzzword, but make no doubt about it: These folks mean business.
“When we were kids in our 20s and starting our first businesses, there was no place we could go to be around people who prioritized creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation, and open-mindedness—these are not the values of any physical place,” says Jeff Rosenthal, 34, cofounder of Summit, who often speaks like the walking embodiment of positive psychology. (The cofounder often peppers his company’s trajectory with terms like intentionality, gratitude, and manifestation.) “So we figured out a model where we could have a public resort that essentially functioned like our private reserve.”
WHEN PARTYING CREATIVES GROW UP
At its start in 2008, Summit Series was described as “a young TED meets Burning Man” or “Davos for millennials”—paradise or hell, depending on your social preferences. The roving event series appealed to startup founders, “creatives,” and entrepreneurs who preferred networking in a party setting. Sometimes it was on Powder Mountain, other times on cruise ships or Mexican resorts. Exclusive and high-powered, the group soon attracted the likes of John Legend and Eric Schmidt along with ambitious members who could afford the $2,000+ weekend fee. Over the course of a decade, Summit Series welcomed more than 18,000 attendees globally.
“There’s been billions of dollars of for-profit and nonprofit initiatives that came through Summit that otherwise wouldn’t happen, from things as simple as just like people meeting and starting to do stuff together,” says Rosenthal.
Summit Series was celebrated, loathed, and coveted all at the same time. Critics labeled it an elite playground, a way for the privileged to rub shoulders with their own kind. Despite its call for altruistic world-changing disruption, many couldn’t get past its social capital.
“We thought having [bands like] Pretty Lights and The Roots perform was the most important piece of the puzzle,” reflects Rosenthal. “Now everybody is getting older and more mature. And the world is changing.”
In the last few years, Summit erected a more inclusive tent—one that included a scholarship program, a nonprofit arm that raised over $1 million, and a more diverse database. Today, it’s not uncommon for weekend retreats to host a number of artists, activists, yoga instructors, and charity founders. Recent guests included Nicole Cardoza, founder of Yoga Foster, an organization which brings the practice to schoolchildren in lower-income areas, along with José González, founder of Latino Outdoors, an organization connecting Hispanic communities to nature.
As the Summit team—and its attendees—evolve into a more domestic life (Rosenthal, for one, welcomed a son last year), they’ve adopted a more civic-minded mentality. It’s less about late-night hot tubs and more about where to put down roots. With communal and religious structure eroding, they thought, why not build their community? Who better to build the feel-good wellness hub for burned-out entrepreneurs?
So in 2013, Summit purchased the 10,000 acres making up the Powder Mountain, Utah, ski resort area for $40 million. The real estate play, they argued, would appeal to entrepreneurs who—much like themselves—craved an antidote to an overconnected life: nature.
“We’re very practical radicals,” says Rosenthal. “Our intention is not to just sell real estate. That’s the economic model of running this mountain and running these programs. . . . The mountain is this engine that creates this platform for people to come together and have memorable experiences.”
Only two years into its construction cycle, Summit’s Powder Mountain has already built 35 homes and sold 158 parcels of land. The three neighborhoods, each afforded their own design style, encompass cabins, townhomes, and custom home sites. Homes start at $200,000 for 350 square feet and go up to several million. Per Summit regulations, they cannot exceed 5,000 square feet in size, thereby ending the arms race of who can have the biggest house.
“[Mansions] are just not aligned with our values and culture,” explains Rosenthal.
The limitations undoubtedly stem from the caliber of clientele. So far, notable homeowners include WeWork cofounder Miguel McKelvey, venture capitalist Stephen DeBerry, record producer Chris Blackwell, author Tim Ferris, and former vice chair of General Electric Beth Comstock, among other bold-faced names.
Powder Mountain real estate director Brian Williams says he envisioned something “completely different” from the overdeveloped towns of Deer Valley, Utah, and the Yellowstone Club in the Rocky Mountains. While the previous owners of Powder Mountain planned to establish over 10,000 homes, Summit will limit expansion to under 2,000. It also nixed original plans to add 2 million square feet of retail and two golf courses. Summit endeavors to keep the landscape as untouched as possible.
“The biodiversity here is unbelievable,” says Rosenthal with a touch of awe. “It’s like living in a national park.”
Even traffic got a thoughtful (yet pricey) makeover. Developers minimized the size of roads and fashioned them with soft curves to better mimic the romance of Italian villages. To accommodate the roads, Summit is purchasing Japanese fire trucks that come with narrower wheelbases.
The sensitivity to environmental disruption lends itself to other areas as well. Drawing from the traditional Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi—an “imperfect perfect”—Summit built homes along the steep-slope ridge line in order to prevent long driveways that require significant excavation. That means all the homes sit really close to the road.
“We could literally put houses all over the mountain,” says William, “but what would it be like if we restricted it?”
Summit went so far as to establish mandatory guidelines for landscape design. Homeowners, for example, cannot build fences or use sod of any kind; it must be natural landscape and natural vegetation. That means front and backyards full of wildflowers and roaming deer.
