In 1997, a group of wellness-minded community members in Sun Valley decided to host a small event over Memorial Day weekend. Since then, the annual Sun Valley Wellness Festival and Conference (SVWFC) has grown into a major event as well as the longest-running wellness festival in the world. Each year’s festival and conference draws roughly 1,500 people to the see speakers such as Ram Dass, Deepak Chopra, and Arianna Huffington, and to the festival portion which includes movement classes, vendors, and the experience park. This year’s 23rd annual event, held August 21-24, will be entirely virtual as a response to the COVID-19 virus and the parameters necessary for social distancing.
After its founding in 1997, the formative team behind the festival started the non-profit arm, the Sun Valley Wellness Institute (SVWI) in 2005. The festival is now run by the institute as well as a Board of Directors, Advisory Council, and current Executive Director Andria Friesen. Over the years, the date of the SVWFC has changed from taking place during the slack month of May to a busy summer event. Its location has varied over the years too, from the first year in the lobby of the Elkhorn Resort to the Community School Campus to the Sun Valley Resort. But even through those changes, one thing has remained the same: a dedication to booking the best and most relevant speakers in wellness.
And the popularity of this event is linked directly to its locale: Sun Valley, Idaho. This community embodies wellness in so many ways from the active lifestyles led by the people who live here to a focus on bettering one’s self mentally and spiritually.
“Mother nature is at its finest here,” says Friesen. “The air that we have the privilege to breathe, the scenery and the outdoor spaces, the quality of life; we’ve got it. I think everything that wellness represents is here on our trails, our vistas, and our people.”
The programming of each year’s Wellness Festival and Conference seeks to represent all four areas of wellness: mind, body, spirit, and environment. The roster of past speakers demonstrates just how significant the SVWFC is in the wellness sphere; from acclaimed author Elizabeth Gilbert speaking on creativity to Dr. Eben Alexander speaking on near-death experiences to endurance athlete Rich Roll speaking on the benefits of eating plant-based. In addition to speakers, SVWFC often has musical performances from wellness-minded artists including Jewel, MC Yogi, J Ivy, and Toni Childs. A variety of vendors provide products and services like massage, aura reading, and more in the event’s Experience Hall.
This year’s speakers are no exception to the standard held in past years. But in response to the pandemic, the speakers have pivoted their original topics to focus on COVID-19 and other timely wellness issues. Keynote speaker and sleep expert Dr. Matthew Walker will talk about how sleep relates to the immune system. Grief expert Nora McInerny will pivot from discussing grief in relation to the passing of someone to grief in relation to sequestering and isolation. Triple board-certified physician Dr. Zach Bush will discuss the microbiome and how it directly relates to immunities for infection diseases. And a recent addition was made to the speaker lineup to include Dr. Seth Cohen, a COVID-19 expert and the Director of Infectious Disease Medicine at University of Washington.
“We’re just so fortunate that our key speakers are in these completely COVID-relevant fields,” says Friesen. “The coalescence of these speakers at this time is powerful.”
This year’s event was originally planned to be both virtual and in-person (with extreme measures taken to ensure safe social distancing practices) but ultimately it was decided that as a wellness-centered organization, it would be wrong to move forward with anything that might be deemed inappropriate or less than a completely healthy experience. But rather than cancel, Friesen and the rest of Sun Valley Wellness felt it was necessary to provide content that addresses the timely wellness-related issues presented to us today.
“I feel it would be outrageous for Sun Valley Wellness to cancel amid a pandemic that has affected our community, our state, our country, and our planet,” says Friesen.
Called Sun Valley Wellness Virtual for this year, the event will feature over 20 virtual presentations from the comfort of one’s own home. Speakers will present over Vimeo live and pass-holders will have access to presentations through September 7. A core of volunteers will be standing by to assist with any technical difficulties. In addition to speakers, there will also be virtual guided meditation sessions and movement classes taught by a group of experienced teachers.
The ease with which Sun Valley Wellness has gone virtual has cemented adding virtual for the foreseeable future. “With the learning curve behind us, we will move forward with all of our future events having a virtual option,” says Friesen. “We’re used to only thinking in terms of geography; now our geography is the world!”
SVWellness Virtual Passes are now on sale.