The billionaires club, where the mega-wealthy go to meet each other

The billionaires club, where the mega-wealthy go to meet each other
The Dolder Grand hotel in Zurich / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin October 26, 2020

If you are rich enough to join, then you don't have to pay to be a member. That is the central idea behind what might be dubbed “the billionaire’s club,” a series of conferences for family offices and ultra-high net worth individuals that has been running for a decade.

It's a lonely life being a billionaire. Seriously. There are not many of them and it is not like they can all bump into each other in the pub. Last year there were a total of 2,825 billionaires in the world, according to market research firm Wealth-X, the highest number ever. But that is barely enough people to fill a small football stadium, or a large concert hall. If you have a billion dollars where do you go to hang out with your peers and swap gossip about how to deal with problems only the mega-wealthy have?

Ten years ago Katja Muelheim and Tobias Prestel almost stumbled across the format that has since attracted billionaires like bees to honey without really meaning to, if you listen to the way Prestel tells it.

“One of the problems of the super-rich is everyone wants to take a bite of their ear. There are queues of people trying to sell them something,” says Prestel. “They are actually quite lonely. So when they come to our events they find themselves in a crowd of peers, something that almost never happens to them, and they love it.”

This year Tobias Prestel and Katja Muelheim celebrate ten years of organising the leading conferences for family offices and ultra high net worth individuals 

The coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic has seen conferneces this summer cancelled, as the whole point of the event is to be in a room with other mega-wealthy people, which can’t be replicated online. However, teh German Family Office Forum in Wiesbaden took place in September adn the “The Family Office Forum Zurich,” is scehduled to happen in Zurich on April 13-14 and the regulars are already booking their hotel suites.

The pair got their start when they organised an event for wealthy Germans in Wiesbaden in 2010. The core concept is that the Ultra High Net Worths (UHNW as they are known in the private banking business) can come to the event for free, which is already a fairly radical idea, but the clincher is that those people with something to sell – private bankers, fund managers, high powered lawyers and posh school reps – have to pay to attend. And that is only if they can get invited. And it is very, very hard to get invited if you are selling something.

"It's like a disco where there are more girls than boys," says Prestel. "We try to filter out the solution providers and provide a space where UHNW can feel comfortable amongst their peers.”

And that is the genius of the idea: the Prestel & Partner events business doesn't try to take any money at all from the UHNW, who are simply invited and given the best time the organisers can provide. The “solution providers,” as Prestel calls them, are hand-picked, carefully screened and banned from doing outright pitches. The billionaires are left free to mingle with their fellow billionaires and chat, compare notes and listen to the presentations if they are interested. After all, these people are super wealthy and do need and want most of the services that the various paying guests and speakers offer.

Prestel has adopted this low-watt approach from the beginning, and those that attended the Wiesbaden event enjoyed it so much they called and ask him to organise a similar event in other cities so their friends could come. The Zurich event has been running for eight years now, and attracts a more international crowd in addition to the Swiss, as it is easier to get to.

As the reputation of the conferences spread, mostly by word of mouth, the number of venues and events grew. More German cities were added and the hosting cities now reads like a scene list for James Bond movies over the last several decades. London, Dubai, Singapore and New York.

These days it's got a bit easier to bring in the crowd. For example, EY is now actively involved and recommends the event to its top 100 richest clients in the Middle East as a worthwhile conference to attend.

"Dubai is popular with guests from the entire Arabian region, not just the United Emirates or Dubai City. At the last event in Dubai we had over 50 billionaires in one room, partly thanks to EY’s help who sent 34. But also our London event is popular with those that live in the Middle East who want to get away from the summer heat,” says Prestel.

Ultra Networking

Getting this kind of event business off the ground is hard, but once it is running it feeds itself. Running an event dedicated to attracting people with north of $120mn of personal wealth – the cut-off for being eligible to attend says Prestel – depends entirely on its reputation. And after ten years of putting on successful events Prestel & Partner has established itself as the premium conference for UHNW.

