Page last updated at 09:26 GMT, Monday, 2 February 2009

The lost year of Davos

By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website, Davos

The World Economic Forum (WEF) prides itself in being "committed to improving the state of the world". So what kind of an event was it amidst a global economic crisis?

Alpenhorn blowers at the Schatzalp Hotel's farewell buffet
Delegates at the farewell buffet were treated to the sound of Alpenhorns

The security fences have come down. The streets belong to the burghers of Davos once again.

And the participants have travelled home. However, instead of grand plans and detailed solutions, they got deep gloom and unanswered questions.

So did Davos miss its chance to make a difference?

'It's a zoo'

The WEF organisers claimed a record number of participants this year, despite the high-profile cancellations of a string of bankers and politicians, UK Chancellor Alistair Darling among them.

But the event did not feel packed. At times, the buzz seemed to have disappeared from Davos's congress centre, at least compared with previous years.

But in Davos, "buzz" is a relative term. "It's like a zoo here," said Richard Muirhead, chief executive of software start-up Tideway and a newcomer to the forum.

So Davos could still serve its two main purposes: debating and networking.

Cramming lots of business people, social activists, young high-achievers and leading-edge innovators into a narrow space is bound to result in a lot of wheeling and dealing.

The deal

Everywhere, business cards were changing hands at a rapid clip. "I've run out of cards again," was a moan I heard plenty of times.

"When I took the shuttle bus today, I began to chat to this guy. Turned out he needed exactly the kind of product we make, so within three minutes I just about had a deal," a young executive told me. "Maybe next year I should just stay in the shuttle bus for a day and drive around and around, talking to interesting people."

Indeed, Davos gives access like no other place. Chief executives can compare notes with no corporate lawyers in sight. Social entrepreneurs can bend the ears (and prise open the wallets) of corporate titans. And politicians can meet discretely without anybody being the wiser.

Reality check

Most participants actually didn't mind that this was a plain vanilla Davos, without Hollywood stars to distract from the agenda.

"This Davos is better," said Wenchi Chen, chief executive of HTC-Via. "It's back to what is most fundamental - for business, government and human beings."

The gala soiree on the last evening
The gala dinner was on a Moroccan theme

Again and again, discussions returned to basics, such as "how can we get it right this time?" and "how can corporations regain the trust of their customers?"

One possible answer was not to be heard, though. The word "sorry" did not pass anybody's lips.

And privately, many campaigners and even chief executives wondered whether the strident promises of good corporate behaviour would ever be followed up.

So, in a way, it was a lost year for Davos. On the other hand, this may just assume too much.

After all, the WEF is more of a talking shop with good intentions than a G8 summit of powerful nations.

Dress-down Davos

The crisis also made an impact on the look and feel of the place. In a twisted way it was a dress-down Davos. Less glitz and fewer parties, more sober suits and ties.

It was not that the corporate giants who organise these parties had run out of money (as a last resort they've got the taxpayer for that). It would simply not have been good PR to fiddle while the world burns.

"We kept the party deliberately small," one public relations guy told me. "It just wouldn't look good otherwise."

Let's puts that it into perspective: the parties were as small as was acceptable in a town that hosts hundreds of millionaires and billionaires.

And the new restraint did not stop one bank from flying in an opera star to serenade a few dozen guests at a private dinner.

As always, the Davos crowd flocked to a farewell soiree on the last night of the five-day event.

This year, Morocco was sponsoring the evening, turning the inside of the concrete monstrosity that passes as a conference centre into an Arab souk.

Once everybody had become used to the idea of Maghreb pop music, the hall was heaving with dancers - from billionaire hedge fund managers to young "technology pioneers".

Little did they know that at one point they were bobbing along to the words of a notorious nationalist song praising Morocco's "green march" into the West Sahara and proclaiming that "the Sahara is ours".

And thus, another forgotten conflict found its way onto the Davos agenda, albeit not quite how the WEF organisers would have wanted it.

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