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You have got the invitation. You are one of those noble folks with a social conscience and an important job who wants to make the world a better place. Alternatively, you are joining a sinister club that plots global domination from a small Swiss village. Whatever. You are going to Davos (or “in Davos” as Klaus Schwab - more about him later - insists on saying). So here is the lowdown.
First, they hold the World Economic Forum half-way up a mountain. That is no problem if you own a private plane or can hire a helicopter to get there (for guidance on the latter, see the programme you have been sent). Just make sure that, once you reach Davos, you also rent one of those silver chauffeur-driven Audis or BMWs that swish around with snow-chains on their tyres.
You can’t afford any of that? Oh dear. Well then, get a plane to Zurich and catch the train to Davos. It is a nice ride if the weather is good, uphill under blue skies and snow-covered slopes. With a cup of coffee inside, you may start to get an elevated, Olympian, ruling-the-world kind of feeling. Do not relax. The first test is coming: the train is going to stop at two stations - Davos Dorf and Davos Platz. You have to know where to get off.
This assumes that you are, in fact, going to Davos. Perhaps you are not a member of the ruling elite after all. You are one of the bag people and assistants who plan things for them, such as what time the silver car comes to pick them up. If so, you are probably not staying in Davos but are holed up in a nearby village, such as Klosters, and you will spend the week commuting up and down a mountain in freezing cold and complete darkness. Tough luck.
If you have made it to Davos, the Platz/Dorf thing is a significant clue as to the days ahead. Platz is, socially and geographically, the top end of town. It has the conference centre and the hotels where most of the social events and drinks parties are held. It takes you about 40 minutes - at a brisk trot, with boots on - to walk from one end to the other, which is Dorf. Or you can catch one of the buses that process round the town in an endless circular traffic jam. Try to avoid doing this too many times.
There are some hotels in Dorf and there is a McDonald’s, where the anti-globalisers used to protest before they were invited in to swan around the cocktail circuit instead. But, by and large, if you are in Dorf, you will probably feel like a second-class citizen who has been barred from the top table. This, you will find, is the essence of Davos: there are circles within circles and elites within elites. An invitation to attend only gets you on to the first square of the board.
The media, for example, are divided into reporters who are there to capture the words of the great and good; somewhat more elevated characters known as “media fellows” who can attend private sessions and some better parties, and a select group of editors. It is a masterpiece of dividing and conquering that leaves everybody hoping to occupy a better position next time.
So what is the best way to make progress? First, ensure that you bring a good pair of boots. One of the drawbacks in holding a conference in a ski village is that there is a lot of snow around. You are likely to be rushing between clashing appointments, so you will fall over if your shoes do not grip well. Boots mean you have to keep changing as you go in and out of hotels and the Congress Hall, but this is preferable to breaking a limb.
Once you have the right footwear, you need to decide where to go. Inevitably, you must start at the Congress Hall. Frankly, this is a bit of a bore. It is crawling with participants on every floor, so it feels like a cruise ship with too many people on board. When all the members gather at once you start to realise that the global elite is a big club. If it is any comfort, at least you are not in the press centre, which is crammed into a basement with no natural light.
Still, since you are there, you had better get the flavour of the experience. On the opening Wednesday, I recommend popping into the hall at 5.45pm to hear Schwab introducing the “public figure”. This has two advantages. First, it will be somebody famous who wants to convey some thoughts - this year it is German chancellor Angela Merkel. Second, you will hear an inimitable Klaus Schwab introduction.
The mystery of Davos, of course, is what everybody is doing there. The World Economic Forum sounds grand but it is essentially a front organisation for one man. So how does Schwab, a German-born business professor with doctorates in engineering and economics, draw so many world leaders to such an out-of-the-way place? First, he has devoted a lot of time and persistence to the task: he founded the event in 1971 and has been assiduously building it ever since.
Second, he is an intellectual schmoozer with a world-class talent for flattery. Just listen to one of his introductions in his formal German-accented English. He could take a beggar off the street in Davos (if there were any) and make him sound unmissable: “You, sir, have founded a thriving business that affects the lives of many people. You are renowned for your eloquence and graciousness. You are an entrepreneur and visionary. Mr Hobo, welcome in Davos.”
Third, he is a practised exploiter of the human network effect. If you can get one prime minister to come to Davos, you will get others. If you persuade some chief executives to make the trek, their competitors will follow. Once you have them there, you can persuade investment banks and other companies to provide financial backing and to rent hotel rooms. And when all of these people are in place, Hollywood stars and artists will come.
The problem with this all-enveloping approach is that big Davos events are all things to all men and women, particularly after Schwab invited anti-globalisation gadflies to join business types. Set-piece discussions too often degenerate into well-meaning platitudes. A few hours spent sitting at the back of a hall listening to people talk on “effective leadership in managing global risks” - one of this year’s Davos themes - and you will fall asleep.
The good news is that the best Davos action is to be found in other places. Intellectually, the great thing about being there is that a lot of interesting people with fascinating expertise in diverse fields are hanging around. So scour the programme at the start of the week, not in search of roundtables on great political and economic trends, but small gatherings on things you know nothing about. Usually, these will be the memorable experiences.
In past years, I have listened over dinner to world-class experts in cancer explain the progress being made in targeted medicines and why tumours are such complex organisms to destroy. I have also been given a crash-course in supercomputers, learnt about hedge funds (sitting next to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who wanted to know how to invest his fortune) and been taught about art. Any of these were worth the effort of hauling myself to Switzerland.
Sadly, this year there will be less chance of bumping into a Hollywood star. At last year’s event, both Angelina Jolie and Sharon Stone addressed meetings on philanthropic topics (tickets sold out extremely fast) and could be found on the cocktail circuit. This year, pickings for star-spotters are leaner, unless you count Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google. You will have to make do with Michael Douglas and opera director Peter Sellars.
None the less, you will still want to locate the best parties and either get invited to them, or crash them. The latter is not very hard since nobody can get into the hotels where parties are thrown without a pass. Since you have one, you are by definition persona grata in some form. The easiest thing to do is to turn up at the BelvedEre Hotel at about 6.30pm each evening and look around for which rooms are crowded with people holding canapes and glasses of wine.
In fact, it is quite a good idea simply to stay in the lobby of the BelvedEre all week, making occasional excursions of a few hundred yards to the odd event or party. If you stand there long enough, everybody you want to see will pass by (often surrounded by cameras and bodyguards). The hotel is close to the Congress Hall and is opposite the Kirchner Museum where parties (including Google’s, which is always a hot ticket) are also hosted.
While at these functions, you need to have something to talk about. One good conversational standby is how Davos has become too big and crowded, how lots of the wrong people are now being let in and why you are not coming back next year. Everybody tends to spout this line at some point during the week, especially the investment bankers who pay enormous amounts to be in town with their clients and are not used to sleeping in such small hotel rooms.
It is, of course, nonsense. For a start, they have not been coming since 1971 so they cannot actually remember when it was a small gathering. More importantly, it would take a lot to make them so disillusioned that they were willing to miss the better moments of a Davos week. Their resentment is more to do with the fact that they know they are trapped: despite its ups and downs, there is nothing quite like the World Economic Forum.
That is partly because Schwab is adept at juggling the different demands and desires of those who attend. If it appears to be shifting too far in one direction, he quickly manoeuvres it back again. The grumbling from business types that Davos was becoming too much of a do-gooding event was loud last year, and invitations will no doubt be adjusted. I would expect to see fewer social activists and anti-globalisers in Davos this time.
Among evening events, there are a few to catch if you can. One is the annual audience with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, in which he is interviewed before an invited crowd by Charlie Rose, the television talk- show host. Some interesting things always emerge. Two years ago, for example, Gates promised that e-mail spam was a problem that would be solved within two years. If you are there, you can ask him why his forecast proved so spectacularly wrong.
Even more unmissable is a performance that anybody can attend, without any ticket or special status. This is at the piano bar of the Hotel Europe late at night (and through the night) and it is given by Barry, the hotel’s cabaret artist. Surrounded by a throng of Davos aides and people who are there to attend on their bosses during the day, Barry belts out a series of old favourites, such as Queen songs, accompanied by himself on the electric piano.
Although it is the place where the fourth estate and the hoi-polloi go to unwind, a few of the less pompous Davos elite can also be found there. Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of easyJet, is usually among them. It is also more fun than some of the events to which only the select few get invited. It can be tricky to get back down to Klosters at 4am after a long night at the piano bar, of course, but these people are trained to be resourceful.
Even for those who stick to their resolutions not to drink too much nor stay out late, Davos can be exhausting. By the time Saturday morning arrives, most people are happy to sleep in a little before preparing to return home. The most dedicated should go to the Saturday evening gala, for which you have to wear black tie, but don’t worry about missing it. I have never managed to get there and reports are distinctly mixed.
Instead ensure that, at least once, you venture up one of the surrounding hillsides. If you have brought your ski equipment, you can enjoy some of the best slopes in Switzerland. Prince Charles and the royal family ski each year at Klosters, and Davos is further up the hill. Or just take the cable car to the Schatzalp Hotel that perches 300 metres above the town, with a fine view of the valley. Once up there, you can sit on a sofa, sip a hot chocolate and relax.
Every year, people at the World Economic Forum in Davos complain about how dreadful it all is: too big, too crowded, too many do-gooders, and they’re never coming back again. Right. This year, expect to see them all with opening speaker, German chancellor Angela Merkel; Davos regular and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates; Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin; perhaps the odd anti-globalisation protest. But not Angelina Jolie - she came last year (this year’s Hollywood celebrity is Michael Douglas).
It’s one thing getting an invitation to Davos, but where should you go once you’re there? Start at the BelvedEre Hotel, just by the Congress Hall, where it is canape central every night. For less pompous partying, there is the piano bar at the Hotel Europe where Barry the cabaret singer plays Queen on the electric piano into the early hours of the morning. Try the Kirchner Museum if you can get in (that’s where the Google party will be held this year). But just pray you don’t have to stay at the nearby village of Klosters. Prince Charles might ski there, but in Davos, it’s Siberia.
This story was published during World Economic Forum’s 2006 annual meeting.
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