The first time I went to the World Economic Forum at Davos was in 2000 and my husband’s first time was in 1995. We’ve not gone every year but between the two of us we now have 30 years of experience attending this August summit of the 1%. With the onset of middle age comes a certain sense of calm—and after years of raging about the treatment of women, and the exhaustion, and fattening food—I now view Davos with a kind of detached acceptance.
Newbies and Davos Virgins often ask us for advice—so, apart from moisturizer and sturdy shoes—here is a guide to the phases you have to go through emotionally in order to survive the World Economic Forum in Davos. Hang in there.
I never in a million years thought I would actually go to Davos. When I worked as a wire service reporter it was mainly the senior men who staffed the meetings. Even though they only had lowly orange badges and so spent their days confined to the windowless press room or on the edges of the conference center’s security perimeter—buttonholing CEOs to ask them about their profit outlook—my colleagues who staffed Davos still acted as though the status of being there somehow rubbed off on them. I never imagined I would become an old hand at the security lines, adept at finding the best cafes for hot chocolate and wiener schnitzel and a denizen of the Saturday night gala with its dessert buffet and open bar.
Davos is all about status and makes everyone feel inferior. From billionaires to heads of state, all the attendees are convinced they have been assigned the worst hotel room, the most boring panel and are missing all the best parties. The humiliation begins when you arrive at the airport and realize you are on the bus and someone else has been given a limo. Actually, it can start earlier. Heading back to my economy class seat on the flight to Zurich a few years ago I was spotted by a renowned university president who asked me loudly, “How did that happen?” For many, the response to WEF is befuddlement. Why would anyone put up with this ritual humiliation, and what do all those different colored badges mean anyway?
Comes when you find out the truth of life as a Davos wife. As soon as you arrive and head to the registration desk, you are handed a color-coded badge denoting your status and your fate is sealed for the entire conference. Until I began writing about it, we wives suffered the humiliation of a white name badge with no institutional affiliation at all. Thus were we consigned to social oblivion for the week as a quick glance at our badge (at Davos no one looks you in the eye, they just glance at your name badge) showed we were the lowest form of life and were shunned accordingly. Many a wife who skipped joining her husband at Davos gave the blank badge as the main reason.
Thankfully the blank badge is no more and WEF has made an effort to bring in more women apart from the usual suspects who are invited to moderate panels each year—e.g. my buddies Gilian Tett, Chrystia Freeland, and Rana Foroohar. A highlight of the 2014 meetings was seeing Laura Tyson and Ngaire Woods take on Eric Schmidt over the destruction of middle class jobs caused by the “disruption” of Silicon Valley.
If I can just do something differently, maybe it will be better next year. Maybe some new young staffer in the WEF office will put me on a better panel. Maybe I will get invited to a really great meal up in a mountain chalet with a private chef. Perhaps Felix Salmon can get me invited to that wine tasting he always talks about, or a head of state will ask for a bilateral meeting and seek my advice on how to promote coffee bean production or his relations with the EU.
It doesn’t matter, WEF gods. I would be happy to go snowshoeing and eat overpriced fondue with some of my gossipy friends and skip those fancy dinners. Just please don’t let this year be the year I slip on the ice and break something and have to spend the rest of the week lying down in my hotel room with my leg in a cast, like the wife of the chief rabbi of Rotterdam I heard about a few years ago.
It’s fun! I will see all my friends and go snow shoeing. Yes there are a million mansplainers all over the place—many of whom enjoy pontificating on subjects far afield from their expertise—but Davos is a finger on the corporate pulse and a way to see what the world’s elites are thinking. Who doesn’t love chance encounters with Gordon and Sarah Brown and Mary Robinson and random heads of state and the chicken sate at the Indonesian reception and having chai at the Indian Adda in the Café Schneider. My flashlight and moisturizer are packed. Please invite me back.