The eyes of business leaders all around the globe are focused on a small, nondescript Swiss town high in the Alps at this time of the year.
The subject of their interest is the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, the world’s largest business think-tank, at Davos.
Running from 28 January until 1 February, it is one of the most important events in the WEF’s 38-year history.
“Shaping The Post-Crisis World” was the theme, and the significance of this particular get-together is such that the 1,200 politicians, policy-makers and executives attending will include 42 heads of state and government.
In Davos, they get the chance to meet and mingle with international business leaders, NGO chiefs, trade union leaders and internationally-recognised experts and gurus from a very broad spectrum.
The five days of meetings, lectures and talks focussed primarily on battling the current world economic crisis and also addressed the entire post-crisis agenda from economic reform to climate change.
The roll call could hardly be more impressive. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin delivering the opening address, and world leaders listening to his words including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet, JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive officer Jamie Dimon and Deutsche Bank AG’s Josef Ackermann, along with the likes of News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch and New York University Professor Nouriel Roubini. Gordon Brown made something of an impression with his speech last year.
Meanwhile, WEF founder and executive chairman Professor Klaus Schwab was looking in America’s direction and hoping for a big turnout of officials from Barack Obama’s administration. Prior to the event, he said: “If I had a wish, it’s that we see an essential and crucial American presence, if you look at what we want to achieve, we can’t do it without a strong US participation.”
Delegates spend most of their time in the internationally-renowned and well-organised Congress Centre situated on the main street of Davos, Promenade 92. It is the most impressive, if not the most attractive, building in Davos. Its 30 rooms can accommodate up to 1,200 people and, with typical Swiss efficiency, features the very latest in state-of-the-art communications systems.
With Davos being the highest town in Europe at 1,560 metres above sea level, the Congress Centre’s main claim to fame is that it is “the largest and highest conference centre in Europe.”
Conference facilities apart, Davos, in the southeastern Canton Grisons area of Switzerland, was chosen as the venue for the first WEF back in 1971 because it did not offer too many distractions aside from the many snow sports opportunities provided by the dramatic mountains that form a picturesque backdrop in every direction.
There is, however, a small casino at the Hotel Europe, offering two black jack tables, two roulette wheels and 68 slot machines.
Compared to many Swiss ski resorts, the town of Davos is possibly a little disappointing in the scenic stakes. Most buildings are relatively modern, built to keep pace with the skiing boom of the last few decades. So the town lacks the traditional Swiss picture-book charm of nearby Klosters, which has always attracted royals, movie stars and celebrity skiers to its slopes, luxury hotels, trendy boutiques, cafes and bars.
Nevertheless, Davos, which has 13,000 inhabitants, is still a big draw for many ski enthusiasts who appreciate its abundance of snow and top-notch mountainside facilities.
It offers visitors 24,000 guest beds and 100 restaurants – mainly in hotels. Pick of the hotels are the five-star Steigenberger Hotel Belvedere, adjoining the Congress Centre in Davos Platz, and the Fluela, on Bahnhofstrasse 5, in Davos Dorf.
The Belvedere, with its 131 rooms, is proud to have provided comfort and a welcome for the likes of Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton and is a traditional, historic grand hotel with an exceptional ambience.
The elegant Fluela has 69 rooms and has been run by the same family, the Gredigs, for the last 140 years. It offers a beguiling blend of luxury with a very personal touch.
Many of the restaurants offer standard European fare of a reasonable but not outstanding standard. But we found one gem serving wonderful food in a delightful rustic atmosphere – the charming Gasthaus Islen, on the outskirts of town at Bruche, 7270 Davos Platz (www.islen.ch), run by husband-and-wife team Otto and Cathrin Fontana. Otto is a superb chef, serving local gourmet specialities, fondues and superb steaks, while Cathrin offers front-of-house warmth and charm.
Davos is two hours by car from Zurich’s international airport – or 2 1/2 hours by train. Given the choice, it is a no-brainer – let the train take the strain. Once you’ve experienced the delights of travelling on Swiss trains you will find yourself raising your eyes to the heavens and asking: “Why can’t all railways be like this?”
The Swiss national rail network is amazingly efficient, clean, punctual and offers excellent service. All the staff we encountered on a recent visit spoke flawless English and were polite and helpful.
So on business or pleasure, it really is the way to get from A to B in Switzerland. And if you want to experience it at its very best, just buy yourself a ticket from Davos to Zermatt on the Glacier Express, one of the truly great railway journeys of the world.
The Swiss are proud to call it “the slowest express train in the world” – because it takes seven hours to travel 170 miles. But with some of Europe’s most jaw-droppingly awesome Alpine scenery on view, it would be folly to hurry.
Travelling in air-conditioned comfort, you glide quietly past dramatic glacier ravines, plunging gorges and waterfalls and look out over historic villages and castles ringed by 13,000ft snow-capped peaks.
