Scott Gilmore at Davos: The vanity fair comes to an end

Unpacking the World Economic Forum’s wild parties, meaningless buzzwords, and lack of diversity
Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada speaks during the session ’The Canadian Opportunity’ at the Annual Meeting 2016 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 20, 2016. (Jolanda Flubacher)


Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gestures as he speaks during a panel"The Canadian Opportunity"at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016.  (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gestures as he speaks during a panel”The Canadian Opportunity”at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

The infamous Piano Bar party was held last night at the Hotel Europe. Although it is not on the official schedule, it is still a fixture event. The chaotic, drunken revel has been known to exceed even the worst caricatures of Davos. And sitting serenely in the middle of it is Barry Colson, the piano player from Nova Scotia. Barry has been performing at this party for over 20 years, and is Davos’s unofficial mascot.

His grand piano is the nucleus around which spin and orbit politicians, actors, prostitutes, journalists, despots and divas, dancing, singing, and cavorting all night long. The next morning, red-eyed, embarrassed, exhausted, many of the same people sit on stage, shuffling their papers, blinking into the spotlights. You can hear Dorothy Parker’s lament:

Drink and dance and laugh and lie,

Love, the reeling midnight through,

For tomorrow we shall die!

(But, alas, we never do.)

The snowstorm in North America has emptied Davos prematurely. Delegates, worried that East Coast airports would be shutting down, began to slip away Friday morning. Walking through the Congress Centre, you could hear people on their mobile phones, pleading with their travel agents. A large number decamped to Zurich, hoping to find flights to operating airports. By Saturday morning, Davos felt more like a ski resort, with more skiers than CEOs.

Nonetheless, the session on the global economic outlook was crowded, drawing everyone who was left. Last year the worry was “Grexit,” the possible Greek departure from the EU. This year, it’s “Brexit”—the British departure. George Osborne, the British chancellor of the exchequer, put on the good cop/bad cop routine. Osborne assured the crowd with a sunny smile that he was still optimistic about a deal. But, ominously, he then noted the British public would ultimately decide with a referendum, implying that if Europe doesn’t co-operate, who knows what those angry, crazy punters might do?

Donat was born and raised in Davos, and his family has been here for generations. Before the area became a spa town and mecca for winter sports, his ancestors made a living carting Italian wines over the Alps, through the valley, and down to Zurich. A retired professional, Donat now skis almost every day. I asked him about the World Economic Forum. He conceded that it brings money into the town.

But it used to be much better. Before it was smaller, and if you saw Bill Gates you could shake his hand. Now there are too many VIPs, too much security, too many cameras, and too many parties. “It’s become a vanity fair.” he shrugged.

This has been a very white and a very male year for Davos. Fewer than 20 per cent of the attendees are women, a step backward from previous years, a fact noted by attendees and speakers alike. Representatives from Africa and Asia appeared to be down as well. The WEF has made efforts in the past to change this, requiring corporate delegations to include at least one woman, for example. But evidently more needs to be done to fix this.

Overall, this was not an upbeat week. The increased security on the outside reflected the increased insecurity on the inside. Political and business leaders are preoccupied with the unsettling state of U.S. politics, economic and social disarray in Europe, and the deceleration in China. Paradoxically, squeezed into the program, between the many hand-wringing panels were smaller and more sparsely attended sessions highlighting remarkable global progress in health, poverty reduction, and science.

Close up, everything looks like a mess, motivating the WEF attendees to talk more, plan more, do more. But stepping back, the world is doing pretty well; people are living longer; wars are fewer. Maybe this myopia is why we do move forward in the long run. If we aren’t worrying, we’re not hustling.

So that’s it. I’m off. I have a love/hate relationship with the World Economic Forum, and its annual summit here in Switzerland. The rarefied and fortified nature of the event sharply limns the growing divide between the one per cent and the rest of the world. There is too much meaningless chatter, choked with buzzwords and aphorisms.

But, with the possible exception of UN week in New York, there is no other forum in the world that brings together the people who (for better or worse) run the world. And if we are going to overcome the grim conflicts and greatest challenges facing the world, more talk, even if it is vapid on occasion, is always going to be useful.

Scott Gilmore has been a columnist at Maclean’s magazine since 2014 and writes on international affairs and public policy. He is married to Catherine McKenna, who was recently named minister of the environment. His full disclosure statement can be found here.