Anya Schiffrin

Why we put up with the Davos whirlwind

Anya Schiffrin
Jan 22, 2013 17:53 UTC

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.

The fine art of the Davos snub

Anya Schiffrin
Jan 27, 2012 17:57 UTC

To my great surprise this year, the Davos registration forms arrived with a space for Davos Wives to fill in our institutional affiliation. Having written last year about the humiliations of the blank badge, I’ve decided to take full credit for this major step forward for womankind: the recognition that we have lives outside our existence as the Wives of Davos men. My editor Chrystia Freeland is now waiting for a change in policy that would allow Davos mistresses to also list their affiliations.

When I wrote my column last year, I didn’t expect the outpouring of responses from Davos Wives, but I was delighted to find myself buttonholed by many in my cohort who longed to share their experiences of being snubbed at Davos.

While walking down the Promenade of Davos Platz on a sunny winter morning looking for a place to have a decent cup of hot chocolate (tip: better wait till you are in Zurich), I was approached by a Davos wife I’d never seen before. She thanked me for saying in my Reuters columns what she and other white-badged wives had been thinking for years.

Davos Man behaving badly

Anya Schiffrin
Jan 25, 2012 22:10 UTC

It’s a well-known fact that men behave badly at Davos. The alcohol, the chance to rub elbows with and even talk to other VIPs, the excess amounts of testosterone, and in some cases the joy of a limo ride from Zurich Airport all give rise to a competitive atmosphere in the hothouse known as the World Economic Forum.

Less widely discussed is the fact that the edgy atmosphere sometimes crosses over into overt unpleasantness and sexual aggression. Single women at Davos report that at times they are prey to unwelcome advances that range from annoyingly uncomfortable to downright threatening. It’s not that surprising, given the fact that Davos is a truly male-centered event.

In quiet corners of the Convention Center, I’ve heard a few ugly stories whispered to me by the women involved, and the men in question don’t come out at all well. There is the former U.S. government official who spent a couple of days trailing around after a decidedly-not-interested single friend of mine — to the merriment of onlookers, who could not avoid seeing the unwholesome spectacle. There was the evening at the gala dinner, when I saw a glamorous blonde being hotly pursued by a drunk Swiss man who spent hours with his arm draped over her shoulders trying to entice her into joining him at a nearby piano bar where they could be alone together.

How to navigate the Davos maze: Ask a wife

Anya Schiffrin
Jan 24, 2012 16:38 UTC

I am starting to think that the average lily-livered man may not be able to face the vicissitudes of life at Davos and that we women are much better suited for the event’s rampant paranoia, ego smashing and petty humiliations.

Because we are Davos Wives, we know how to cope. A more important husband means more blatant snubs for the spouse and that means more hilarity. I loved the  gorgeous prime minister’s wife  who , after reading one of my columns last year, approached me, laughing. “Thank you so much,” she said. “This stuff happens to me all the time. Often the security people won’t even let me get into the car with my husband.”

Meanwhile an aggressive and hard-hitting London QC came to Davos one year and folded after only a few days. He refused to return the following year despite the entreaties of his friends who were attending. “It’s awful. I don’t even want to like it,“ he said. “And besides it’s probably passé and Klaus Schwab is just sooooo……”  Yes ? And what exactly  is your complaint? We Davos regulars all know these things, but they are beside the point.

Confessions of a Davos spouse

Anya Schiffrin
Jan 17, 2012 16:57 UTC

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.