Davos 2012 hails a year of worries
- 30 January 2012
- From the section Business
When more than 2,600 of the world's richest, cleverest, most powerful, influential or entrepreneurial people are cooped up in a Swiss mountain valley, surely something must come out of it?
Call it the curse of high expectations.
With a track record like the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) - peace deals struck, political breakthroughs achieved, massive aid projects launched, wars averted, or at least the global agenda set - expectations are high.
Against these benchmarks, Davos 2012 felt somewhat flat.
Now don't get me wrong. By definition the World Economic Forum can't be boring. There are just too many interesting people here to make it a dull event. Walk 20 yards, chat to four or five people, and you will have heard four or five amazing stories, been inspired at least twice, and probably even made at least one important business connection.
But this year's Davos was in urgent need of a big story to shake up the event.
The missing sprinkle
Yes, the eurozone crisis was the talk of Davos town.
However, as it has dragged on for a year or more already, with endless twists and turns and stops and starts, and with yet another key EU summit imminent, nobody expected a breakthrough.
Nobody even attempted to achieve one.
So unlike previous years there were no hastily convened press conferences with breakthrough announcements. Even the keynote speeches by top politicians did not hold any surprises.
Davos was also missing the sprinkle of star power.
I'm not even talking about the Hollywood set. No Angelina Jolie or Sharon Stone, no Richard Gere or Michael Douglas (all previous attendees). No Bono, and not even Davos regular Peter Gabriel.
Mick Jagger did come to Davos (after publicly announcing that he would not), but the Rolling Stone dodged the media and only made an appearance at a private dinner on the "magic mountain" hotel Schatzalp. Just a selected few of the WEF crowd saw him.
Notable were the absences of corporate superstars like Michael Dell, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg and others.
Even Davos man personified, Bill Clinton, didn't show up at the Congress Centre (even though he was in town; he restricted himself to a few private meetings); only his daughter Chelsea made an appearance at the WEF.
The real Davos
Maybe all that was for the better.
It allowed Davos men and women to get on with their job: listen, learn, share, discuss, lobby, pitch and network.
Here they were, huddled in corners, perched on chairs, schmoozing at parties, discussing deals, pitching for money, angling for jobs, hunting down opportunities, making Davos buzz.
So prick up your ears, and join me on a stroll through the labyrinth of the Davos Congress Centre:
"If you see something good to invest, tell me."
"So you have raised 200m euro capital and you will ... "
"I have one cornerstone investor, a major Chinese institution... it's going to be public in a few weeks..."
"We raised $1.5bn with a group of sovereign wealth funds..."
"... and then he told me I want to have a share of your business, I want to get in early..."
"...we have offices in Paris, Beijing and will open in Munich soon."
"… and we're going to set up a network of angel investors..."
"... they see us as a platform to get access to Latin America."
If you want that money or find a business partner, make sure you have your Davos pitch down. The private equity guys, angel investors and venture capitalists prowling the corridors have hundreds of billions of dollars under management between them, and are hungry for opportunity.
Just walk up to your target, give them your pitch (ideally 30 seconds or less), and if you get it right, at worst you'll get a business card and a promise to follow up, or at best a meeting there and then.
It doesn't work for everybody. Surrounded by the opulence of the Davos farewell soiree, amidst the millionaires and billionaires, Giorgio Jackson was shaking his head: "It's a contradiction to be here."
Giorgio is one of the leaders of the student protests in Chile last year, invited as a young "global shaper" by the WEF. He insists that he and his peers still have a role to play: "I'd rather be present in Davos to give a missing point of view."
But he also worries that "we have no role here, we are just decoration... so we network instead."
Raphael Ouzan, founder of Israeli tech start-up Billguard was luckier: "I was in this panel with (Google chairman) Eric Schmidt and Chelsea Clinton, and they listened to me, wanted my opinion, invited me to private panels and other sessions afterwards."
In general, Davos man (and even today they're still mostly men) has become more open to alternative voices.
Gone are the days, says campaigner Naidoo Kumi, when he had to follow chief executives into the toilet to press his labour rights and equality agenda.
The boss of Greenpeace, he remembers with a laugh how he "had to lobby Bill Clinton about signing the landmines treaty as we were both standing at the urinal."
Davos is always a good place to take the temperature of the global debate, but the event suffered serious mood swings.
One-and-a-half days in, one participant told me that he had come here "as an optimist, but after a day or two this place always manages to wring all that optimism out of you."
However, after an ultra-gloomy start ("we're in for 15 years of no or slow growth", and "India and China aren't safe either"), by Thursday evening the mood had brightened.
Business people, meanwhile, were not quite sure what the worry was about. They focused on rapidly growing markets in Asia and Latin America, and kept repeating to each other how many million poor people would be joining the middle classes really soon, and then clamour for their products and services.
"People say Davos has shown that the euro crisis is under control," said Gregor Hackmack, a democracy campaigner from Germany, but he was not convinced: "History shows that Davos is always wrong, so something really bad is about to happen."
Attending Davos may be a tax-deductible business trip, but the parties up here in the mountains are legendary.
But yet, even here this was not the Davos of old.
The McKinsey party was as riotous as ever, the live music at rival consulting firm PwC managed to attract a younger crowd, but the Google party, once the hottest ticket in town, was rather empty at first.
Rivalling private banquets and receptions sucked some of the life out of Davos.
Insiders swapped tips how to get into the party of venture capital firm Accel Partners (famed for its fine wine), and tried to discover the location of this year's most exclusive event, a private do organised by Napster founder and Facebook investor Sean Parker.
Still, Davos continues to have its merits. As the event was drawing to a close, a Nobel laureate told me that at "first I thought this is a party for the ultra-rich and the glorification of [WEF founder Prof Klaus] Schwab, but now I believe they really listen, and actually do things."
For now, Davos is still more than a party town.