The elite group meets annually at luxury hotels or resorts throughout the world — normally in Europe — and once every four years in the United States or Canada. It has an office in Leiden in the Netherlands. The 2007 conference took place from May 31 to June 3 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Istanbul, Turkey. The 2008 conference took place in Chantilly, Virginia, United States .
The original Bilderberg conference was held at the Hotel de Bilderberg, near Arnhem in The Netherlands, from May 29 to May 31, 1954. The meeting was initiated by several people, including Joseph Retinger, concerned about the growth of anti-Americanism in Western Europe, who proposed an international conference at which leaders from European countries and the United States would be brought together with the aim of promoting understanding between the cultures of United States of America and Western Europe.
Retinger approached Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who agreed to promote the idea, together with Belgian Prime Minister Paul Van Zeeland, and the head of Unilever at that time, the Dutchman Paul Rijkens. Bernhard in turn contacted Walter Bedell Smith, then head of the CIA, who asked Eisenhower adviser C. D. Jackson to deal with the suggestion. The guest list was to be drawn up by inviting two attendees from each nation, one each to represent conservative and liberal points of view.
The success of the meeting led the organizers to arrange an annual conference. A permanent Steering Committee was established, with Retinger appointed as permanent secretary. As well as organizing the conference, the steering committee also maintained a register of attendee names and contact details, with the aim of creating an informal network of individuals who could call upon one another in a private capacity. Conferences were held in France, Germany, and Denmark over the following three years. In 1957, the first U.S. conference was held in St. Simons, Georgia, with $30,000 from the Ford Foundation. The foundation supplied additional funding of $48,000 in 1959, and $60,000 in 1963.
Dutch economist Ernst van der Beugel took over as permanent secretary in 1960, upon the death of Retinger. Prince Bernhard continued to serve as the meeting's chairman until 1976, the year of his involvement in the Lockheed affair. There was no conference that year, but meetings resumed in 1977 under Alec Douglas-Home, the former British Prime Minister. He was followed in turn by Walter Scheel, ex-President of West Germany, Eric Roll, former head of SG Warburg and Lord Carrington, former Secretary-General of NATO.
Attendees of Bilderberg include central bankers, defense experts, mass media press barons, government ministers, prime ministers, royalty, international financiers and political leaders from Europe and North America.
Some of the Western world's leading financiers and foreign policy strategists attend Bilderberg. Donald Rumsfeld is an active Bilderberger, as is Peter Sutherland from Ireland, a former European Union commissioner and chairman of Goldman Sachs and of British Petroleum. Rumsfeld and Sutherland served together in 2000 on the board of the Swedish/Swiss engineering company ABB. Former U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary and former World Bank head Paul Wolfowitz is also a member. The group's current chairman is Etienne Davignon, the Belgian businessman and politician.
Critics claim the Bilderberg Group promotes the careers of politicians whose views are representative of the interests of multinational corporations, at the expense of democracy. Journalists who have been invited to attend the Bilderberg Conference as observers have discounted these claims, calling the conference "not much different from a seminar or a conference organized by an upscale NGO with "nothing different except for the influence of the participants.
The group's secrecy and its connections to power elites encourages speculation and mistrust by such groups or individuals who believe that the group is part of a conspiracy to create a New World Order. This is further encouraged by the frequent use of the term 'New World Order' by its members when referring to their ultimate goal of world integration. The group is frequently accused of secretive and nefarious world plots by groups such as the John Birch Society. This thinking has progressively found acceptance within both elements of the populist movement and fringe politics. According to investigative journalist Chip Berlet, the prominent origins of Bilderberger conspiracy theories can be traced to activist Phyllis Schlafly. Radio host Alex Jones claims the group intends to dissolve the sovereignty of the United States and other countries into a supra-national structure similar to the European Union. This accusation is also linked with others claiming plans for a merger of Canada with United States, hoping Canadian influence will be calming to American society and foreign policy. See the North American Union.
From "The Hunt for Red Menace:" "The views on intractable godless communism expressed by [Fred] Schwarz were central themes in three other bestselling books which were used to mobilize support for the 1964 Goldwater campaign. The best known was Phyllis Schlafly's A Choice, Not an Echo which suggested a conspiracy theory in which the Republican Party was secretly controlled by elitist intellectuals dominated by members of the Bilderberger group, whose policies would pave the way for global communist conquest. Schlafly's husband Fred had been a lecturer at Schwartz's local Christian anti-communism Crusade conferences."
Jonathan Duffy, writing in BBC News Online Magazine states "In the void created by such aloofness, an extraordinary conspiracy theory has grown up around the group that alleges the fate of the world is largely decided by Bilderberg."
Denis Healey, a Bilderberg founder and former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, decries such theories. He was quoted by BBC News as saying "There's absolutely nothing in it. We never sought to reach a consensus on the big issues at Bilderberg. It's simply a place for discussion."
Some popular media references to the group are in Fredrick Forsyth's novel "The Icon" where the group decides to undermine a nationalist Russian leader loosely modeled on Vladimir Putin (among others).