Davos: Google grows up

By Felix Salmon
January 8, 2013
Bloomberg has just found out that the big Friday-night Google party, one of the hottest and loudest and most gruesome events in the annual Davos calendar, is not happening this year; no one is going to miss it.

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Bloomberg has just found out that the big Friday-night Google party, one of the hottest and loudest and most gruesome events in the annual Davos calendar, is not happening this year; no one is going to miss it. No reason was given for the decision to cancel the party, but the message is a clear one: Google has matured, now, and is going to be a lot smarter about the way it schmoozes Davos.

Google has historically had something of a charmed existence at Davos, mainly because it arrived there under the wing of one of its biggest and most important investors, Jim Breyer of Accel Partners. Breyer is a Davos networker extraordinaire, and knows exactly how to use the conference to his best advantage: my guess is that he gets more valuable high-level facetime over the course of the week than just about anybody, including Bill Clinton.

One way that Breyer does that is by ingratiating himself with the people who matter the most by holding pretty much the only large-scale event where everybody who’s invited, goes. The Accel party has been going on for 18 years now; held in the lovely Kirchner museum, it has always featured an absolutely spectacular wine list; if you’re fortunate enough to score an invite, you will be able to help yourself to some of the greatest wines and Champagnes in the world, all while surrounded — of course — by an elite group of some of the richest and most important people in the world. It’s almost the Platonic ideal of what people imagine Davos parties to be.

When Google started being invited to Davos, its executives had Breyer to show them the ropes — and they also started co-hosting the Accel party. Before long, it was known as the Google party, and was the hottest ticket in town; everybody wanted to go, and eventually it just became too much: too many people trying to get into too small of a space to drink too few wines.

So in 2007, Google struck out on its own. The Accel party remained, but now there was a separate Google party on the other side of the street, in the Belvédère hotel. It was held in the biggest space that the biggest hotel in Davos had to offer, and became one of the two huge parties held in that space every year — the other being the McKinsey party, the night before. Every year, the scene is the same: late at night, when all the dinners are over, the world’s plutocrats converge into a narrow hallway, at the end of which are ID scanners telling bouncers whether you’re On The List or not. If you manage to get past them, you find yourself in an insanely hot and loud party, with lots of drinks, a little food, and seemingly infinite numbers of drunk men in dark suits. It’s essentially unbearable for more than a couple of minutes, and there’s absolutely nothing pleasurable about it.

These parties are eye-wateringly expensive, and I’ve never understood why any corporation would willingly pay for something which so few people actually enjoy. The parties certainly get the hosts a lot of buzz: all day, people will ask you whether you’re going to the McKinsey party, or the Google party. So I guess your company’s name gets mentioned a lot, in the context of something which is superficially desirable. But Google doesn’t exactly have what you’d call a name-recognition problem.

So last year, Google tried a different tack. It still kept its big party at the Belvédère. But it also closed down everybody’s favorite coffee shop, and hosted a series of exclusive dinners there, catered by world-class chefs. Private dinners have always been at the top of the Davos food chain: the smaller and more exclusive the private dinners you get invited to, the more important you are. So Google put a lot of effort into curating amazing tables with first-class food, conversation, and wine.

That kind of thing is vastly more enjoyable for Google’s executives than standing in a sweaty corridor peering at name badges and trying to remember who this drunk gentlemen might be. And it’s much more pleasant for Google’s guests, too. So this year, the other shoe has dropped: while the private dinners will remain, the big obnoxious party is a thing of the past.

The move is a sign of two things. Firstly, Google has learned how to really get the respect of the Davos crowd: invite a very select group of people to something truly special and unique, rather than herding them like sheep into something which feels like the ninth circle of hell. And secondly, Google no longer has the kind of insecurity which results in somebody saying “we need to throw a really big party”. Necessarily, the number of people invited ton one of Google’s dinners is going to be only a tiny fraction of the number of people invited to the party at the Belvédère. And some of them will be cross that they didn’t get an invite. But, so be it. Google might not be evil, but it can live with people being annoyed at it.

I only wish they didn’t have to close down the Kaffee Klatsch in order to host their dinners. That place really did have the most amazing coffee.

*Update: I’m not sure where I got it into my head that Breyer was a big Google investor, he wasn’t. (Maybe I was confusing Google with Facebook?) But Google did start co-hosting the Accel party very early on in its corporate life.

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Comments
2 comments so far

I cede to your superior knowledge for the last 10 years or so of Davos, but I think you’re garbling a few details on the earlier history.

I’m pretty sure Jim Breyer didn’t go to Davos in the pre-2000 period. The one VC who did attend is a relatively low profile Accel partner, Joe Schoendorf. He had the good fortune to sit next to Klaus Schwab on a flight to Hong Kong at some point in the middish ’90s. That was Klaus’ “discovery” of venture capital, and Joe became his go-to source. Schoendorf is now on the Foundation board of the World Economic Forum and is easily the most obscure member of what has become a gallery of the good and the great.

Before the go-go days of the late ’90s, the WEF very much tried to discourage the private party scene from getting out of hand. When I first became involved, with the 1993 Davos, there were strong voices in the Forum that wanted to ban them completely. I’d credit Hubert Burda with breaking the barriers with his grand parties at the Belvedere. After that, as you recount, all hell broke loose in terms of ostentation.

I also wouldn’t discount the influence of Eric Schmidt on guiding Google’s Davos presence. When Schmidt was at Sun Microsystems (before he went to Novell), he had a close view of its Davos machinations. Sun had the then-brilliant idea of renting the chalet directly across the street from the Kongresszentrum for its private meetings and entertaining.

Posted by lknobel | Report as abusive

Davos makes me happy and sad. Happy because there is a doomsday asteroid named Apophis coming for us, and sad because it probably won’t hit us before the next meeting. Well, I guess I can hope that a norovirus breaks out.

Posted by OnkelBob | Report as abusive
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