Opinion

Felix Salmon

The downswing in Davos parties

By Felix Salmon
January 23, 2013

Andrew Ross Sorkin has placed himself on the party beat at Davos: since nothing has happened yet, the main thing to report is that everybody’s Friday-night dance card is looking pretty forlorn. The Google party being canceled we could live with, but the cancellation of the Accel party is bigger news — people really loved that one. Yahoo’s cocktail party early in the evening isn’t going to make up the difference, and Sean Parker’s nightclub event, while surely hard to get in to, is certainly going to turn into the kind of loud and overcrowded sausage party that makes you wonder why you even wanted to go there in the first place.

Sorkin’s headline asks whether the Davos party is over. The answer is no, of course — but it can be interesting to keep an eye on the permanent tension between the World Economic Forum, on the one hand, and Davos more generally, on the other. The two are generally considered interchangeable, which annoys the WEF no end: the vision of Klaus Schwab is for a pretty austere conference taking place at the Conference Center, with little or nothing going on in the rest of town. But of course no self-respecting global organization is going to pass up this annual opportunity to impress thousands of plutocrats by any means necessary.

The result is endless and futile overt and covert strong-arming by the WEF to (a) try to minimize the number of non-WEF events in Davos; and (b) try to ensure that insofar as non-WEF events are certainly going to happen, at least they don’t clash too badly with the formal WEF program. And since the covert strong-arming wasn’t working very well, the WEF is getting more overt, with a very detailed Code of Conduct that they make all participants agree to when they register for the conference.

“Concern is growing,” explains the Code, “that the unique and special nature of the Annual Meeting is being jeopardized by behaviour and activities contrary to the ‘spirit of Davos’”. As a result, everybody here is “expected to respect the non-commercial nature of the event”; “avoid organizing private events or functions that conflict with the programme of the Annual Meeting”; and “not extend invitations to guests who are not registered participants in the Annual Meeting”. On top of that, it’s an explicit violation of the Code to “pay honoraria to speakers at private events or activities organized during the Annual Meeting regardless of whether or not they are participants in the Annual Meeting”.

Not everybody respects the code, of course. Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk flouts it most visibly, every year, with a huge event at the Morosani hotel. But even the WEF-iest companies seem to be happy to break the code whenever they feel like it. Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi, for instance, has been a co-chair of the entire meeting in the past, and is still deeply involved in the organization. And yet at lunchtime today she’ll be at something called the Pepsico Cafe, not particularly close to the conference, hosting a lunch with — of all people — Derek Jeter.

Still, the pendulum does seem to be swinging back, a little bit, from Davos towards the WEF. And that’s probably a good thing if only because it might allow the people here to get a bit more sleep. Davos will never be relaxing, of course. But this morning I was very impressed to hear Heather McGregor, the FT’s Mrs Moneypenny columnist, declare after doing a TV hit that she was heading back to her flat to sit back and enjoy the spectacular Alpine view, rather than launching headlong into conference schmoozing. Maybe the smart new way of organizing private events at Davos is to make sure that they only involve yourself.

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Down with the Code! Hail to the plutocrats! Let them have cake, and eat it too!

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