Much has changed since I first started attending the World Economic Forum almost 15 years ago as a part of the WEF Global Leaders for Tomorrow group, the precursor to the Young Global Leaders programme that exists today. The fanfare, the parties and the branding for a time went supersized, or at least taken up a few notches as each event was more spectacular than the last, only to later be replaced by quieter gatherings and more intimate invites. Then there’s the bulked up security. More on those later.
The World Economic Forum holds its annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland, in January. This year, about 2,500 political, humanitarian, business and media elites will gather in this small town for seminars, panels and closed-door discussions on topics that include food security and agriculture, international trade and investment, the future of the internet and global crime and anti-corruption.
Of all the changes, one of the starkest is the WEF is now much more accessible, thanks in large part to technology, which has made its sessions and conversations more transparent. Davos is "a much more open and collaborative conference that has evolved with advances in technology," observed Marc Benioff, chief executive officer of Salesforce, who started attending Davos as a Global Leader for Tomorrow around the same time I did.
The WEF has embraced technology in other areas, including having a downloadable app that lists all the participants, provides documentation, allows participants to reserve places in sessions and offers a messaging service built in.
It wasn’t all that long ago those little technological leaps generated great excitement. I vaguely remember sometime around 2000 HP gave away handheld organisers with the participant book downloaded on it — an epiphany at that time. Things are a lot different now.
In many ways, Davos is a reflection of the world around it, said Joshua Cooper Ramo, vice chairman at Kissinger Associates, another Global Leader for Tomorrow participant from my time. "We've moved from the early phases of globalisation and the technology revolution to a period where the dangerous sharp edges of a new age are becoming apparent,” he said. “Davos was a bit more direct before and you had a sense issues could be boxed up and understood. Now we see how problems are all interconnected with strange and worrying (and inspiring) links."
Yet there are some things that haven’t changed over the past 15 years. For the most part, this is a good thing.
Davos has, for many years, been a place where many people come to do business, solidify relationships with clients and meet potential clients. They may be on a panel but they will attend few of the actual talks. Be they company executive, politicians, non-governmental organisation (NGO) leaders, they come with a specific task in mind. I have friends who book themselves up pretty much every minute from arrival to departure, and all of that scheduling is done before they even step on a plane to start their journey. “It’s a great opportunity to get grounded in the world's most important issues, as well as to meet with some of our top customers, like the CEOs of Coca-Cola, Unilever, Dell, Cisco and others,” Benioff said.
The party parade
Those with networking foremost in their minds spend a lot of time at parties and events — up until the wee hours searching for the best invites and the rarest experiences. I think in some ways that has gotten more extreme over the years, as party throwers try to outdo each other hoping to draw the best crowd. The most extreme, perhaps, was Sean Parker’s Taxidermy party. My sense this year is that though there are a lot of invitations to evening events, including ones for “Mongolia night,” a “Japan dinner” and an “Indian Industry” dance party with a DJ, none will be quite as over the top. There seem to be more quiet gatherings than ever. I’ve been invited to a number of small dinners and side events of fellow board directors, as well as sector focused groups. It is certainly easier to hold a conversation over a dinner table than against the backdrop of blasting music.
Then there is contingent with something else specific on their minds: They have come to learn, actively attending sessions and panels. I remember several years ago talking to a CEO of a large multinational company who had come without any entourage or pre-booked meetings and he quietly and unobtrusively went from session to session. He was looking to refresh his thinking and focused mostly on sessions that were outside his area of expertise.
Location, location, location
The other thing that has remained the same is that the annual meeting is held in Davos, Switzerland. Of course the WEF has expanded the places they hold other meetings throughout the year, including China, Indonesia and Mexico, but Davos is still the centre of the action.
People often wonder about the wisdom of holding it in such a remote and fairly isolated place. I have thought the same thing, having returned from the week covered in bruises from slips on the ice (though I have been helped up by some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met).
When in 2002, the annual meeting moved to New York City after 9/11 to show solidarity and support for New York and the world, the meeting had a very different feel. Though the bulk of the meeting was held at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, just like it is held in the Congress Centre now, one big contrast was that the side events, private dinners and corporate hospitality went on all over the city, giving it a much more distributed feel. An advantage to holding the meeting in a contained place like the small town of Davos and its sister town of Klosters, is that there aren't that many options, with everything pretty much within walking distance. If you are there, you really are in the thick of things.
Of course, the city of Davos undergoes a drastic change during the WEF. Matthias Lufkens, managing director, digital, EMEA of Burson-Marsteller, who has attended the WEF since 2005, observes, “the entire city of Davos is transformed, with shops and cafes being privatised for corporate events. I walked down the Promenade yesterday and everyone was busy setting up shop and clearing out the bookshops, the shoe shops, etc.” He is right. As I walked through town all the shops were cleared out and rebranded as company hubs, meeting places and hangouts. The streets are now completely secure and police and security details are everywhere. To get to the centre of town around the Congress Centre all participants must pass through metal detectors and bag scanners.
In the new economy, the days of the big giveaways to match the HP handhelds, however, may be gone. I did get a set of crampons to put on shoes to keep from slipping when I registered for my badge, but somehow it didn’t hold the same excitement.
In the end, Davos is different for everyone. As much as the WEF has moved with the times, the enduring quality is its ability to draw newsmakers and big thinkers up to the top of a mountain for several days.
“What is the same is that it is overwhelming and exhausting,” Ramo noted. “It takes place at high altitude in every sense. Even people used to life in the thin air of power find themselves winded from time to time, it seems.”
Lucy Marcus is an award winning writer, board chair and non-executive director of several organisations. She is also the CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting.
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