Davos, Switzerland — The crisp white snow sparkles off stunningly high mountain peaks, a gorgeous backdrop for the thousands of the world’s elite gathered here every year for the World Economic Forum.
Inside the world’s issues from inequality to climate change are being tackled.
I have to cover my face as I walk up to the main conference center - not for the freezing cold temperatures, but because of the exhaust from the traffic and idling private cars. They’re waiting for their VIPs, some of whom arrived via the 270 private jets the forum estimates were used to travel to the event.
My first Davos, the name of the Swiss ski resort down that’s become synonymous with this annual World Economic Forum conference, was a whirlwind of panels, writing articles, live shots, interviews, meetings and events.
On the one hand it was like a reunion of the world’s most elite in business, politics and even royalty. For a reporter - a dream. In just one day at Davos, CNN conducted 30 high level live interviews on air.
I walked behind Bill Gates for a full two minutes before I realized it was him, briefly chatted with the CEOs of Uber and Expedia at a party, questioned Microsoft President Brad Smith, and was casually introduced to the former Prime Minister of Denmark.
It’s also valuable for those CEOs and politicians - multiple executives told me that you could get a year’s worth of meetings done in a week. Major deals are struck in the thousands of one-on-one meetings on the sidelines.
But then I’d see the motto emblazoned all over the conference “Committed to improving the state of the world,” and consider the irony of the pure amount of money spent on educating and yes, entertaining, the world’s power set.
Though the official conference itself is limited to certain buildings and keeps things very nice but not ostentatious, the picturesque town is completely taken over by tangential events. Stores along the main promenade are transformed into ‘hubs’ by banks, social media companies, news organizations and even countries, replete with new decor, free coffee and food, panel discussions and lavish parties at night — with big name performers like Sting and Ellie Goulding. Even just walking down the street, you’re offered free swag, drinks and treats.
And while important issues were often mentioned or discussed at the event - most people schmoozed and enjoyed themselves.
I found myself thinking as I walked into one event after the other: How many tens of thousands of dollars did it cost to put on just one of these events? What could one charitable or research organization do with that sort of money to help solve the problems being discussed at the official conference?
Now I understand why this type of conference is so valuable: Where else can you put thousands of the world’s elite with the power to actually change things face-to-face with some of the biggest issues of our time? Where else can you get a moment like 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg lecturing a roomful of millionaires and billionaires about climate change?
But still - I couldn’t wrap my head around the ironies facing me every day this week.
I emailed the forum, telling them I was writing this piece and asking for a comment. Managing director and head of communications Adrian Monck called me and gave an impassioned defense of the work they do.
On sustainability, Monck that of the thousands of people who come to the Davos meeting, a tiny fraction of those arrive and leave on private jets and that the number has decreased. The forum is sustainably certified, he said, and does things like make sure the food they serve at the conference is locally sourced. And, the organization “fully offsets the carbon footprint of all participants by buying carbon credits from South Pole, a Forum Social Entrepreneur,” the forum touts on its website.
“The illusion you might have of this not being a sustainable event, is an illusion,” he said.
Monck pointed out that the conference is one of the few opportunities to bring people in difficult circumstances, such as refugees invited to the event, face-to-face with people who have the resources that can bring about change.
“Bringing those voices to bear on people who are far more privileged and have much more resources is an important part of having people confront the realities for 60-odd millions of people around the world,” Monck said.
The forum’s goals and work are noble and important. I just don’t know if the surrounding circus that has sprouted alongside lives up to the same espoused ideals.