I just spent an amazing week with the Mighty and the Mighty Rich at the 38th annual conclave of the World Economic Forum (WEF). Held in the postcard-perfect Swiss town of Davos, just a schuss away from St Moritz and Klosters on the Austrian border, the WEF is often just called “Davos”.
A few years ago, when I worked for a local corporation, the big boss regularly attended WEF meetings. Executives left behind would speak haughtily of his being “at Davos”, as if it were a mark of status just to know the name and to utter its sacred syllables within the hearing of the lowly. They could only dream that one day they, too, might be among the 2500 business and government leaders from all over the world who literally rub elbows in Davos’s cramped Kongresszentrum, or Congress Center.
I didn’t even bother to dream. As each Davos came and went, I figured my invitation must have been lost in the mail. And yet there I was, a Gulf Coaster who hates ice and snow, making my way from the Zurich airport through tidy valleys and towns, up and up, into Heidi country. The echt-efficient Swiss police and military restricted the mountain to WEF attendees and local residents, an indescribable gift for those who do like to strap on long skinny pieces of plastic and hurl themselves down mountains: They had one of the world’s most famous ski resorts practically all to themselves.
The WEF was founded in 1971 by a visionary “social entrepreneur” and professor of business named Klaus Schwab. Since then, the WEF has expanded beyond the Alps to become a global brand. Over the course of this year, for example, there will be mini-Davoses in Mexico, Egypt, Russia, Malaysia, China, Turkey, and India. Yet Davos, both the place and the event, begins the year and crowns it.
After years in the White House, Pentagon, and State Department, I considered myself safely celebrity-immune. But Davos commands a parade of notables so long and so dazzling that even the most jaded attendee can feel like a movie fan on the edge of the red carpet on Oscars night. Coming up the mountain this year were Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Shimon Peres, Bono, Al Gore, Queen Rania of Jordan, Pervez Musharraf, and the Google guys. There were CEO’s who are well-known and CEO’s who aren’t but are billionaires anyway. There were the presidents of Nigeria, Ukraine, Colombia, and the Philippines and the prime ministers of the UK, France, Japan, Singapore, and Qatar. There were also business-oriented royals, like Britain’s Prince Andrew, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Prince Jaime of Bourbon-Parma, and several members of the House of Saud.
One notable absentee was Bill Clinton. Davos is his kind of place, but he was otherwise occupied this year.
To grasp the atmosphere of Davos, you need only get a cup of strong coffee and stand to one side during a break. Surging past will come streams and clusters of people, in the center of whom is invariably an über-VIP who seems unable to move without an escort of personal aides, WEF staff, security, and press. Everyone else is unable to move, period, owing to the crush of attendees. Many of these are lords within their own realms back home but are unknown or at least unrecognizable in Davos. They can be seen going from hall to hall, bearing serious expressions and appearing to look for someone.
In contrast, Benjamin Zander, formerly of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice and now conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (not to be confused with the Boston Symphony), adopted a radical technique at Davos: “I smile at people.” As a consequence, he met lots of conferees whom he was able to tell about his recordings of Mahler and the book jointly written by him and his wife.
Meeting people is what Davos is all about. One of the prime meeting spots– so popular that even magnates like James Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, might not find a seat – is the Executive Lounge. It reverberates with biz buzz as WEF attendees sit at small tables, drink coffee, nibble slices of cake and sandwiches, and make deals. There is another, more august level for business schmoozing that takes place completely out of view. In rooms found by the ever-discreet Swiss, government and business leaders can meet beyond the gaze of others, especially reporters, and talk the most serious business of all.
Even though networking and negotiating is what truly draws people to Davos, there is a public side of the WEF that could absorb every minute of an attendee’s time. In any given hour are a dozen or so seminars on economic, political, cultural, and even psychological questions with panels of experts. Paralleling these are luncheons and dinners geared to specific topics. These meals allow ordinary VIPs to meet and talk with headliners. For example, one evening in a hotel high above Davos there was a dinner discussion on whether globalization equals a homogenization of culture. At each table in the fairly small gathering was either cellist Yo-Yo Ma, London mayor Ken Livingston, Indian author Shashi Tharoor, Quebec premier Jean Charest, or Burger King CEO John Chidsey.
In a daytime session on “Japan: Forgotten Power?”, a couple dozen people heard Hiroshi Okuda, former CEO of Toyota and head of the powerful Kaidanren business association, say that after two millennia his country must start allowing immigration to fill the jobs left vacant by a declining, aging population. Elsewhere, a packed room witnessed a rare public meeting between the United States and Iran, as our ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, tussled rhetorically with Iranian foreign minister Monouchehr Mottaki.
Larger sessions with the biggest names in government and business examined the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the direction of development aid, global warming, and the 2008 economic outlook. At the latter, the finance ministers of India and France, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Harvard economist Laurence Summers, and Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain spoke gloomily about the sub-prime mortgage crisis and a US recession. The moderator, a British financial journalist, was moved to declare: “Each year there is a Davos Consensus, and each year the Davos Consensus is wrong. So, everyone should cheer up!”
A final observation about the World Economic Forum is the large number of young people in attendance. Some are there because they are high-tech entrepreneurs or hedge fund managers, but others are among the 250 or so “young global leaders”, all under 40, identified by Prof. Schwab and his colleagues. Whether or not they have chosen correctly, Schwab & Co. have done a far better job than most elite organizations in thinking about and acting on the WEF’s future. The chances are good that among these youngsters are at least a few who will be in the center of a cluster of minions surging through the crowd at the Davos of 2028.