Tesla, TikTok and taquitos: On the beach at the world's first wealth festival

Huntington Beach, CA - September 12: Future Proof is taking place in Hunting Beach on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022, in Huntington Beach, CA. Future Proof is a four-day conference that is billing itself as the world's first wealth festival. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Set on the beach and inspired by Coachella and South by Southwest, Future Proof bills itself as the world's first wealth festival. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Opening night at the Future Proof wealth festival kicked off with an edict from one of the hosts: "Tomorrow, we rage. Tonight, we drink."

The following morning saw women in expensive sports bras and spandex making their way through the breakfast buffet line. Sunblock stations were set up next to seafoam-green beachfront tents promoting asset management services. An early-morning meditation was canceled when an instructor didn’t show up — perhaps having taken the host's exhortation too much to heart? The roar of motorcycles cruising along Pacific Coast Highway was omnipresent, punctuated now and then by the screeching of seagulls or a drone overhead.

Star bond trader Jeffrey Gundlach and NBA player Isaiah Thomas were there; as was a 29-year-old in a cheetah shirt who’d flown in from Houston hoping to glean get-rich-quick tips; and also some dude, plaid bucket hat pulled low, who’d almost certainly snuck in for free taquitos. There was a rumor of a Ferris wheel.

As corporate conferences go, financial services gatherings are typically not what most would consider a fun time.

“It’s always: conference room, panel, generally four white dudes, being talked at, sitting, the same words, the same everything,” said Andrew Saunders, co-founder of Castle Hill Capital Partners in New York.

So when organizers of this week’s inaugural Future Proof decided to create their own event, they did away with many of those tired convention hallmarks.

They began by dubbing it a wealth festival — “the world’s first,” and, also somehow, “the world’s largest,” according to the splashy hot pink and orange signage plastered on every available surface — and planted it in Huntington Beach, right on the beach itself.

Inspired by Coachella and South by Southwest, all of Future Proof’s speaker sessions and panels are being held on outdoor concert stages, which on Tuesday night doubled as performance venues for musical acts Big Boi and Fitz and the Tantrums. A caravan of food trucks hired to provide free food for the four-day event, which ends today, is posted up alongside exhibitor booths in various shades of tropical smoothie colors. The 2,200 attendees are being encouraged to post on social media, and there are made-for-Instagram selfie stations aplenty.

Attendees at the four-day Future Proof festival in Huntington Beach.
Attendees at the four-day Future Proof festival in Huntington Beach. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“Finance has become cool. It’s become part of pop culture,” said Matt Middleton, chief executive of Advisor Circle, the company behind Future Proof (it also produces the Exchange: An ETF Experience conference in Miami). “You have athletes, you have celebrities spending more time talking about their portfolio or where they’re investing, versus it used to be the conversation you’d have in a corner or at a golf club. What we’re trying to do is usher in this new vibe.”

The pandemic abruptly halted the convention circuit, which had plodded along for decades largely unchanged. The last few years also saw a surge in personal finance interest among non-finance types, particularly younger Americans who began teaching themselves about investing with the help of YouTube, TikTok and podcasts.

That presented a rare opportunity to rethink why massive in-person work functions existed — and if they could be made better, said Josh Brown, a CNBC commentator and chief executive of Ritholtz Wealth Management, which is co-hosting the festival.

Although Future Proof caters to the usual types — financial advisors, wealth managers, institutional investors and fintech employees looking to network and promote their products — the event is also for regular folks who want to learn more about investing. Tickets range from $300 to $3,495, depending on professional background.

Two women sit under a Future Proof logo.
Nicole Casperson, founder of WTFintech, left, interviews Laura Moreno Lucas, a partner at L'Attitude Ventures, at the Future Proof wealth festival. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“This is for the next generation that cares about these issues,” Brown said. “A lot of events are like, ‘All right, we have our diversity and inclusion panel.’ We turned the whole event into that because that’s the zeitgeist. Not acting as though it’s a chore is what sets us apart from so many other events.”

Brown has built up a sizable fan base thanks to his television appearances and YouTube shows, and numerous attendees credited his online hyping of the wealth fest as the reason they registered.

One was Alex Hickey, 29, a laser engineer from Houston who works for a German manufacturing company called Trumpf. (“I get a lot of crap for it. I see a lot of people while I’m wearing ‘Trumpf’ on my shirt and they think it’s political. It gets kind of wild.”)

Hickey began dabbling in the markets five years ago and heard about Future Proof while watching Brown’s “The Compound and Friends” show on YouTube. He paid $300 to register and flew out to Orange County for the week, a move he called “an investment to make money for me.”

“I’m trying to reach retirement as fast as possible by investing my money and having my money work for me,” Hickey said during the opening reception of Future Proof, held in the courtyard of the Hyatt Regency on Sunday evening. “So instead of just having like a 9 to 5, I can just invest in a company. They're producing value and from that value, I get paid for it.”

The average age of financial advisors at Future Proof is 35, a stat that Brown called "off the charts. The average age of a financial advisor in America is 59. That makes us one of the oldest professions. Second oldest to Walmart greeters."

He didn't have diversity numbers to share but said representation was clearly evident throughout the festival.

"You can look around and see," Brown said. "Old-school conferences on Wall Street — they would play that up to a point that was almost grotesque to me. We’re not asking people what religion, what sexuality. We’re just saying, 'We have a place for everybody, and not just a place in the audience. We want you on stage.'"

Visual artist Tony Concep paints a mural.
Visual artist Tony Concep paints a mural, "The Changing Faces of Wealth," at Future Proof in Huntington Beach. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

An early panelist at the festival was Glauber Contessoto, the self-taught amateur investor who achieved notoriety last year as the "Dogecoin Millionaire," investing $250,000 in the cryptocurrency meme coin and then refusing to sell once it started to tank. His investment advice for attendees: Follow your gut.

"I bought my very first stock three, four years ago, and it was Tesla. And everybody told me, 'Don't buy Tesla,' and I'm like, but it makes sense," Contessoto said. "I looked at it like, 'OK, I see the future being electric vehicles — I don't see, 50 years from now, everyone driving gas guzzlers. So if electric vehicles are the future, who's leading the way in that aspect? Tesla. All right, let me start buying Tesla!"

He shoveled everything he had back then — $5,000 — and soon, "Tesla shoots up and I'm doubling, tripling, quadrupling my money. And I was like, you know, 'I guess I was right.' It was more common sense-based."

Future Proof attendees grab lunch from food trucks.
Future Proof attendees grab lunch from the fleet of food trucks stationed at the festival. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Also doling out seaside financial advice was Arttie Barrie of Huntington Beach, who was helping himself to the food truck offerings near the main stage, one serving taquitos, the other serving pretzel bites and bratwurst out of a vehicle with the slogan "manliness refined."

Barrie, 64, conspicuously wasn't wearing Future Proof's turquoise-green badge lanyard and, when asked if he'd registered, said he'd been invited by a friend as his "plus one." At 64, Barrie was firmly in the Walmart greeter demographic, but he gamely offered the following words of wisdom:

"It doesn't come automatically that you're born with wealth, and I wasn't. But I learned how to make wealth," he said. "The key to success is to create debt so that you are forced to work hard."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.