What Davos Looks Like When the World Economic Forum Is Cancel

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For the second year in a row, the World Economic Forum scrapped its annual meeting in the Alpine resort town of Davos, Switzerland, because of the pandemic.

The gathering is an essential stop on the annual circuit for the global elite, a weeklong schmoozefest where billionaires and autocrats mingle over canapés while activists protest in the frigid mountain air. Companies make climate pledges. Economists discuss inequality. Everyone walks on the same slippery, slushy roads.

It was at the January 2020 annual meeting that many executives and world leaders first heard about the coronavirus, as news reports about a mysterious illness began to trickle out of Wuhan, China. Last year, the forum abandoned Davos and planned to hold the meeting in Singapore during the summer, but the Singapore event got canceled, too.

This year’s event was scheduled to begin on Monday and proceed more or less as usual. Multinational corporations were renting out suites in luxury hotels. Dinner party invites were being sent.

Then in December, with the Omicron variant spreading rapidly, the organizers said they had decided to postpone the gathering once more, with hopes of staging it this summer instead.

“Everyone hopes that in 2022 the Covid-19 pandemic, and the crises that accompanied it, will finally begin to recede,” Klaus Schwab, the patrician founder of the World Economic Forum, said in a statement on Thursday.

So far, however, there is little sign that the pandemic is beginning to wane. And for a second year in a row, with Davos the event on hold, the town of Davos, Switzerland, is stuck in limbo.

Before the pandemic, “Davos” came to connote not simply the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum itself, but a state of mind. Pro-capitalism, pro-democracy, pro-globalization, Davos is the spiritual home of the stakeholder capitalism movement (which encourages companies to be better corporate citizens) and a testing ground for any number of new win-win market-oriented solutions to combat climate change, ameliorate hunger and repair frayed international relations.

More practically, Davos also came to refer to an entire universe of satellite events, subconferences and loosely affiliated marketing stunts that all took place in Switzerland throughout mid-January. Facebook constructed a temporary headquarters on the town’s main thoroughfare, known as the Promenade. Salesforce held a private lunch in a giant geodesic dome.

Yet no matter what party might be going on or which company had the best off-site augmented reality installation, the inner sanctum of Davos has always been the Congress Centre, a convention space that serves as the gathering’s nexus and main stage. It is where, in 2020, you might have found Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany or President Donald J. Trump addressing a crowd of thousands while, in an adjacent lobby area, Jane Goodall took in a demonstration of Google’s new mapping technology.

Normally packed with lanyard-wearing conference goers hustling from a meditation session led by monks to a panel discussion about sovereign wealth funds, the halls of the Congress Centre are, for the time being at least, empty.

Besides delivering Switzerland a helping of cultural cachet, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting is major source of revenue for the national and local economy.

The 2020 meeting, the last one held in person, contributed about $120 million to the Swiss economy, according to a study by University of St. Gallen that was commissioned by the forum. The bulk of that, roughly $70 million, was spent in Davos, which has a year-round population of about 11,000 people. That 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 meeting, the Belvédère has its own center of gravity, erecting temporary structures to accommodate additional meeting rooms, allowing television networks to set up on its roof and hosting a constant string of receptions in its various bars.

Normally, it is all but impossible to get a room there during the third week of January, with rooms ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, if they are available. Now, during what is usually its busiest time of the year, rooms at the Belvédère are available for less than $300 a night on Expedia.com.

Whether the organizers will be able to pull off a gathering in Davos this summer remains up in the air. Cases are skyrocketing around the globe. Switzerland has introduced new restrictions as hospitals in the country are once again strained.

“It was a smart thing to do to not be hosting it right now,” said Valerie Keller, a Davos regular and co-founder of Imagine, a company that works with executives 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 right now.”

And still, is Davos really Davos without Davos? The town, 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 wealthy and powerful that they play by their own set of rules, and write the rules for the rest of us. The annual meeting has come to define the place more than the mountains, the ski slopes or the mulled wine served in chalet taverns. Even onetime critics of the World Economic Forum have come around and now embrace its singular place in Davos.

“In my early days, I was demonstrating during the W.E.F. for better action against climate change and social justice,” Philipp Wilhelm, the mayor of Davos, told the Guardian after last year’s event was canceled. “Now, I am trying to get the W.E.F. back to Davos.”

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