Why we put up with the Davos whirlwind

January 22, 2013

Thomson Reuters finance columnist Felix Salmon once noted that there is an inverse correlation between how important you are and how much time you actually spend at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Film stars, heads of state and the likes of Bill Clinton swoop in, speak on a prestigious panel, take a couple of important meetings and fly out within a day or two.

Things are very different in our house. After months of rending of hair and gnashing of teeth over the size of our invitation stack, we typically rock up on Monday or Tuesday, stay for the duration and tear ourselves away on Sunday afternoon after the black-tie gala; in 2011 there were all-you-can-eat Indian hors d’oeuvres and free shawls for everyone. While in Davos, we partake of everything we can: the pork-fat canapés at the Victor Pinchuk lunches, watching Imran Khan at the after-hour parties, attending university nightcaps (note to Columbia: please find a venue with at least one chair). We always drop by the Indian Adda in the Café Schneider for a cup of chai and, time permitting, we sign up for the free snow-shoeing lesson.

Our enthusiasm stems mostly from the fact that it’s so hard to get to the snowy alpine town, and economists believe in amortizing their expenditures (although you could look at the time on the Davos airport bus as a sunk cost). The other reason we stay so long and do so much is, frankly, we are comped, and so, as good guests, we want to make sure my husband is available to speak on whatever panels the WEF assigns him to. These can be pretty obscure. As I recall, we drew the line one year when they asked him to speak on a panel about parenting. You could say my husband is singing for his supper, but only if you count being gloomy about the world economy for the last eight years as singing. In any case, he can never resist an opportunity to talk about how dismal things are, and the joy of Davos is a sympathetic and captive audience that is actually interested in economics.

Six days in Davos means nearly a week of sliding on the icy Promenade, getting up at 1 a.m. New York time for breakfast sessions, not seeing any fresh vegetables, and spending up to 18 hours a day either taking off your winter coat, scarf, gloves, shoes and hat while standing on the security lines or sitting around stuffy, hot conference rooms. I know we are lucky to be invited, but as I ease into middle age, it becomes increasingly exhausting. For staffers and orange-badged members of the press, the Davos experience is even more tiring, as it involves trailing after the VIPs and constantly being told that you are not allowed in the panels and certainly not in the special lounge where seafood platters are served to the Davos 1% — wealthy businessmen who pay for the privilege.

So it is with longing that I and many Davos-goers trade stories of the people who don’t show up to most of the events. I’ve heard of college professors who spend the day writing and only go to a couple of sessions and of industrialists who hold court  in their hotel rooms and have people come to their suites for different meetings every half hour. I gasped with envy one year when I was told that a few years back, legendary foreign affairs pundit Fareed Zakaria stayed in neighboring Klosters and had people come to him (although this year he has been sighted on the premises in a cunning pale blue sweater). Zakaria was apparently ahead of the curve, as the word now is that many businesspeople have taken Davos off piste and spend the week in Klosters without ever making an appearance at the conference center.

Will we ever rise to this admirable level of sangfroid, waltzing in at 11 a.m. and taking a devil-may-care attitude to the prospect of bilateral meetings and luncheon invitations? I am afraid not. I suspect we will be toiling away in the conference center for years to come. See you at the metal detector.

PHOTO: A man cleans inside the Congress Hall of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos January 22, 2013. REUTERS/Pascal Lauener

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Doesn’t seem like you answered the question implied in the title of your essay, unless the answer is delicious pork fat. The real question is, why do the 99% put up with Davos? Instead, the masses reap the ‘whirlwind’ year after year, while the elite stuff themselves with seafood platters. I wonder what the polls would show if Davos was the target of a successful terrorist attack. Would people be that upset, really?

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