Has Davos “peaked” as a must-attend event for the world’s top business leaders and power brokers, as one Wall Street “heavyweight” rudely suggested to the Financial Times? This year’s event, from 23-27 January, didn’t seem as glitzy as it was in 2012. When David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson were snapped on 24 January, after their speeches, enjoying pizza and Swiss plonk together at the relatively cheap Alte Post restaurant, it wasn’t a Bullingdon Club reunion, as some in the media have mockingly suggested. The Bullingdon may have served ropey wine but it never served pizza.
Neither is Davos any sort of exclusive club. Unlike the invitation-only Bilderberg Group – an elite and quasisecretive club of self-appointed global business leaders and politicians who meet annually in luxury resort hotels – almost anybody rich enough can pay to join the World Economic Forum at the Swiss mountain resort. Though politicians are not charged, many CEOs, bankers and even billionaires struggle to see the point of spending $71,000 on a “non- VIP” invitation to be an official delegate – especially when, as many well-heeled financiers have told me, you could pay 35 Swiss francs (£25) for a day pass to the Belvedere Hotel, where much of the best partying and behind-closed-doors meetings and lobbying takes place. This year, that included the British business leaders’ lunch, backed by the Confederation of British Industry, at which Johnson spoke out about the need for Cameron to invest more in UK housing, road and rail infrastructure.
That said, for the super-rich, the issue was never the price of a ticket: it was whether the time and travel involved were justified by the schmoozing opportunities on offer.
For many, the answer is yes – as long as you understand that Davos is not about sitting through earnest conference debates about “energy security” or climate change. Davos is about having (often buying) a platform. As the gold-mining mogul Peter Munk told me: “If you put up X million or you are the FT expert and you give coverage, you become a panel member. It’s not because you are smarter than anybody else.”
The Swiss newspapers were full of reports of who had not shown up for the annual jamboree (notably the heads of banks such as RBS). The Obama adminstration has never embraced Davos as Bill Clinton did and there were notable absences this year, such as Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google.
In 2012, he was very much a Tarzan-in-chief of the Davos circus, where the Google presence was unmissable. The moment you stepped into the Belvedere Hotel, you were confronted by the tech giant’s free champagne bar, with its iPad stations so that you could check your email and do some hasty googling on the latest to have slipped you a business card.
Such splashy hospitality was effective in reinforcing Google’s position as the world’s top dog. Yet this year, Google had no bar and a greatly reduced presence. The reason? The company now has its own Zeitgeist conference, held at the Grove hotel in Hertfordshire. This is invitation-only and the media are not welcome – very much the opposite of Davos, where journalistic egos are massaged with offers to chair panels.
So what do the Davos big beasts get for their money? To attend as a “strategic partner”, a company might pay between $250,000 and $1m for a number of executives to attend and sit on panels, along with corporate branding and advertising. You might also get the chance to meet one of the 50 or so heads of state in attendance.
“If you are the global head of a bank, you depend on governments, just as I do in the mining world,” says Peter Munk. “In Davos, you can meet privately in your guarded suite with David Cameron or members of the Russian government. Do you think it is not worth it for the meeting, just for a lousy quarter of a million dollars?”
For Cameron and the other leaders, the point of the event is to feel less lonely at the top. They come to tell themselves that it’s not too late to be taken seriously as a global citizen or remembered for their philanthropy. So they can’t give up Davos, just yet. Munk – who now watches the speeches from a chair in the library of his Swiss chalet – told me that every year, the global elite say this is the last time they will come.
“Even I used to say it – that Davos had changed. That it wasn’t the same – that there were too many people, too many journalists; and yet here I am again in my eighties. And the same people who say Davos is ‘crap’ always come back.”
William Cash is the editor-in-chief of Spear’s wealth management magazine