The Swiss resort of Davos has now hosted the event 47 times, with the conference only once changing venue, when it was moved to New York in 2002 as a demonstration of solidarity after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The WEF has been operating since 1971, when it started as the European Management Forum. Since then, it has morphed into this mega-event for the elite (which now also includes trade union bosses, the heads of NGOs and professors of Ivy League universities).
The conference is inclusive inasmuch as the debates get broadcast globally and that it puts on an open forum for the people of Davos. But the WEF stands for more than just its annual meeting. It has regional conferences in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, and also publishes respected reports and studies, such as the much-quoted Global Competitiveness Index.
There is the “Davos Man/Woman” and then there are the skeptics. Nowhere is that debate more prevalent than in Switzerland, where anti-globalization enthusiasts want to demonstrate and taxpayers bemoan the francs they have to shell out to pay for the high security bills. However, nobody benefits more from the event than the Swiss. The government gets one-on-one audiences with the likes of Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi. Switzerland is a small country that, economically speaking, punches well above its weight, which is why these encounters really do matter. The television cameras also beam images of the snow-covered Swiss Alps into living rooms around the world, which must save Switzerland Tourism many advertising dollars.
Industry tycoons bemoan the high fees, but gladly pay them because they, too, gain unparalleled access and can save travel expenses and time. A typical CEO would probably need to criss-cross the globe for four months to get the meetings he can conveniently cram into four days at Davos.
From the political and business elite to ordinary global citizens, the World Economic Forum conference continues to encapsulate the spirit of our time as it tackles the big social issues.
For the rest of us, Davos matters, too. Every year the theme strikes the zeitgeist, with 2018 focusing on “Creating a shared future in a fractured world.” In previous years, it has focused on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, inequality, the refugee crisis, and so on — these are the big social issues of our times.
This year the event was overshadowed by the participation of Donald Trump, who gave an effective speech. It was a sales pitch to invest in the US that he was clearly at ease delivering. European industry leaders also enjoyed a private dinner with him — again access they would not otherwise get. The US president would also have benefited from exposure to issues that matter to business leaders across the pond.
Many criticize the meeting in Davos as always being the same. In the long run, however, it is the softer tones that are usually more significant than the pomp and circumstance surrounding the star of the day. This year, European leaders spoke on days two and three. It was as though the politically beleaguered German Chancellor Angela Merkel was passing the torch of European leadership to the young and exciting new French President Emmanuel Macron. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also showed that the multilateral trade agenda is still alive and kicking, as he announced that 11 Pacific Rim nations had formed the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). This is the phoenix rising from the ashes of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump effectively dissolved when he canceled US participation on day one of his presidency.
If one listens carefully to the cacophony of voices, one can always find relevant takeaways — whether at the event, the open forum or from just watching the speeches on television.
Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macroeconomist and energy expert. She can be reached on Twitter @MeyerResources.