Exactly what happens at the World Economic Forum, the annual confab in the Swiss Alps held at the beginning of the year, is something that’s both completely out in the open yet maddeningly opaque.
Hundreds of reporters cover it every year, and much of the programming is broadcast and livestreamed, and yet exactly what thousands of business leaders, politicians, academics and activists do when they converge on the Swiss mountain town is a little mysterious.
Naturally, the forum has become the object of conspiracy theories over the years. (In fact, it’s a place where you’re likely to find the key actors in any good conspiracy theories, from world leaders to business executives to intelligence agency chiefs). It’s an event with a vague theme but no unifying goal, yet it attracts the most powerful people across the planet to the same location. And the broad explanation of why people are there seems to be that, well, other people are there too.
Politicians, heads of state and corporate executives all mingling — some 2,700 total — working together to change the world: Here, both the World Economic Forum’s conspiratorial critics and the WEF itself have something in common, that this meeting and the organization are important forces that can have a meaningful impact, beyond just a bunch of important people hanging out. It wasn’t a conspiracy theorist that coined the phrase “the spirit of Davos” or called the WEF “a partner shaping history.” It was the WEF.
The meeting in its current form dates to 1974, when a business conference hosted by a German business professor in Switzerland named Klaus Schwab invited politicians to join the corporate executives in the mountain valley. As the conference and organization expanded, what was once the “European Management Forum” became the “World Economic Forum” in 1987.
The events are often loosely tied to a theme picked out every year — this year’s being “Cooperation in a Fragmented World,” a successor to 2022′s “History at a Turning Point: Government Policies and Business Strategies.”
One group that is always there in full force is business executives, which gives some hint as to why Davos perpetuates itself. According to its most recent annual report, the World Economic Forum brings in around $420 million in revenue, the lion’s share of which comes from “membership.” (The WEF is a nonprofit.) “A large majority of its funding is provided by the world’s most significant business entities, who join the Forum as members and partners in order to participate in our activities,” the WEF said in 2017.
More recent reporting by the Associated Press put membership and partnership fees at “120,000 to 850,000 Swiss francs ($130,000 to $921,000),” while the cost of attending can range from free or heavily discounted for civil society members to somewhere between $70,000 and $250,000 for businesses and individuals.
There are almost 800 “partners,” the WEF said in its annual report. Just dividing the total partnership revenue by the number of those “partners” puts the average cost at around $330,000.
So why do they pay? Because everyone else does. There are innumerable panels and programming, presentations of reports and announcements of earnest public-private partnerships, so it makes sense that Davos has become something of a fixed point around which much of the world’s power structure gathers. Russia is one major exception. They were kicked out of the conference following the invasion of Ukraine at the cost of over $10 million, according to the WEF’s financial documents.
Davos is the kind of place where you can find, to quote Semafor, “Chef and philanthropist José Andrés, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, designer Diane von Furstenberg, and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers at Goals House.”
This is the type of thing that attracts businesspeople whose companies eat the bill and who can meet with clients, partners, investors and government leaders all in the same place. The hobnobbing happens both quasi-publicly — the former Trump White House communications director and investor Anthony Scaramucci has hosted his well-reported-on wine tasting party again this year — and in private, with the New York Times describing one chief executive’s schedule as “back-to-back 30-minute meetings every day from 7:30 a.m. through 7 p.m., before heading to countless dinners.”
The same reason business and political leaders go to Davos — because everyone is else is going — is why hundreds of credentialed media descend on the Swiss town.
For the executives, it’s not just a chance to meet with clients and partners but also with the media, especially the broadcast media. CNBC and Bloomberg camp out at the conference, snagging a wide-range of chief executives and thought leaders. CNBC boasted of some 13 CEO interviews on Tuesday alone, ranging from Citi and Bank of America to Palantir and Qualcomm.
And just as the business executives go to private meetings and events that may be more pertinent to them than the well-covered panels, so do journalists — getting a chance to interact informally and in person with the people they cover (and their sources) can be valuable.
“I’ve had many relationships I developed there lead to scoops, stories or interviews months and years later, DealBook editor and CNBC host Andrew Ross Sorkin told Semafor.
The WEF typically finds itself in a state of crisis or at least anxiety during uncertain times, like the potential global recession looming, when political leaders wonder about the appropriateness of sipping hot chocolate with bank CEOs in front of CNBC and Bloomberg’s cameras.
The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a speech, but President Joe Biden will not because he won’t be attending. Neither will Secretary of State Antony Blinken nor Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
Leading the United States delegation is Labor Secretary Martin Walsh, along with a fleet of officials who spend a lot of time meeting with their overseas counterparts and business groups: Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai, Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, and climate envoy John Kerry and Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) participated in a panel.
Davos is, in the end, sometimes hugely impactful and important — just ask the Ukrainians who are there, and the delegations from sub-Saharan Africa and others — and sometimes all about hobnobbing and being seen. Which is why it breeds both cynicism — and a desire to book their slots, assuming they get an invite — for next year’s event.
Thanks to Brett Zach for copy editing this article.