Questions and answers about this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Heads of state, captains of industry, prominent academics, philanthropists and a retinue of journalists, celebrities and hangers-on will arrive Tuesday in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum.
For most of the year, Davos is a resort town high in the Swiss Alps with a population of 11,000. But for two weeks each January, the town’s population swells to 30,000 as the global elite gather for a series of meetings and discussions about “entrepreneurship in the global public interest,” in what could be described as the world’s most expensive networking event. Only a fraction of the “extra” people actually are forum participants; most are support staff, journalists and people hoping to do business.
Beyond the events on the conference’s official calendar are an even more exclusive series of parties, dinners and outings.
Q: What is the forum?
A: Founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a German economics professor, the European Economic Forum began as a conference for European business leaders to discuss catching up with U.S. management processes. Two years later, the conference shifted its focus to global economic and social issues, and the first political leaders were invited.
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In 1987, the organization was renamed the World Economic Forum, and its annual conference was well-enough-known to be referred to simply as Davos. The conference has been the site of several historic meetings, including two in 1989: the first ministerial-level meeting between North and South Korea and another between the leaders of East and West Germany. As the prestige of the conference grew, more politicians, thought leaders and celebrities began attending the event.
Q: Who attends?
A: More than 2,500 people from 90 countries will participate in this year’s conference. Most of the participants are corporate executives, but more than two dozen heads of state and government are expected. Theresa May, the prime minister of Britain, and Xi Jinping, president of China, are attending for the first time this year. Xi is the first Chinese president to attend.
But even world leaders are often seen craning their heads for a glimpse at the boldfaced names in attendance. The singer Shakira and the actor Forest Whitaker are to receive awards this year. Expected attendees include Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook; Matt Damon, actor and activist; Nico Rosberg, Formula One driver; and Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire and founder of Alibaba.
Though gender equality is often discussed at the forum, just 17 percent of last year’s participants were women, according to the forum.
Q: How are these people kept safe?
A: All of those dignitaries need security. During the conference, Davos transforms into a fortress. Roadblocks restrict traffic on the city’s main streets, and checkpoints spring up outside each venue. At the Congress Center, where the main panels take place, and at each hotel that hosts parties and talks, attendees pass metal detectors, armed guards and sharpshooters.
In the past, the conference was targeted by protesters associated with the anti-capitalist Occupy movement. In 2013, members of the Ukrainian activist group Femen were arrested after a topless demonstration.
The Swiss government estimated it will spend 8 million Swiss francs, about $8 million, on security, but said that could increase if there were a credible threat to the conference. “Switzerland is still not regarded as a priority target for jihadi terrorists,” the Federal Council said on its website. “On the other hand, even on Swiss soil, the interests of states participating in the military coalition against the so-called Islamic State face an increased threat.”
A: The annual meeting runs on a tiered system of colored badges denoting just how important one is — or is not. White badges are for attendees able to attend any official event and make full use of the forum’s facilities. Orange badges are reserved for the 500 journalists who cover the forum, but are not allowed at some parties. Other badges, like purple ones, denote technical or support staff and limit their holders to a few areas.
If that system were not complicated enough, local hotels like the Belvedere and the InterContinental often sell their own badges to the bankers and consultants who come to Davos — but not the forum itself — to strike deals and chat up clients. These souls camp out at the hotels, renting rooms for business meetings by day and party hopping at night.
Q: What about the parties?
A: Most of the events center on talking. But beyond lectures and panel discussions, the agenda also features more esoteric attractions. One notable event is a simulation of a refugee’s experience, where Davos attendees crawl and pretend to flee from advancing armies. It is one of the most popular events every year.
The theme of this year’s conference is “Responsive and Responsible Leadership.” But attendees like to play as hard as they work.
There are several official cocktail receptions, but the action really lies in a galaxy of events hosted by corporations. Some are small, intimate dinners that feature the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Bono.
Others are dazzling affairs: JPMorgan Chase, for example, has previously taken over the Kirchner Museum Davos for drinks with its chief executive, Jamie Dimon, and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister.
Google’s annual party at the InterContinental Hotel has become the hottest ticket in town. The investor Anthony Scaramucci, now an adviser to Donald Trump, for years has hosted a reception at the famed Hotel Europe featuring a sometimes eye-popping list of high-end Champagne and Bordeaux red wine.
A more recent up-and-comer is hosted by Salesforce.com, a business-software maker, whose chief, Marc Benioff, is one of the forum’s most ardent boosters. Last year’s Salesforce party included Benioff flying in scores of fresh flower leis and a band from Hawaii, as Eric Schmidt of Google and other tech notables danced in a corner.