The scenery from your seat, with its panoramic and overhead windows, is ever-changing as you rattle over 91 bridges and swish through 291 tunnels.
Along the way, waiters serve a delicious lunch with a choice of beer, wine and liquors. Once again, the Swiss penchant for attention to detail is revealed by the way they offer wine drinkers a special sloping glass, shaped like a mini-leaning Tower of Pisa, so you do not spill your drink even when travelling on the steepest uphill stretches.
Even the serving of an after-dinner schnapps or grappa is turned into an art form. The waiters have a special custom where they pour any digestive liqueur from a height of about a metre, so it splashes into the glass like an Alpine waterfall – without spilling a single drop.
Outside the smart red-and-white liveried carriages, the many scenic highlights include travelling along an amazing viaduct, 330ft above the valley, over the wild and rocky Landwasser Gorge; crossing the Oberalp Pass at a dizzying 6,670ft above sea level; and passing through the remarkable Vorderrhein Gorge, dubbed “The Swiss Grand Canyon.”
Zermatt, a traditional Swiss ski resort, is the perfect destination after Davos. It is the epitome of Switzerland’s chocolate-box beauty at its best, carved in two by the narrow River Vispa and dominated by the mighty Matterhorn. At 14,693ft, the mountain is one of the world’s most iconic peaks.
Cars are banned from Zermatt’s narrow streets, lending a relaxing atmosphere to streets packed with smart shops and inviting cafes. And must-see excursions include a trip on the little Gornergrat railway, Europe’s highest open-air cogwheel railway, which climbs to 10,132ft for dazzling views of the Matterhorn and 29 surrounding peaks.
Like Davos, Zermatt has a strong British connection. The first successful ascent of the Matterhorn was made in 1865 by four Brits – Edward Whymper, the Rev Charles Hudson, Lord Francis Douglas and Robert Hadow – and three local guides.
Tragically, only Whymper and two guides returned to Zermatt after their companions plunged to their deaths about 1,300ft below the summit. Despite this grim piece of history, about 3,000 climbers still attempt to reach the top each year.
In winter, both Zermatt and Davos are major ski resorts, while in summer they attract legions of hikers and mountain bikers.
But when it comes to the biggest year-round attraction there’s only one contender – the Glacier Express. And if you’re at a loss for something new to offer staff as an incentive or reward, a ticket to ride on this superb train is guaranteed to be a big hit.
At the end of the line, which has been in operation for 77 years, the verdict from passengers of all nationalities is usually unanimous – “The trip of a lifetime!”
Davos: the British connection
Davos was founded in the 13th century and remained predominantly agricultural until the mid-19th century, when it was discovered to be an ideal spot for people suffering from respiratory illness. One such famous visitor was Robert Louis Stevenson who completed the literary classic Treasure Island in Davos during the winter of 1882.
Winter sports were popularised in the region by another British author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who discovered Davos in 1893 and lived at the Chalet am Stein, which, a decade earlier, had been the home of Stevenson.
Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, also introduced golf to Davos and remarked in his book Memories And Adventures: “The cows would for some strange reason eat the red flags.”
A memorial to the great writer and golf enthusiast was erected in 1968 in the Davos Kurpark.
How the WEF began
The World Economic Forum is an independent, international non-profit organisation which aims to create a world-class corporate governance system where values are as important as rules.
Believing that economic progress without social development is not sustainable and social development without economic progress is not feasible, its motto is “Entrepreneurship in the global public interest.”.
The WEF began in January, 1971, when European business leaders met under the patronage of the European Commission and European industrial associations. German-born Klaus Schwab, then a business professor at Geneva University, chaired the inaugural meeting in Davos.
He then founded the European Management Forum as a non-profit organisation based in Geneva, and invited European business leaders to Davos for their annual meeting each January.
Why Davos? Principally, Switzerland offered the advantages of neutrality and impartiality and Professor Schwab chose an Alpine location because it seemed to offer fewer distractions, yet excellent privacy and security.
“When we started, it was a small, family affair, with not more than 400 people, focused mainly on management issues,” Professor Schwab recalls. “And in those days, we could devote two full weeks to the meeting.”
Initially, he focused the meetings on how European firms could catch up with American management practices. He also developed and promoted the “stakeholder” management approach which based corporate success on managers taking account of all interests – employees, communities and even governments, in addition to shareholders, clients and customers.
Then in 1987, the EMF changed its name to the World Economic Forum and sought to broaden its vision so it provided a platform for resolving international disputes.
WEF “milestones” quickly followed. They included the “Davos Declaration” signed in 1988 by Greece and Turkey, which saw them turn back from the brink of war, while in 1989, North and South Korea held their first ministerial-level meetings in Davos, and at the same meeting, East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl met to discuss German reunification.