There are other events that cater to the family office and elite private banking industry, but the extremely well-heeled do not attend them regularly, as there are too many solution providers in the room to make them really enjoyable.

On the other hand, a Prestel & Partner event is like a networking event on steroids. There is no coffee break, as the coffee never stops being served. The speakers are all handpicked and cover topics of immediate interest, but the delegate are free to mill around and sit in on the talks or not as they please.

“The cut-off to be counted as super wealthy is about €120mn, or it could be dollars or pounds – it doesn't really matter at that level. Any less and you can’t afford to spend the million dollars plus a year on all the services to manage your wealth throug a familiy office,” says Prestel.

Prestel and Muelheim have already booked the conference hall at the Dolder Grand hotel in Zurich and are planning an outdoor Christmas market in space behind the conference hall, complete with gas heaters and gluehwein so that the participants can meet and chat but still maintain their social distancing as the second wave of the corona-pandemic momentum builds.

It goes without saying all the venues are five or six stars, but the Dolder Grand is especially luxurious. Its owner reported spent some CHF750mn ($829mn) on its purchase plus the renovation of the story-book building. Legendary architech Norman Foster was paid CHF440mn to redesign the hotel and another CHF300mn went on teh fixtures and fittings. The hotel also houses the owner Urs Schwarzenbach's modern art collection, 100 pictures that encompass an eclectic gamut running from Andy Warhol through Julian Schnabel and Joan Miro to the likes of Keith Haring.

Solution providers

One of the biggest problems Prestel faces is deciding who is getting in for free and who has to pay. You can be a billionaire and still be asked to pay in some cases, and vetting the speakers is also a tricky task, but they all have to pay.

The key, says Prestel, is to focus on what the would-be attendee’s motivation is rather than simply asking: “does this person have a lot of money?” And it leads to some odd results.

One of the event’s regulars is Prince Max of Liechtenstein, a member of one of Europe’s old families and undeniably super-rich in his own right. Normally someone like the Prince would easily qualify as a non-paying guest, except he is also the CEO of the LGT Group, the largest private banking and family-owned banking group in the world that caters to the needs of the other super-wealthy. In Prestel’s book that classes him as a solutions provider and he has to pay to attend.

Another example is the Guggenheim family in New York. Again the members carry a legendary name and they still have a lot of money, but as so many of the scions are also working for Wall Street and have services to offer their fellow attendees, many of them have to pay to attend too, says Prestel. “It’s tricky. You have to judge each case on its merits.”

The same applies to family offices. The billionaire himself (they are mostly men, but not all) may not attend, but the topics being presented are all relevant to the managers of a family office, and as they represent the money they can attend for free.

Getting speakers is not hard, says Prestel, as now the event is established the industry players all want to come, as it is a rare opportunity to meet so many rich people in one room.

The presentations cover two main themes. The first is investment knowhow and best practices in the industry; how best to manage your money and all the tradecraft that goes with that.

“The speakers are usually from the industry. But these are not pitches. The talks have to be informative,” says Prestel.

The second theme is “family governance.” This covers problems the rest of us don't really have. How do you draw up a family charter to share your wealth amongst the rest of your family without starting feuds? What is the best way to divide up profits and dividends amongst siblings? How do you share your wealth with your children without spoiling them rotten? All of these are serious problems for the wealthy.

“A newer topic is “bridging” which could be also phrased as 'doing good while doing well',” says Prestel. “But it has many names: sustainable investments, green investments, impact investing or the most recent label, ESG (environmental, social and governance), but essentially they boil down to the same thing.”

Bridging is a particularly popular topic amongst the mega rich, as it is a place the interests of the patriarch and the heir apparent can overlap, where the old man’s skill in managing money can meet with the idealism of the youth, many of whom are very receptive to the idea of the family’s money being used to benefit society in general.

“Bridging is where the interest of the grandfather can meet those of the grandson and it will pull them together in a common vision,” says Prestel.