For the second year in a row, the World Economic Forum has canceled its annual meeting in the Alpine resort of Davos, Switzerland, because of the pandemic.
The rally is a key stop on the annual Global Elite Circuit, a week-long schmoozefest where billionaires and autocrats mingle around sofas as activists protest in the freezing mountain air. Companies are committed to the climate. Economists discuss inequality. Everyone walks on the same slippery and muddy roads.
It was during the January 2020 annual meeting that many leaders and world leaders first heard about the coronavirus, as reports of a mysterious disease began to emerge from Wuhan, China. Last year, the forum dropped Davos and planned to hold the meeting in Singapore during the summer, but the Singapore event was also cancelled.
This year’s event was scheduled to start on Monday and run more or less as usual. Multinationals rented suites in luxury hotels. Dinner invitations were sent out.
Then in December, with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, organizers announced that they had decided to postpone the gathering again, hoping to hold it this summer instead.
“Everyone hopes that in 2022 the Covid-19 pandemic, and the crises that have accompanied it, will finally start to recede,” said Klaus Schwab, the patrician founder of the World Economic Forum, in a statement on Thursday.
So far, however, there are no signs that the pandemic is starting to fade. And for a second straight year, with the Davos event suspended, the city of Davos, Switzerland is stuck in limbo.
Before the pandemic, “Davos” came to refer not just to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum itself, but to a state of mind. Pro-capitalism, pro-democracy, pro-globalization, Davos is the spiritual home of the stakeholder capitalism movement (which encourages corporations to be better corporate citizens) and a testing ground for a number of new, market-driven, win-win solutions to combat climate change, alleviate hunger, and mend frayed international relations.
More concretely, Davos has come to refer to a whole universe of loosely affiliated satellite events, sub-conferences and marketing stunts that all took place in Switzerland in mid-January. Facebook has built a temporary headquarters on the city’s main thoroughfare, known as the Promenade. Salesforce hosted a private lunch in a giant geodesic dome.
Yet no matter what party is happening or which company has the best off-site augmented reality installation, the inner sanctum of Davos has always been the convention center, a convention space that serves as the nexus and main stage for the gathering. . This is where in 2020 you might have found German Chancellor Angela Merkel or President Donald J. Trump addressing a crowd of thousands while, in an adjacent hall, Jane Goodall watched a demonstration of Google’s new mapping technology.
Normally packed with thong-wearing speakers rushing from a monk-led meditation session to a panel discussion on sovereign wealth funds, the halls of the Convention Center are, for now at least, empty.
In addition to providing Switzerland with cultural cachet, the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is a major source of revenue for the national and local economy.
The 2020 meeting, the last to be held in person, contributed around $120 million to the Swiss economy, according to a University of St. Gallen study commissioned by the forum. Most of that, about $70 million, was spent in Davos, which has a year-round population of about 11,000. This number essentially doubles when the forum comes to town.
Hotels, and in particular the Steigenberger Grandhotel Belvédère, will feel the pain particularly acutely. During the annual rendezvous, the Belvedere has its own center of gravity, erecting temporary structures to accommodate additional meeting rooms, allowing television stations to set up on its roof and permanently organizing receptions in its various bars.
Normally, it is almost impossible to find a room there during the third week of January, with rooms ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, if available. Now, during what is usually its busiest time of year, rooms at The Belvedere are available for less than $300 a night on Expedia.com.
Whether organizers will be able to hold a rally in Davos this summer remains up in the air. Cases are skyrocketing around the world. Switzerland has introduced new restrictions as the country’s hospitals are again under pressure.
“It was a smart thing to do not to host it right now,” said Valerie Keller, a Davos regular and co-founder of Imagine, a company that works with leaders to improve the state of the world and whose mission board includes Richard. Branson and Arianna Huffington. “It would have been totally negligent if we were all in Davos at the moment.”
And yet, is Davos really Davos without Davos? The city, or at least its name, has taken on a totemic significance that far eclipses its modest population. The term “Davos Man” has come to describe individuals so rich and powerful that they play by their own set of rules and write the rules for the rest of us. The annual rendezvous has come to define the place more than the mountains, the ski slopes or the mulled wine served in the chalet taverns. Even former critics of the World Economic Forum have come and now embrace its singular place in Davos.
“In my early days I was protesting during the WEF for better action on climate change and social justice,” Philipp Wilhelm, the mayor of Davos, told The Guardian after last year’s event was cancelled. “Now I’m trying to bring the WEF back to Davos.”