ZURICH — Once a year Switzerland becomes much more than the sum of its chocolate, watches and banking sector.
For several days at the end of January, presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and corporate titans jostle with actors, rock stars and major influencers for top billing at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. The confab takes place in the Alpine village of Davos, about 90 miles southeast of Zurich, and for a brief spell each year the pristine ski resort half-sheds its Graubünden roots and becomes a ground zero for the political and business elite.
"It's a fascinating event that occurs on any number of levels," says Boston-based Nariman Behravesh, a Davos veteran and chief global economist at IHS, a consultancy.
"The top-level political leadership give their speeches, but usually they don't tell you anything you don't already know. In the open forums there are a lot of talking heads, and you kind of know what they are going to say. However, the private meetings, often in the hallways and mostly off the record, are much more interesting, with lots of good discussion. There's also the partying. You have to be careful not to overdo it," he says.
This year's speech- and workshop-packed jamboree is taking place from Jan. 22-25.
Ostensibly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yahoo Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer, actors Matt Damon and Goldie Hawn, and any number of the approximately 2,500 heads of state, entrepreneurs, CEOs, young global leaders and assorted cultural and social visionaries making the pilgrimage to Davos will talk about one thing: "The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business" — WEF founder Klaus Schwab's characteristically abstruse theme for 2014. This follows on the heel's of 2013's "Resilient Dynamism" and "The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models," the year before that. The WEF's ambitions for the gathering — operating motto: "Committed to improving the state of the world" — are nothing if not lofty.
"There's room for skepticism over what people will walk away with and then achieve but that doesn't mean they shouldn't try, " says IHS' Behravesh. "How the goals translate into actions is a different story. The WEF can't do a lot in terms of pressuring corporations or governments. So the worry is that these things tend to dissipate soon after the forum ends," he says, adding, "The goals are great. The themes are great. It's the follow-through that hasn't really been there."
For many, an expedition to Davos — and it is for most without access to helicopter service a complicated journey up the mountain involving multiple planes, trains and automobiles — is all about joining the high-powered and the pioneering to talk shop about the world's ills while trudging through the snow and ice in a good pair of boots and a warm jacket. The hope is that relevant action plans for change will stick around even after the last cheese fondue meal is consumed.
But in its heart of hearts this annual exclusive accumulation of sages, captains of industry and wealthy do-gooders is really about networking. "(It's about) chasing successful people who want to be seen with other successful people," the Lebanese-American writer and academic Nassim Taleb told Bloomberg Television a few years back. "That's the game," he said.
It's also a gamble, at least in the sense that the price of entry is extraordinarily high. The basic cost of a ticket to Davos is 27,000 Swiss francs, or about $30,000. However, in order to have the privilege of even paying that immodest fee the WEF requires membership of the organization. This will set you back another $55,000 or so. Of course that's assuming you travel light — sans helicopter and $100,000 chalet, for example — and alone. When the Yahoos and Googles of this world show up to big international pow-wows they don't often do it on their ownsome.
While no one believes four days in and around the slopes is enough time to fix everything, there should be plenty to talk about this year. Ahead of this week's Davos kickoff the WEF released its "Global Risks 2014" report detailing what it sees as the gravest threats facing our planet over the next 11 months or so. Many of our economies remain in danger. In some countries exceptionally high unemployment is sapping the prospects of our youth. Income polarization is increasing. Already-scarce water resources are becoming scarcer. Climate change remains unresolved. State collapse and internal conflict and violence are proving stubbornly resilient.
"From conflict in the Middle East, the U.S. Federal Reserve's tapering program, and tension in the South China Sea, to the 75 million unemployed young people around the world, we face a situation where the number of potential flashpoints are many and are likely to grow," WEF boss Schwab wrote in these pages recently. Speaking in a pre-meeting press conference last week, the German economist said it was time to "push the reset button" on the world.
Still, there are moments of levity, in retrospect at least, that emerge from the event in the form of predictions gone awry.
"We know where we're heading ... this is a transitional period, but we have a clear political path," the then — and now ousted — Egyptian prime minister Hesham Kandil told CNBC during last year's meeting.
"Those Google guys," Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said of Larry Page and Sergey Brin during 2003's annual meeting. "They want to be billionaires and rock stars and go to conferences, and all that. Let us see if they still want to run the business in two to three years."