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5 questions you were too embarrassed to ask about Davos

Davos: So full of luminaries that even Sheryl Sandberg gets pushed to the background of some photos.
Davos: So full of luminaries that even Sheryl Sandberg gets pushed to the background of some photos.
Getty Images

It's Davos time again. Pretty much anyone who might be considered a mover or a shaker in the business world is in the Swiss Alps right now as you're reading this, networking and skiing and partying to the tune of $40,000, by one estimate.

It gets a hefty amount of media attention for a summit. CNBC has an entire blog devoted to it and is broadcasting from Switzerland. Huffington Post likewise has a liveblog, complete with a live video feed. The New York Times' Dealbook section has sent a small delegation. Why do people pay attention? And does anything ever actually get done?

Read our explainer to understand a bit about why what could be just another boring conference makes headlines every year.

1) What exactly is going on in Davos this week?

When you hear people talk about Davos, it's shorthand for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, essentially a massive conference of elites put on by an eponymous non-profit every year. This year is the 45th annual gathering, which always takes place in Davos, a small city in the Swiss Alps. Only around 11,000 people live there, but the city swells each year to accommodate thousands of guests — this year, well over 2,500 attendees are expected.

The forum is billed as a chance for elites to gather, exchange ideas, and find ways to tackle pressing global problems. Every year, there's a grand but vague organizing theme. This year, they settled on "The New Global Context" as a theme, referring to "the period of profound political, economic, social and technological change that the world has entered, which has the potential to end the era of economic integration and international partnership that began in 1989."

That broad theme allows there to be sessions on just about any hot topic — this year, sessions on income inequality, genomics, artificial intelligence, and the Israel-Palestine conflict are all on the program.

The forum has been around since 1971, when it was founded by Klaus Schwab, chairman of the WEF and a professor at the University of Geneva, according to Nick Paumgarten's excellent 2012 New Yorker article on the forum (subscription required). Back then, it was called the European Management Forum. The name was changed to the World Economic Forum in 1987, to reflect its global nature. Of course, not all regions or groups are represented equally (more on that later).

2) Who goes?

It's just about the biggest gathering of elites as you're going to find. Business leaders by far make up the largest group. Quartz counts 2,872 attendees, and the WEF says around 1,500 are businesspeople, including high-profile executives like Yahoo's Marissa Mayer and Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg. Heads of state and government also attend — this year's guest list includes prime ministers and presidents from around the world — as well as academics and media personalities. And of course, there's always a handful of celebrities. Davos might be the only place this year where you can bump into George Soros, Maria Bartiromo, Eric Schmidt, and Pharrell at the same party. Or where will.i.am and Sir Richard Branson would party together with the Wall Street Journal.

And where the rich and powerful meet, there are often protesters close behind. In 2013, women from Ukrainian feminist group Femen staged a topless protest, saying the leaders at Davos were "imitating concern about the fates of women." In 2014, Ukraine's protests against President Viktor Yanukovych came to Davos as well.

Matt Damon Davos

Matt Damon was one of last year's celebrity guests. (Getty Images)

3) What actually happens there?

Officially, the usual stuff of conferences — speeches, panel sessions, networking.

But a few things make Davos special. First of all, the program includes the kind of special events you'd expect if you were paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend — this year, a concert by tenor Andrea Bocelli helped kick things off, as well as a group meditation session led by Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the world's leading mindfulness experts.

And even then, as Paumgarten wrote, many Davos participants don't attend a single official Davos session. And that's because what truly makes Davos notable is of course its guest list. Business leaders, government officials, and celebrities all gather to hear the talks, but they really gather to mingle. It's often described as a small world of its own, in which the rich and powerful casually bump into each other as they pass in hallways and bars.

And with those guests comes heavy media coverage. Outlets like CNBC and Huffington Post breathlessly cover the conference every year as reporters spend a few days in close proximity to potential high-profile sources.

Davos is all about status and access, and the parties make that clear, as Business Insider's Henry Blodget wrote in 2011. Not attending the parties that take place at the end of a long day of session-attending, he wrote, makes one's Davos experience feel almost empty. That said, the man in charge frowns on all the merrymaking. Schwab told the New Yorker that the parties "detract from what we are doing."

4) So is anything accomplished?

You may notice above that we called Davos "notable" ... but not important. Indeed, Davos' importance is questioned nearly every year in the media. Bloomberg editor-at-large Tom Keene summed it up in 2014 by proclaiming the conference "backward-looking" and "pretentious."

One of the key criticisms lobbed at Davos is that it is the ultimate illustration of the 1 percent's distance from the rest of the world — that it brings elites together to mingle and discuss the world's problems while comfortably insulated from what the other 99 percent have to say. The Daily Show maybe best lampooned this in a 2014 segment. Inequality was one of the most-discussed themes last year, and Syrian peace talks were going on in nearby Geneva, all of which made for an uncomfortably ironic juxtaposition with the high-profile, high-price partying.

Of course, attendees say the forum sets the stage for some true productivity, as it puts high-profile businesses, clients, and governments all in one place together, making collaboration easier than perhaps anywhere else.

"Davos itself doesn’t do anything. But the key word in World Economic Forum is 'forum' — the event provides a platform for powerful people to pursue their distinct interests," Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer wrote in a 2013 piece for Foreign Policy. "Sure, there are people who are just here for the parties and the scene — but you won’t slot them in for a 30-minute meeting."

That's not the only reason why the rich and powerful enjoy the summit. FT's Gillian Tett in 2012 framed Davos as a world in which the wealthy and powerful can cloister themselves away from a world that increasingly distrusts and resents them for being wealthy and powerful.

"CEOs are uneasily aware that hostility towards elites is rising," Tett wrote. As one business leader told her, "Being a CEO can be a lonely existence in terms of trusting ears and advice, so they come to Davos to meet and talk one-on-one."

So maybe in the middle of all the big-thinking and dealmaking, there's also some time for just commiserating.

Femen Davos protesters

Members of the feminist group Femen protested Davos in 2013. (Getty Images)

5) If it's the world forum, is it pretty representative of the world's population?

Heavens, no. Representation is heavily skewed toward the rich, first of all, and also geographically toward Western Europe and North America. Those two regions make up nearly two-thirds of all attendees, according to figures on the World Economic Forum's website.

Women are also not well represented there. Quartz published an excellent graphic showing the lopsided gender distribution at Davos this year, finding that only around 17 percent of all attendees are women.

Women Davos

(Quartz)

The WEF is trying to change that, however. As Quartz reports, member businesses get four tickets for their employees. If one of those goes to a woman, they receive a fifth ticket for free.

Further reading:

  • See the official program for this year's WEF gathering.
  • Quartz has done a great job of pulling together data on who is attending Davos this year. Check out their breakdown of the attendees, as well as their look at the demographics of this year's participants.
  • New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten's profile of the forum is one of the best recent pieces on the summit.
  • If you're looking for a defense of Davos' importance, Ian Bremmer's Foreign Policy piece is one of the better examples.