A triumph of business and lunch

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The Independent Online
Davos - Competitiveness, the network society, monetary union, blah, blah, flexible labour markets, the pensions timebomb, currency stability, blah, blah, cybermoney, globalisation, blah, blah, deepening financial crisis, blah, blah, the yen-dollar exchange rate, systemic financial risk, blah, blah, blah, yawn.

Meanwhile, outside the airconditioned, sanitised, seemingly underground and oh-so-businesslike Swiss conference centre, the mountains and the snow-covered slopes beckon. The sun is shining, the air is pristine clean and the cloudless sky so blue you can almost feel the proximity of the stars.

This is Davos, a ski resort in the Swiss Alps, which annually at this time of year plays host to the World Economic Forum, Europe's premier networking conference for businessmen and politicians.

For some, the temptation of the slopes proves too strong and a week that began filled with good intentions, an early morning rise and the frantic writing up of notes on all those burning global issues gives way to a good old-fashioned skiing holiday. For others, hobnobbing with leading business and political leaders, getting up to date on all the latest corporate and market trends, is what it's all about and their time is spent in an orgy of back-to-back meetings and conference sessions.

Whatever his fancy, the businessman goes away from the World Economic Forum feeling that much better about himself, the world, his company and life in general. As well he might, having spent upwards of pounds 15,000 of his company's money to be here.

This is a conference divided into those who pay (the great bulk), those who don't pay (the experts in their field and the media), and those who get paid (the moderators whose job it is to liven up the sessions, summarise, be provocative and amusing). The sessions, lunches and dinners range from the obvious - the impact of the euro on business, Japan's economic crisis, the Internet society and the like - to the faintly irrelevant - power couples, genetic testing, development of the brain, global warming, and various other outpourings of popular science and sociology. It is also hard to know quite how another thundering speech from Yasser Arafat on the PLO's struggle for liberation prepares the average European or American businessman for the inevitable vicious round of renewed downsizing he's going to push through the moment he gets home. Combined with a handshake over the conference table with Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, it none the less all contributes to the general sense of well-being, reconciliation, globalisation, integration, and not least, importance, which are the hallmarks of this event.

It is hard to know whether the all-pervading sense of optimism that surrounds Davos is down to the unreal nature of the surroundings and the event, or whether as we approach the millennium there is genuine cause for hope. Certainly, the businessman's world view appears to be emerging from the confusion of the post-war years largely triumphant.

It is not just businessmen and financiers who now preach the cause and merits of free trade, globalisation, deregulated labour markets, entrepreneurialism, and sound public finances. Most central bankers and politicians the world over have begun to sing from the same hymn sheet too.

There's nothing to decide here, other than who you go to lunch with, for this is in essence just a high-powered talking shop. But talk has its uses. Ian Harvey, chief executive of BTG, the patent protection group, comes because in a few days he can get through more meetings with contacts and clients than several months of international travel would achieve. One of the sessions a few years back - on visionary companies - provided the basis for a whole new strategy and culture for his company (which, by the by, was the best-performing share on the London stock market last year).

Even John Neill, chief executive of Unipart and an unreconstructed Eurosceptic, finds an unlikely platform here to sound off, as only he can, on the iniquities of the Social Chapter.

It is hard to know whether the conference's reputation for deal-making is any more than just hype, but behind the official programme there is a raft of other sessions in constant progress where transactions and strategies are at least conceived, even if they are never acted upon.

The conference has also been responsible for some genuine international initiatives and reconciliations. The World Trade Organisation, for instance, grew out of discussions initiated at Davos.

Now about lunch ... there's a nice little mountain restaurant about halfway down that gentle blue run to Klosters....