Conferences with kudos: a guide

Paul Vallely reveals what is on offer at the top international gatherin gs

Just how important are you? One of the most revealing indices, if you have determined to make your mark on the world stage, is the kind of conference you get invited to. The meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos this week is only part of a vast international circuit into which opinion formers, networkers and freeloaders can tap throughout the year. Indeed, those who are well plugged-in - if they accepted all the invitations on offer - would never have to go into the office at all. Some conferences, of course, are more equal than others. Those who wish to keep their junketing in proper balance with their quest for cachet need guidance. Here, then, is the ambitious pundit's guide to international conference-going.

Davos Revealingly, the top jamboree takes place in a swish Swiss ski resort but always in the last week of low season, thus combining status with a commonsense approach to economics. It is at the apex of the opinion-forming circuit, combining the presence of world leaders (who are paid handsomely to attend) with the leaders of large corporations (who pay handsomely to rub shoulders with the great).

There is a high bullshit factor about the posturing in some of the public sessions, but there is little doubt about the calibre of the deals done over someone else's champagne. Davos can lay claim to having been first to put the transformation of the post-Communist economies of Eastern Europe under the magnifying glass. And on globalisation of the world economy, Davos did more than the G7 meetings every year to force the realisation that economies are truly interdependent. "The most invaluable part is that people get to know each other personally," said one regular participant. "When you have to make a judgement about what a country will do, it is extremely helpful to know the individual who will take the decision."

Konigswinter Started in the late 1940s in the home of a pro-British German industrialist, in theory this conference deals simply with Anglo-German relations. Its participants are less high-profile, but its mix of senior politicians, civil servants, bankers, academics and journalists has given it a wider status. It is particularly important in terms of defence. "It's very much of the cognoscenti, replete with acronymns and abbreviations," said one regular. "An acquired taste."

But it is credited with having created the feeling that some enlargement of Nato had to take place. Konigswinter also reveals one of the other key features of such gatherings: the importance of shared strolls in the countryside. It was on one such hike that David Steel and Shirley Williams forged the essential principles of the SDP/ Liberal alliance.

Aspen At the Aspen Institute, in a 1950s Bauhaus-style building in the glitzy Colorado ski resort, US and other English-speaking academics and policy-makers gather with politicians in week-long seminars. "It has a much lower bullshit factor than Davos," said one former participant. "People sit around in jumpers before log fires. It's all very informal."

The institute runs three or four seminars simultaneously on a variety of subjects, with 30-odd particpants in each. Its main concern is with US matters and policy options. The mood is serious and earnest and those invited are authorities in their fields.

Aspen regulars through the 1980s are now serving in the Clinton administration - which points to one of the great shortcomings of the conference phenomenon. Those who shine there do so because of intellectual excellence, which means asking the right questions. That was fine until they got into power, when they found that asking the right questions was not enough.

Ditchley Park At the top of the second division is this 18th-century country house near Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. It holds 15 conferences a year in the style of weekend house parties, with walks round the lake, cider for lunch and decent wines in the evening. Those invited include the real great and the good - who come because discussion is under Chatham House rules, which forbid any attributed repetition - and top experts. "Academically, they are the most heavyweight, but often the participants are overburdened more with medals from their previous service than with new ideas," said one veteran. "It's a bit of a fading star."

Best of the Rest There are lots of top conferences for specialists - such as the one for central bankers at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, every August. Better to angle for an invitation to the Foreign Office's official conference centre at Wilton Park, a country house in West Sussex, where the food is not grand but participants can buy a house tie and meet the pick of those East Europeans thrust into positions of responsibilty since the collapse of Communism.

Failing that, the British American Project invites influential thirtysomethings to meet annually, alternating in the two countries. It aims to spot the next generation of leaders in Britain and the United States and bring them together.

And if you can't get invited to the conferences, why not start your own? That's what the owner of the Daily Telegraph, the Canadian magnate Conrad Black, did. He calls it the Hollinger Advisory Board and invites up to 300 people. On one memorable occasion Baroness Thatcher was invited to address the group. One Telegraph director, Lord Carrington, her former foreign secretary, then entertained the rest of the board by ostentatiously tapping the side of his head whenever the Iron Lady made a remark which he deemed ill-judged. Getting the invitation, it seems, may be an indicator of success, but it is not a guarantee.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea