Davos: shadowy summit or ski holiday with suits?

Every winter, the World Economic Forum takes place in Switzerland. Its aim? Solving global problems. That and skiing, schmoozing and star-spotting, says Samuel Muston

Samuel Muston
Tuesday 21 January 2014 01:00 GMT
A view of Davros
A view of Davros (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

When Klaus Schwab founded the World Economic Forum in 1971, he chose Davos, in the Swiss Alps, for two reasons. Firstly, because he'd glimpsed the construction of a sparkly new conference centre from a nearby swimming pool. And secondly, because he was attracted to its relative isolation. By the time the helicopters and limousines have deposited all the attendees tomorrow, however, it won't feel so isolated.

The Forum, like many a middle-aged individual, has grown fatter and more comfortable in its 43 years of life. Admittedly, the conference centre is the same, if a little bigger, and some of the hotels from back then soldier on, but the event is on a much glitzier, and vastly bigger, scale today.

In 1971, 444 delegates attended. Today, the press delegation alone runs to 500, with a further 2,500 guests invited by the forum, whose motto, Entrepreneurship in The Global Public Interest, does nothing to endear it to anti-globalisation protesters who will also converge en masse on the resort.

Despite the placards, participants will travel from all corners of the globe to the four-day event, which has variously been described as the "high temple of stateless, free-market capitalism" and "the best dinner party in the world".

Politicians will rub shoulders with dotcom billionaires; Nobel prize-winning economists will jump on the shuttle bus with journalists. Everyone is, officially speaking, invited to chew the fat on this year's big theme: "The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business". But as one former Davos attendee says, "it as much about networking as seminars".

Now the word "networking" is, as often as not, accompanied by another word: "partying". And Davos is no exception. Usually, the hot ticket is the Google party, although last year the biggest, most opulent shindig was thrown by a person: Sean Parker, the man behind Napster. As well as endless champagne, there was music from the DJ Mark Ronson.

Parker had, for reasons best known to himself, also festooned the club with moose heads with lasers in place of eyes. A well-known economics editor who attended the party remembers the musician John Legend playing a set. "Parker and a coterie of his friends sat on a table right next to Legend on the stage", he says. "They lounged like Roman Emperors, everyone else forced to look up at them. That is very much the Davos style."

What is also very Davos is alcohol. Not just at the endless lunches and dinners, held in five-star hotels such as the Hotel Seehof or the Sheraton, but at the "nightcap evenings", too, where star guests take open questions from (often well-lubricated) guests.

In fact, by the end of the four days, attendees returning home often have the same grey-about-the-gills look of those who've attended Glastonbury Festival. Some health-conscious bigwigs will take the opportunity to get some skiing done. One journalist, formerly of this newspaper, always seemed to come back from his annual jaunt there with a (skiing-related) dislocated shoulder.

For the less sporty, there is another activity: star-spotting. Although big-name attendees are thinner on the ground than they were in the boom years, you will still see the odd film star or pop singer. Charlize Theron attended in 2013, and was honoured for her work in Aids prevention. Angelie Jolie and Brad Pitt have also turned up, with Jolie designing a tattoo for Pitt on a night "when we didn't have anything to do". Mick Jagger snubbed David Cameron there in 2012 but is remembered fondly for dancing to "Moves Like Jagger" at a party.

If one is looking for more worthy activities, however, they can be found in abundance at the main conference centre. There are scores of them on everything from the "China Context" to a "3D scanning workshop".

Some, however, could be in better taste. "A Day in the Life of a Refugee: Exploring Solutions for Syria", a "powerful simulation … of the struggles and choices that refugees are facing to survive," has been denounced by campaigners as "poverty porn".

Still, one can always indulge in a little competitive lanyard checking. Everyone who attends is required to wear a badge denoting their level of access, and so their influence. "You get a lot of people breaking off conversations to speak to more important people when they arrive, or looking down at the colour of your badge," says a past attendee.

But the main complaint is not boredom or booze, celebrity-obsession or the $40,000 (£24,000) cost of attending. No, the real thing that rankles is the weather. "It's bloody freezing," those who have attended all seem to say, "and you still have to dress smartly."

So there you have it. Davos is less a shadowy summit of world power brokers and more like a ski holiday with suits.

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