Well it's time for Davos again, and all the talk about it these days (see here and here) makes me think back to my own Davos days. I did attend a few of these in the past, to perform my role dutifully as house critic, but it's been some years since I last went. (I dropped out at the last minute once, and have not been invited ever since...)
To begin with, the weirdness of the setting. This little skiing town is hardly where you would expect to find the leading lights of business, politics, arts, and academia. For one thing, it's damn hard to get to (unless you are arriving on an helicopter). The town of Davos itself does not have enough hotel rooms to accommodate everyone, so unlucky guests have to stay in nearby Klosters and commute to the event by bus. The conference site itself is small and feels terribly cramped. Lunch and dinner sessions are held in a variety of locations, which you are sure to miss if you rely on the shuttle service (run with Italian rather than Swiss efficiency). OK, the skiing is better than in Maine, but that's really about it. The whole thing is a marketing and PR miracle, pulled off by one man.
Next the sessions, which range from the exquisite to the absurd. I have been in some pretty dreary panels (often as speaker) as well as in sessions which worked really well. Davos organizers have pioneered new formats: panels where the panelists seat in comfortable sofas pacing the audience, roundtables with electronic voting by the audience, discussion sessions where each table is assigned a specific question and reports back its conclusions. Sometimes these yield silly results (how many attendees do you think vote against the following proposition: "Peace in the Middle East is possible only if the two sides eschew violence and show tolerance vis-a-vis each other"). But in the hands of experienced moderators the results can be quite revealing. For example, it was in one of the Davos sessions that it finally dawned on me that Doha was going nowhere fast.
But what I loved most about being there is the spectacle. Think of hundreds of CEOs and statesmen packed together, all of whom are used to being accompanied by a retinue of assistants and (sometimes) bodyguards. When these personalities walk, ordinary people make way. Their sense of personal space is not quite the same as yours or mine. Imagine them now in Davos, minus their staff, negotiating a crowded staircase as they try to advance to their next session. Everyone's body language says: get out of my way. But no-one makes room because everybody expects others will yield first. The traffic is quite a sight. Luckily, the thoughtful organizers strategically place beautiful young guides throughout to direct the distraught dignitaries.
And then there are the parties. Emerging market, banks (when they are doing well), and other institutions compete with each other in putting the most luxurious spreads. The worst of these I attended was one hosted by Yale, where I think there were no more than a dozen people. The best was a super-event held by the Turkish government with every imaginable kind of food and exquisite entertainment. You could tell it was the place to be because Tom Friedman was milling around the whole time. It was the year that Miss Turkey had won the European beauty championship, and the poor thing was made to parade around the guests with a crown atop her head!
So on the looong way back, you could always comfort yourself with the tales you had accumulated for your grandchildren and the high-end gadgets you were given for free.