As for design, Summit opted for a style they dub “heritage modernism.” It’s sleek architecture without the brutality of concrete and steel; instead, homes have a softened feel that incorporates dramatic wood stilts and other materials that better complement the wild landscape. For homes highly visible from the main road, Summit requires a percentage of the roof dedicated to a living garden. That way, says Williams, “you don’t see this massive hole just sticking up in the air like a sore thumb.”
Saskatchewan fishing villages served as the inspiration for neighborhood layouts that facilitate walking between homes and communal amenities: Neighbors congregate around fire pits, saunas, and grills in both summer and winter. Public art is built into and around the mountain. That’s in addition to the full weekend programming available at Summit’s chief gathering place, The Sky Lodge, a luxe dining and event space which sits atop the mountain’s peak. During peak seasons, Summit members attend a number of wellness and educational activities in the lodge’s sunken living room, much like a sleep-away camp mess hall.
Wellness always had a place in Summit events (“We’ve had an ashram in our office since 2010,” notes Rosenthal). But in recent years, the company aggressively pursued offerings, hiring a dedicated wellness curator to ensure each weekend spans multiple health, fitness, and—very much in Silicon Valley fashion—quasi-spiritual mind-body modalities. (It’s not uncommon for conversations to begin with “What kind of mindfulness do you practice?”)
Programming ranges from botanical herb tonic tastings to dynamic breathwork classes, along with plenty of yoga and meditation sessions. There’s also a medley of biohacking panels to appeal to more performance-based entrepreneurs. One communal meal a day is strictly plant-based.
The events’ more holistic approach, says Summit wellness operations director Nora Claire, is simply in response to the demand of attendees. The most recent Summit Series annual L.A. conference, for example, featured Howard Schultz as the keynote speaker. This year, they’re trying to book the Dalai Lama.
“People are hungry for wellness,” says Claire. “They’re drawn to self-growth.”
With the addition of the housing community, Summit might soon compete with its very own members: Williams notes that a number of homeowners opted to copy the Sky Lodge sunken-den format in hopes of holding their own gatherings.
“We have people thinking through that process of ‘How do we bring community to our house?’ says Williams. “They’re actually designing their homes to make it as inviting as possible for people.”
Rosenthal puts the growing enterprise into more poetic words, describing Summit as going from a singular planet to “being the solar system” of community-driven leadership.
“We are driven by social events,” Rosenthal says of the neighbors he affectionately describes as his “tribe” (a term often used by Summit fans). “We’re energized by social interaction. We all get more dopamine and serotonin by connecting. That’s in our nature.”
IT TAKES A (UTOPIAN) VILLAGE
Summit also plans to build an entire commercial village rivaling the size of Telluride’s historic district. Currently, the land sees a few trailers and, in a nod to Summit’s signature blend of over-the-top art and commerce, a gold-plated snowcat designed by artist and pro skier Lisa Solberg.
The snowcat is emblematic of the ambitious plans laid out for the town. Summit partnered with Selina, the hotel group described as “the digital nomad hotel of the future,” along with Replay Resorts for two townhome projects. All buildings will reserve the first level for commercial mixed-use space—bars, restaurants, boutique shop—that align with Summit’s values.
Basically, “Don’t expect to see Dolce & Gabbana or Gucci in our village,” stresses Williams. Summit will seek out more local and community-driven brands, like, say, Toms Shoes.
All those progressive plans aren’t enough to quiet a sense of resentment among some longtime Eden residents, many of whom don’t share the vision for a high-powered, coastal-elite utopia. Summit engages the local community by hosting pizza-and-pints gatherings once a week, along with employing them for multiple services (car shuttles, food and beverage, etc). The cofounders have also attempted to follow through on their promises, repeatedly reminding the population they plan far less aggressive development than previous developers.
Still, the exclusivity of Summit undoubtedly rankles some who are accustomed to what was once a sleepy, quiet mountain town. As Rosenthal puts it, “I imagine if somebody was throwing a cool party next door to your house every weekend and you weren’t invited, you’d feel pretty shitty about it.”
Summit real estate does not bar outsiders from purchasing homes: Anyone can buy land on Powder Mountain. Realistically, however, only those accepted into Summit will likely endeavor to do so.
Down the line, Rosenthal intends to set up rental houses and establish scholarship-in-residence programs to better incorporate more diversity and income levels. Many of these solutions fall under the umbrella of the Summit Institute, the group’s nonprofit dedicated to bringing together thought leaders.
The Summit team remains hopeful they can build an even more influential yet inclusive tent with their new neighborhoods. Despite their high-powered tech and business background, they very much believe in the power of unplugging and connecting IRL.
“I still believe that the greatest piece of technology ever created is the dinner table,” says Rosenthal, bristling at the term “networking.” To him, Summit Series is more than just exchanging billions in business; it’s about the continuity of a community that is very much in the process of growing up. It’s serving a base that wants to feel part of something—a sentiment shared by startup founder and Pilates instructor alike.
“If you’re truly innovative and doing interesting things, people do your networking for you—they want to see you succeed,” continues Rosenthal. “They want to be a part of your success story . . . your tribe.”