Confessions of a Davos spouse

By Anya Schiffrin
January 17, 2012

What is the pre-Davos season like in your household?

Planning for Davos starts quite early in the year. Months before it actually begins there is the inevitable jockeying for spots on desirable panels with important people, a frantic glance every day at the e-mail to see if any interesting dinner invitations have come in, and a hunt for a hotel room in a location not too far from the conference venue. Wives like me don’t have to do any work at Davos so I just think about packing. Moisturizer is crucial, since the mountain air is so dry, and I will try to rustle up a couple of respectable outfits that I can wear by day and at the evening dinners as well. Then there is footwear. You can carbon date Davos Wives by their shoes. Newcomers tend to wear attractively dainty heels. Veterans like me have given up. I don sturdy shoes and try not to slip on the ice.

What are likely to be the main themes at Davos this year?

Davos tends to be more interesting during periods of social upheaval. Confronted with facts that threaten his worldview, Davos Man loses some of his smugness and becomes a bit more confused. Founder Klaus Schwab is always interested in the zeitgeist, so there will doubtless be many panels about the global protests, the euro crisis, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street. How Davos Man will respond I don’t know. My favorite comment during a panel on global warming a few years ago came from a businessman who reminded his audience that one upside to global warming is the ease of drilling for oil under glaciers. This year there will be more security, plenty of gloomy observations about the state of the world economy, questions about whether China can maintain its expansion, and so on. We’ll also see a lot more conservative heads of state at Davos this year, since so few social democratic governments survived the elections and turmoil of 2011.

How do Davos Wives occupy themselves while Davos Man works?

We go to any panels we can actually get into. Usually that means the ones about art and science, which Davos Man tends to skip. Last year’s panel on the pollution of the world’s seas was packed with wives. When we can’t get into a panel we may repair to a local café for hot chocolate or sign up for the perennial horse-drawn carriage ride to a fondue restaurant up in the hills. If all else fails, we can always prowl the halls of the conference center, hoping for a sighting of Bono or Tony Blair.

Are there any Davos Husbands lurking about?

Every now and then one spots a Davos Husband, gay or straight, but he’s a rare species. They are often mistaken for Davos Man and tend to be good sports about their role as trailing spice. They don’t join Davos Wives in their traditional activities. I suspect they are on the ski slopes or watching panels. I hope to meet one this year.

What do people talk about at the dinner parties?

The men discuss economics and the women discuss how they feel about being Davos Wives. Some swear they won’t come back but they usually do. We trade stories of snubs and panels we couldn’t get into. Davos is a competitive place; there is always much comparing of notes so people can learn which events they didn’t get invited to. Gossip is a valuable currency—as it is everywhere—so any juicy examples of drunken midnight misdeeds are passed around pretty quickly. A lot of untoward groping goes on after hours and that is discussed quietly rather than openly.

How’s the nightlife?

Davos encourages bad behavior. It comes from the hot-house atmosphere of high-powered egos, the high altitudes combined with too much drink. All sorts of people who would never stay up late can be found—cocktail in hand—at the Google party, the Time Warner reception, and the gala dinner on Saturday night. It’s usually too loud to have a conversation but they try. Last year one businessman held forth about his travails in Russia and kept the crowd entertained with a lengthy description of how he lost his company to the tax authorities. That passes for a gripping evening at Davos. There are always a lot of men who become “geographically single” when they arrive, and even the nerdiest expert in anti-malarial bed nets or obscure financial instruments fancies himself a player the moment he steps foot in the Zurich airport. Late at night, these men can be found eyeing the local talent, and there are rumors of at least one baby being born nine months after a night of passion at Davos.

 

12 comments

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I find this article condescending. I have been a Davos spouse for almost 15 years and I treasure the immense privilege of been invited – and actively participate. Over the years, I have attended amazing discussions on issues that are close to my professional and personal interests, ranging from corporate governance, decision making in complex environments, to science new boundaries or how to integrate innovation into the leadership of our companies.

