independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Davos is a mix of networking, glamour, deals and late-night parties . . . in a word, it's fun

British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, and  rock star Bono speak during the panel discussion  "The Post-2015 Goals: Inspiring a New Generation to Act", the fifth annual Associated Press debate, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014.  (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
British Prime Minister David Cameron and Bono.

'WHAT is Davos really like?" is perhaps the most common reaction from friends and relations when one lets slip, oh so carelessly, that one is headed for the Alpine ski resort's annual conference for power brokers.

Overwhelming is one word.

Others are: Beautiful. Stimulating. Tiring.

It is important to say early on that there are several versions of Davos. A hundred or so super-powerful movers and shakers experience a much more rarified version and can often only be found squirrelled away in private rooms and lounges where most of the delegates are excluded. This is where many of the high-level deals get done, away from any eavesdroppers.

Still, there is still a lot of glamour to go around if your inclinations lean towards the political and financial. The main Congress Centre is cleverly arranged like a cross between a luxurious airport lounge and a nightclub. Every seating arrangement, every (free) bar and almost every event is set up to encourage random conversations.

Many faces are easily recognisable. Tony Blair wandering the main foyer. Richard Branson checking in. Christine Lagarde with a bevy of equally tall and beautiful assistants strolling down the main street of Davos.

As I write these words, Benjamin Netanyahu is walking by with a large entourage of hangers on and some discrete security but that is unusual; most people other than the Israeli prime minister don't feel the need for company.

These are people we recognise in Ireland but almost everybody in Davos is famous somewhere. That man dressed in an admiral's uniform doesn't ring bells but turns out to be the crown prince of a small Scandinavian kingdom, while the diminutive Chinese man in a exquisitely tailored three-piece suit is the governor of a state you never heard of with a population 15 times that of Ireland. This is perhaps the only place I know where men dress as expensively as women.

The funny thing is that many of them, especially if it is their first time here, are feeling at least as lost as you although they hide it with their formidably developed networking skills.

People watching in Davos is a pleasure, but watching them network is an education. You simply don't get to the pinnacle of whatever it is you do without an ability to network furiously, or at least you don't bother going to Davos.

There is nothing random about these conversations; most have been organised by assistants well in advance. Some look a little joyless, but as Leo Varadkar said in a different context this week: it isn't a marriage, it's business.

There are random meetings of course at the hotels, bars, in lifts, coat rooms and the thousands of black minivans and golf buggies with sheepskin seats that ferry delegates from the various centres to their sleeping quarters. Many of them involve people peering short- sightedly at one another's badges. Badges play a big part at the World Economic Forum because they tend to define where you can go, who you can meet and what you can do. In other words, where you are on the pecking order.

While this sounds obnoxious, it makes for seamless security and ensures that once you're on the inside you feel both safe and unhindered by any petty restrictions.

The old timers, such as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, wear a special diamond-like badge to signify their numerous visits. Too many hours inside this bubble can wreck your head. Canned air and endless chatter are wearisome and this is where the tiny compact city of Davos itself comes into its own.

By popping your head out of the building you are in a different world. Imagine somewhere the size of Galway with 100 ski shops and 20 watch shops surrounded by snow-capped mountains and so high above sea level that water boils at 96 degrees. The beauty of the surroundings have a calming effect that is a real antidote to the networking, talks and late-night parties hosted by a hundred banks and governments.

Many delegates can't resist the snow and head for the slopes. Others succumb to the ice on the pavements and slip and break a bone.

Does Davos really have any effect? Will all this year's talks about inequality, cyber attacks and the like have any real effect or promote the Davos agenda of making the world a better place? Who knows?

What I can tell you for sure is that Davos is fun, full of interesting chance meetings, and a place where you can remind yourself that Ireland, and indeed Europe, are small places and the rest of the world is full of interesting people, countries and opportunities.

Irish Independent

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