Davos has always been maligned for being a playground for elites. The ambrosial London Mayor Boris Johnson described the event this year as “a constellation of egos involved in orgies of adulation.” Of course, exclusivity can work in your favor when trying to build an intellectual global brand. But could the old-world elitism that Davos thrives on be losing its allure?
Accusations of hollow hobnobbing were no big deal a decade ago when the conference ruled the roost and there were few alternatives. But in recent years the competition for ideas conferences—TED, the Aspen Ideas Festival, South by Southwest, and the Clinton Global Initiative, to name a few—has heated up. As a result, one of the biggest questions among the under-40 crowd this year isn’t “Are we changing the world here?” but “What is Davos about?”
Few Davosians would argue that this event, or any big conference for that matter, can really jolt the needle on mammoth issues like China’s growth problem, global warming, or the grand mission of “improving the state of the world” (which is the conference’s stated goal). But seasoned Davos-goers in the business world tend to justify the $40,000 price tag of attending as the cost of efficient networking. “I can meet with half my CEO clients here in half a day. At home that would take me at least half a year,” one executive told me.
That may be the case if your clients are mature blue-chip corporations like Coca-Cola or Unilever, but not if they’re wunderkinds like Facebook, Twitter, or Google. Top executives from all three companies are notably absent this year. No doubt Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, was irked by the decision of Davos regular Eric Schmidt to skip out and cancel his company’s usual blowout bash, a marquee event at the Steigenberger Belvedere Hotel where the literati and glitterati share the dance floor. Without bright faces to set the scene at Davos, the fresh corporate blood needed to pay the conference’s bills may start to fall off in years to come.
That’s why, about a decade ago, WEF started importing a subsidized set of “tech pioneers,” young promising start-ups deemed to be disruptive in their field. In 2005, WEF moved on to recruiting an under-40 set they call Young Global Leaders. Last year, they upped the ante with an under-30 crowd they pay to fly in called “Global Shapers.”
Whether the recruiting campaign will pay off remains to be seen. During a flurry of cocktail receptions attended by influencers like JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon and London’s Mayor Johnson, Kickstarter CEO and WEF Tech Pioneer Perry Chen looked thoroughly bored and unimpressed. Salesforce’s Marc Benioff complained about the lack of women and youth on panels. A global shaper walked out of the Forbes cocktail hour brandishing Steve Forbes’ latest book, Freedom Manifesto, saying he hadn’t heard “such conservative thinking since the 19th century.”
Still, others are optimistic. “I thought it would be stuffy,” design director of IDEO Tom Hulme, a WEF Young Global Leader, told me. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised. But I’d try putting the incumbents [of industry] and the disruptors on the same panels. Otherwise you get stuck talking about the past.”
For now, Davos is holding on to some lingering competitive advantages: political might and location. Thirty-seven prime ministers and presidents were expected this year. And being cooped up with the world’s most powerful in a tiny Swiss town “means there’s no escape,” says Joe Echevarria, U.S. CEO of Deloitte, which tends to focus the mind. So, perhaps, does hobnobbing at private parties with token celebrities like Charlize Theron and tech icon Sean Parker, who—lucky for Schwab—both showed up.