Davos has be a key source to spot trends long before they are identified by the mainstream press. I heard from Robert Scoble about Twitter years before anyone I knew used it, watched Google take-off, discovered the origin of Universe and the impact for science with Prof Sasselov, experienced life in a refugee camp, discussed peer to peer sharing and privacy with Paulo Coehlo. I listened to our world leaders, sometimes exchanged over coffee at the break, asked the technology pioneers which technology will hit the headlines and our companies in the future. I would not trade those discussions for hot chocolate.

I also have attended many architecture sessions- by choice. I find fascinating how architects are able to pick weak signals and incorporate them concretely in their work- from the urge for tighter communities, the adaptation of the building to the new urban landscape, the need for cross generational ties. Many large corporations from GE to IBM or Veolia are struggling today with the thought process to integrate this into their products and business models. Those who have are doing well.

There has been an immense respect from all participants who know well that many spouses attending often have rich professional and personal lives- in Canada alone, Ana who accompanies Don Tapscott just got the highest honor in the country, the Order of Canada , Huguette Labelle who joined once as a spouse, is now the chairwoman of Transparency International etc… Those extraordinary women never saw the shadow of a ski or horse sleigh in Davos, their agenda packed from 7am till late in the evening.

To get value from Davos, you have to make it “your” Davos- pick carefully the content that interests you, reach out to those who inspire you, enjoy the serendipity encounter. If you come in with your pre-conceptions, the only thing you’ll fall in love with in Davos are your own assumptions and biases.

Posted by EstelleMetayer | Report as abusive

This is useful information for no one but the elite, who already know this rubbish.

Posted by Absinthos | Report as abusive

Oh dear god…I pray for an end to this world.

quick.

Posted by FoxxDrake | Report as abusive

The men discuss economics and the women discuss how they feel about being Davos Wives

Thanks for setting women back a good half-century.

Enjoy your cake, ma’am

Posted by Achtungbaby | Report as abusive

Goodness. Is anything ever accomplished besides a good social hangover?

Posted by Intriped | Report as abusive

“Last year’s panel on the pollution of the world’s seas was packed with wives.”

I think the woman whose husband made the comment about drilling for oil beneath glaciers missed that one…

Hopefully you Davos Wives (nod to Stepford Wives?) can talk some sense into the men that are, in general, laying waste to the earth and sea in their pursuit of profit.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

It’s absurd that in 2012 Davos revolves so totally around male power and listening to male voices. To heck with how many women ATTEND/LISTEN to panels; why aren’t more women LEADING them? No wonder the U.S. can’t elect a woman president–discrimination against women is deeply, deeply ingrained.

Posted by Coriap | Report as abusive

Anya,I never thought you were the Davos type. Why bother? Go to Cadaques instead.

Posted by bahcom | Report as abusive

@Nullcorp

Oh no. Fat chance of that. They’re about as Stepford as you get. If this article doesn’t prove it, I don’t know what does.

I guess we can take solace in the fact that their hubris will be their undoing. They think living in bubbles behind walls and guns will protect them.

To bad they didn’t attend the seminar in H1N5, Superflu and the mad scientists working on it.

Unless they’re not human (which I believe is entirely possible) they’re biology will be as susceptible to extinction as ours.

Life (or death) always finds a way…

Posted by FoxxDrake | Report as abusive

Confessions of an obscure non Davos reader

I loved the SoH in this piece and the fact that the author (obviously an established professional herself) managed to bring WEF a teeny bit down from the ivory towered mountains that it is perched on.

Anya – You could probably add another para on: Does one’s sense of humour get heightened or hacked at Davos :)

Posted by VrindaPisharody | Report as abusive

Ah, if only the Titanic were a mountaintop resort…

Posted by heffl | Report as abusive

Great article, great comments

Posted by superf88 | Report as abusive