A Davos grows in the desert

FORTUNE — Hedge fund-of-funds manager Anthony Scaramucci is often referred to by his nickname, “the Mooch.” His hair is coiffed, his shirts are pink, and he likes to throw off brow-raising quotes with the recklessness of a man who’s living in a powder keg and giving off sparks. Take, for example, what he told New York Magazine last spring: “I am a total shit-stirrer … My middle name could be Shit-stirrer, except then my initials on my shirt would be a.s.s., and I can’t have that.”

In other words, Scaramucci isn’t who you’d imagine as the creator of an event that finds statesmen like Bill Clinton and Colin Powell rubbing shoulders with economist Austan Goolsbee and Hollywood director Oliver Stone. Yet his SkyBridge Alternatives Conference (SALT), named for his firm Skybridge Capital, has grown from just another hedge fund conference in Las Vegas into a gathering of influential thinkers, politicians, and philanthropists — all with a celebrity sheen.

At this year’s event, which kicked off yesterday and runs through Friday, participants will hear former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak discuss geopolitics with Leon Panetta. They’ll watch Obama advisor Robert Wolf moderate a discussion on citizenship vs. partisanship between Scott Brown, Barney Frank, Harold Ford, and Karl Rove. Between sessions, SALT-goers might run into Al Pacino. Or watch him speak later, after which the band Train will perform. Also on the speaker list are Wall Street players like Mike Novogratz, Dan Loeb, John Paulson, and Sam Zell.

This lineup sets SALT apart from the long list of global hedge fund confabs. Such events usually are thrown by conference companies and driven by sponsors. Or they’re hosted by investment banks and act as marketing exercises for hedge fund managers who want to attract new investors.

To be sure, SALT is still a flurry of hedge fund activity — with money managers and bankers and reps from the big institutional investors networking by the pool. And there are plenty of panels with names like “Covering Your Assets: A Crash Course on Investing in a Macro Driven Environment” and “From Peril to Profit: the Art of Activist and Distressed Investing.”

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But SkyBridge believes that SALT has the potential to become a place for big ideas with wide appeal. “We invite the people who organize conferences that we admire and can learn from,” says Victor Oviedo, a SkyBridge partner who helped conceive of SALT. “We’re not at the level of a Davos or a Sun Valley or Milken Conference, but we’re working toward that and learn a lot from those events.”

SALT has grown from 500 attendees in 2009 to more than 1,800 this week. And, as at Davos or Sun Valley, some of the hottest events are not on the SALT agenda, but are the exclusive cocktail and dinner parties thrown by banks and financiers during the event. And SALT is giving more time to philanthropy, hosting a spinning class to benefit cancer research and having Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin discuss how business is supporting the fight for gay civil rights.

When asked why he and SkyBridge started SALT, Scaramucci said: “Originally I just wanted to raise the profile of my firm and the industry.”

And Scaramucci wanted to defy president Obama, whom he supported in 2008 but then abandoned in 2012 in favor of Mitt Romney. It was February of 2009 and Obama had just excoriated bailed-out financial firms for misusing taxpayer money. “You are not going to be able to give out these big bonuses until you pay taxpayers back,” Obama had said at a town hall meeting. “You can’t get corporate jets. You can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime.”

Unsurprisingly, lots of firms cancelled events in Vegas, and the industry took cover. “I wanted people to know that we, at SkyBridge and as an industry, were still alive,” Scaramucci says.

So Scaramucci and Oviedo decided to throw a big conference in Las Vegas where hedge fund managers could meet and try to make sense of what had happened in the marketplace.

“Not understanding the system as a whole had led to problems of the meltdown in the first place,” Oviedo says. “That’s why we decided to have speakers who could discuss geopolitics and public policy, since what happens in the Middle East or Korea affect the economy and investment strategies.” By 2011 it was clear that those big-picture discussions were among the most popular, along with panels on philanthropy.

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SkyBridge is still learning as it goes along, planning SALT based on what firm employees find interesting and on participant feedback. “I want people with a point of view who will spark conversation,” says Scaramucci. “It’s an ideological conference.” Oviedo, who is a Democrat, adds that he has been careful to feature speakers from across the political spectrum to provide a balanced debate.

Make no mistake, SALT has been SkyBridge’s most successful marketing tool. When the firm opened in 2005 it had three employees and no assets. After the financial crisis put many fund-of-funds out of business, industry insiders debated the future of firms like SkyBridge, and some investors left. But SkyBridge now has about $7.6 billion in assets under advisement or management, even though Scaramucci remains a polarizing figure.

And SkyBridge’s big conference has pushed into Asia, holdings its first SALT Singapore last fall. “We still don’t have a plan for what SALT will become,” says Oviedo. “We’re still just focused on making the type of conference we want to attend. So expect more speakers who think outside the box of the financial world. Expect discussions and debates about things that hedge fund managers don’t think about every day. And expect memorable storytelling and ideas.”

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