News Davos? What's that? 5 things to know about the World Economic Forum
DAVOS, Switzerland — The temperature will be a frigid 14 degrees when 3,000 of the world’s elite descend on this frumpy ski town 5,120 feet above sea level in the Swiss Alps on Monday. There’s no chi-chi Prada store or glamorous spa. And few of the monarchs, CEOs or heads of state who show up will even have time to hit the slopes.
So why do one-percenters travel from all over the world to spend four days in a bleak, snow-covered Swiss mountain town two hours by train from Zurich?
It’s the World Economic Forum.
World Economic Forum? Sounds boring.
It was boring, at first. The gathering began in 1971 as the European Management Symposium, an academic, economic and management conference chaired by Klaus Schwab under a newly formed foundation, the European Management Forum. Schwab, a German-born business professor at the University of Geneva, had recently returned from a year at Harvard and wanted to share his newly acquired expertise in U.S. management systems. The first forum drew 450 people.
Over the years, it grew. The forum invited politicians for the first time in 1974 as European Commission leaders sought a way to chew over new ideas of integrating Europe’s economies and the world struggled with regional conflicts. In 1976, the forum extended membership to CEOs and business executives for “the 1,000 leading companies of the world.”
The foundation became the World Economic Forum in 1987.
These days, the global power brokers spend the week mulling over major world challenges and how to solve them. On the sidelines, they meet, greet and make lots of deals. And Schwab, now 74, is still there, opening the conference, moderating panels and getting sworn enemies into conference rooms together.
World Economic Forum. Is that the same thing as ‘Davos’?
Sure is. But nobody calls it that. The regulars call it simply “Davos” for the Alpine resort town in which it’s held.
And the locals will know right away, if not from the giant, color-coded badges hanging around the attendees’ necks, who’s from out of town. Americans tend to pronounce the town name DAH-vos, with the accent on the first syllable. But in this German-speaking canton of Switzerland, it’s Da-VOS.
Didn’t you say monarchs? Who else will be there?
Yes, it’s true. Kings and queens, and a prince or two. King Philippe of Belgium and his wife, Queen Mathilde, and Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon and Princess Mette-Marit are on the guest list. King Abdullah II of Jordan and Queen Rania are Davos regulars. Queen Maxima of the Netherlands lends her royal imprimatur and doubles as the U.N.’s special advocate for inclusive finance.
Heads of state include newly elected British Prime Minister Theresa May, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, Columbia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, Ireland’s Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and this year’s headliner, Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Xi, who is making an official visit to Switzerland, will open the conference’s plenary session Tuesday. He will bring with him the largest delegation of Chinese officials since the country first participated in the annual meeting in 1979, the forum said.
New U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will lead several panels and talks as will Roberto Azevedo, the director-general of the World Trade Organization. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg are also on the guest list.
A few do-gooder celebrities will also make an appearance. Singer Shakira, a UNICEF global ambassador, will give a talk on early childhood development. Actor Forest Whitaker, who advocates for sustainable development, will explain the impact of diversity in the global film and television industry. Actor Matt Damon will pitch his ideas for providing more access to clean water and sanitation in the developing world.
What about American leaders?
It’ll be the lame ducks. The forum conflicts with President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. But Vice President Biden, a regular attendee, will pop in for two days to deliver remarks on the cancer moonshot and foreign policy, along with Secretary of State John Kerry. And former Vice President Al Gore will be there to wave the climate change banner.
The only member of Trump’s team on the participant list is Anthony Scaramucci, founder of the hedge fund SkyBridge Capital and a part of Trump’s transition team.
This sounds serious. Does anyone have any fun?
Most fun is of the promotional sort. Developing nations – Mexico, Indonesia, India – push for tourism and investment with cultural parties. Investment companies trawl for high-rolling clients with lavish receptions and cocktail parties.
Then, there are the views. The conference takes place in the shadow of one of the most beautiful ski slopes of the Swiss Alps.
For much of the past century, Davos, the highest town in Europe, was known for its tuberculosis sanitariums where Europe’s sickest and wealthiest gathered to breathe the cold, fresh air and take their “rest cure.”
With the advent of antibiotics and the near eradication of tuberculosis, the entrepreneurs of Davos and its neighboring town of Klosters turned all those unused tuberculosis sanatoriums into sport hotels and ski resorts. Now Swiss skiers and snowboarders flock to Jakobshorn mountain for its wide-open ski runs.
The Davos-Klosters tourist board also boasts of the town’s nightlife, calling it “the birthplace of après ski.”