Letters From Sea: A Recap of This Weekend’s Summit at Sea Conference

Three days. One boat. Countless Gen Y entrepreneurs. No free Wi-Fi. And only a rickety proprietary social network run by the cruise line to keep everyone connected. Stuff’s about to get … personal.

Sea Summit


I’m on a three-day cruise on the Celebrity Century with 1,000 people–mostly extroverted Generation Y entrepreneurs with impressive resumes–for a conference-style event called Summit at Sea.

Summit Series, the company hosting the event, isn’t trying to be the next TED. The organizers prefer to call it “the greatest adventure the world has never seen” and “the world’s first temporary floating autonomous zone.” It’s really more a party than a conference. Our itinerary includes speeches by the usual suspects–Shai Agassi, Tim Ferriss, Peter Diamandis–but it also incorporates shark tagging, kayaking, and a full day of beach bumming at a secret private island. The Celebrity Century is a gaudy ’90s cruise ship fully equipped with a casino, two theaters, and a shopping mall. For the fourth iteration of Summit, the staff–a team of 20 millennials who look like they just walked out of an Abercrombie ad–have given the ship an MTV-style makeover, transforming the pool deck into an AstroTurf dance floor with strobe lights and a stage ready for performances by Eclectic Method and DJ Irie.

The event kicks off with a Q&A between Richard Branson and Chris Sacca, an inspiring pep talk by confidence guru Sean Stephenson, and bikinied women sunning on the pool deck. The vibe is Silicon Valley tech conference-meets-nightclub in Miami.

People come on this ship with different expectations–to get funding for their new venture, to make friends and work connections, in lieu of a vacation, to find love. It’s not the most professionally produced conference in the world–Richard Branson’s mic stops working during the keynote, and the “private island” is actually a tourist destination owned by the cruise company–but who cares? The Summit staff makes up for that with the energy of a pack of puppies on a grassy lawn. “Tonight, we leave,” Justin Cohen, the COO of Summit, says during the opening plenary. “You all better be dancing your faces off!”

We’re outside our cellular networks out at sea, and Wi-Fi is 65 cents a minute; intranet connects attendees with one another through a proprietary social network called The Collective, but it seems to only work half the time. Trying to find people on a 12-story ship without any mode of communication proves tricky, but the serendipity gives the cruise a slightly Burning Man-esque feel–you might run into someone eight times a day, or never find them again after a chance encounter on the shuffleboard deck. You might also meet the most amazing person you never knew existed.

“There’s something to be said about inducing a heightened experience with really cool people,” says Ben Lewis, the 30-year old founder of Tapjoy. “Plus nobody’s trying to sell you anything.”


“I’m totally blown away,” says Scott Parazynski, the only astronaut who has also summited Mt. Everest. “One of my strengths, and perhaps weaknesses, is that I don’t know the word ‘impossible.’ I get the sense that the entrepreneurs here are the same way.”

Not everyone is a complete zealot, though. “Too much bro, not enough love,” one attendee says. “I’m having fun but I’m not coming back,” says another.

The Summit guys have the art of throwing a good party perfected to the nines–the contrast between ukulele music on the beach by Zee Avi and Imogen Heap in the ship’s sultry lounge is both bizarre and wonderful, and there’s made-to-order pasta until the wee morning hours, a saving grace for the hung-over and hungry. The swag is quality–Yes to Carrots sunblock, lots of chocolates and mints, custom Summit at Sea sneakers from Creative Recreation. There’s a perfect mix of people and activities–it’s not every day that I get to tag sharks for research with Tim Ferriss and discuss post-earthquake reconstruction in Sendai with Cameron Sinclair under a beach umbrella. And from what I’m hearing from my shipmates, some unlikely and promising partnerships are already in the works–San Francisco non-profit Mama Hope might become the next beneficiary for a world poker tournament, and a major surf brand may soon be organizing a trip to North Korea.

Regardless of the over-the-top vibe that pervades the cruise liner, I have to admit that the excitement is contagious. I’m having a really, really good time. And as Branson says in his keynote: “It’s very important that you run things in as fun a way as possible.”

Summit Series is still young in the elite conference circuit, but you know what? Maybe, sometimes, it takes some late-night partying, a pina colada, and a game of beach volleyball to make great collaborations happen.

[Image: Flickr user Raymond Leon Roker]


About the author

I write articles about culture, technology, and human rights for publications like Wired, Popular Science, and the New York Times Magazine. I also produce radio segments for American Public Media, Public Radio International, and WNYC