WEF’s Davos heritage

Although now headquartered in the suburb of Cologny in Geneva, the World Economic Forum’s relationship with Davos stretches far beyond the staging of its annual meetings in the ski resort. Klaus Schwab’s creation, which sets the global economic agenda during the last week of January every year, owes its existence to the success of a speculative project staged in the unlikely alpine venue fourty years ago.World_Economic_Forum

In January 1971, after fruitless attempts to raise funding, Schwab risked his own resources to hold what he called the European Management Symposium in Davos’s newly erected Congress Centre. Schwab bet that Davos’s remote location (160km from Zurich) and crisp mountain air provided “all the elements for hosting a productive working retreat for top CEOs. “

So he called in favours from contacts gathered during his time in academia and business to put bums onto the ample Congress Centre’s seats for a two-week think-tank. Star attractions included the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith and that era’s Bill Gates, IBM’s President Jacques Maisonrouge. The full house convinced its organizer he was onto something big.

The 25 000 Swiss Franc profit was used to endow Schwab’s European Management Forum whose annual Symposium in Davos – held as now during the last week of January – gathered momentum and scale. High-level delegations were soon drawn from the US, followed by China, India and others. To better reflect its international nature, in 1987 it was renamed the World Economic Forum, or simply the WEF to those long associated with the body.

Today the WEF draws the rich and powerful to many regional and industry focused events around the world, including the African Economic Summit usually held in Cape Town during June (although in this World Cup year it moves temporarily to Tanzania). The highlight, though, is the annual meeting in Davos during the last week of January, an event so heavily over-subscribed that since 1994, participation has been restricted to 2 500 delegates to ensure a high level of exclusivity. WEF members, primarily major corporations, were long ago instructed that attendance is restricted to only their Chairman or CEO – not both.

Outside of WEF Week when it becomes the world’s nexus of political and corporate power, Davos is home to 13 000 people, by comparison that’s roughly two thirds the number who live permanently in the small Cape Coastal resort of Port Alfred. At 1560m above sea level, Davos’s altitude is high by European standards. Gautengers, however, cope well with the thinner air (Johannesburg is 1750m above sea level) but find the sub-zero temperatures (-4 degrees during the day) more challenging.

By the way, locals don’t call themselves Davosers as one might imagine. Instead, they’re most definitely either Dorflers or Platzlers.

Apparently the not-so-friendly rivalry between the two sides of this famous small town in Switzerland’s canton of Graubunden stretch back many generations. Ply them with enough gluwein and your hosts in the Dorf will proudly explain how, as children, their favourite sport was crossing the front-line to beat up on Platzlers. And vice versa.

So, idyllic as it may appear to outsiders, Davos is actually a tiny although less violent version of Belfast or Glasgow. Catholics, their churches, their schools and apparently more modest habits are to be found in Dorf. The noisier Protestant churches and schools are other side of the Schiabach rivulet, a stream so small that no outsider would even know it exists. Literally, it runs under the town’s two main roads and during WEF Week is hidden by snow.

Divisions run deep enough for Davos to boast two fully-fledged railway stations (called, naturally, Dorf and Platz) ensuring ratepayers can avoid hostile territory when returning from occasional trips to Zurich, a picturesque two and a half hours train ride away.

Most of the shops and hotels are in the busier Platz side, but Dorflers claim the best hotels are actually on their side, like the five star Arabella Seehof and the equally flash Fluela. The Congress Centre, incidentally, is about 500m away from the frontline on the Platz side of the village.

In conjunction with BrightRock, we have taken to sharing the stories from our recently published World Economic Forum starter pack PDF, ‘A Veterans Guide to Surviving Davos’  with you – Follow the link to download the full document.