DAVOS, Switzerland – Davos seems made to host the world elite. The town of 10,000 people is tucked away in a picturesque Swiss ski resort that takes hours to reach by train — unless you have a helicopter or private jet. At an altitude of 1,500 meters (5,000 feet), it's physically above much of the world.
The gathering organized annually by the World Economic Forum has become a fixture on the calendar for business executives and public figures, and has come to be known as much for the wild parties of hedge fund managers as much as the official goal of "improving the state of the world."
Here's a look at the event, how it works and what goes on.
Davos is nominally a gathering of leaders to network and find solutions to the world's problems. In practice, it's also an opportunity to show off. Outside the main building, where panels discuss Ebola or economic recession, the town is littered with networking parties, PR events, film screenings and art installations. Companies and countries rent entire buildings, throwing up banners and receptions to entice Davos participants to enter and to promote their image on a global stage. Though the party scene has become more sober in recent years, it's still going strong. The Japan event has some of the best food.
The meeting is meant to bring together leaders to find solutions to global problems of all kinds. Through panels, debates and speeches, the participants exchange views and present work they've been doing. This year's program is about mastering the new wave of technological innovation, from biotechnologies to drones and cyberattacks. But it will tackle all sorts of things, from pandemics to financial markets. Executives stress the value of having so many colleagues in one place, cramming meetings into their schedule.
Davos works with a caste system of badges that determine your access to talks, meetings and, yes, parties. At the very top are white badges with special insignia that denote high-level participants or heads of state. These are the guests who swoop in and out for a day or two upon invitation of the World Economic Forum. Then there are white badges for participants, which provide entry to all scheduled events. The orange and violet badges follow, offering a more limited range of access.
About 2,500 participants are scheduled to attend this year's Davos event. That includes 1,500 business executives, 300 public figures and some 40 heads of state. The real number of people cramming into Davos is much higher. Thousands more gravitate here in the hope of networking and coming away with important business cards or even deals. Many participants bring spouses or family to get a skiing vacation out of the trip .There's a host of support staff, including PR teams and handlers. The two main streets that run along the valley are, predictably, clogged with limos and transport vans most days and evenings.
The town goes into lockdown for the week of the event, and security is particularly high this year due to the recent spate of extremist attacks. Snipers sit on roofs and police with automatic weapons and guard dogs blockade the roads. The Swiss army provides aerial support while security officers trample through snow to guard the buildings' perimeters. The police say they have increased security checks in the area since November and have stepped up their presence compared with last year, mainly due to the attacks in Paris.
Davos is expensive. While some participants join by invitation, many pay an entry fee that can hit tens of thousands of dollars per person. Hotel rooms are booked at least a year in advance, with many people having to commute in from towns lower down the valley. The locals try to cash in on the event by jacking up their prices, sometimes by as much as three times. The cheapest room in Davos costs upwards of $500 a night. A pizza? $25.