Something strange is going on at a BP filling station at a mountain retreat on the Swiss-Austrian border. Motorists are lining up to fuel their Audis with unleaded but the sides and rear of the building are blacked out and ominous beret-clad polizei demand identification at every move.
Welcome to Davos, where 2,250 of the globe’s richest people are solving its problems at the World Economic Forum. Some 500 company chairmen and chief executives, 23 heads of state, 72 cabinet ministers, 35 ambassadors, 172 academics and 26 religious leaders have made their way here, many by helicopter and chauffeured limousine. And for five frenetic days, this humble garage is registration hell.
I have no choice but to end up here. After eight hours on a coach, plane and three predictably impeccable trains, I hail a taxi, to find it already occupied, Get in,” commands the German inside. “We’re going to the same place.” How does he know? Everyone apparently does, “If you’re coming to this town in this week, you need to go to registration, he explains, “Otherwise you don’t exist.”
Soon I find I nearly don’t. “If you create a town of 2,000 wealthy people for one week, you need some sort of caste system,” I am told without irony. The elite in this brave new world are people with blue badges. They pay up to £25,000 a year and that only gets them one ticket. Next are the white badgers, all important enough to have been invited to this schmooze-fest. One hundred of them are deemed Young Global Leaders are have this proudly emblazoned on cards hanging around their necks, Then there’s orange for the media and green for the eastern European girls brought in to corral them.
“And you are the lowest of the low,” says my host disdainfully. My grey accreditation, granted reluctantly after the missed the deadline, has “temporary” branded across it in orange. It allows me to attend only two of the hundreds of sessions. I must be accompanied by a minder and traipse back to the garage immediately after Prime Minister Tony Blair’s appearances.
My passport is confiscated to ensure compliance and I’m given a limitless supply of Pepsi and a list of delegates to digest. One of them is BP chief executive Lord Brown, a white badger I presume. Does he know the full horror of what is happening in his service station?
Once I have escaped filling station hell and eluded my Polish guard (too bad if my hotel wants to see my passport at check-in), a new world beckons. The theme is “Taking Responsibility for Tough Choices” and the Aspen Two room is hosting “Weapons of Mass Destruction”. So that’s where they got to. Someone should tell Hans Blix. Among the other seminars are “Killer Tomatoes and Other Cautionary Tales” and “The Case of The Killer Cubicle”. Then there’s “Enjoy Your Mid-Life Crisis – at 75” and a “Sex on The Brain” session, No wonder Davos is nervous about people wandering around unchaperoned. This place is dangerous.
Then there are the parties. One Young Global Leader says he’s got 30 invitations for Thursday alone. Almost everyone is throwing lavish bashes, trying to earn points for exclusive locations and celebrity appearances. I sneak into a German magazine party and find Sharon Stone is the guest of honour.
Elsewhere Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Lionel Richie, Angelina Jolie and Youssou n’‘Dour are making appearance, Zurich Insurance is sponsoring a free production of The Barber of Seville while Russia’s Vneshtorgbank is putting on a Best of the Bolshoi gala performance. When you get bored, you go on to the next jamboree and collect your free goodie bag. Zurich provides splendid opera glasses, while some other company donates me a Russian cossack hat – handy when it is 10 degrees outside.
Then there are the events only serious blue badgers or YGLs have a snowball’s chance in hell of being invited to, like Bill Gates’ nightcap at the Fluela. At the end of the week, there are Russian, French and Egyptian gala dinners where the dress code is black tie or national costumes. The final event is a farewell buffet lunch at a mountain-top restaurant. Tobogganing back down afterwards is optional. Bono is here too but the U2 lead singer is strictly on business, appearing on a panel with Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and South African premier Thabo Mbeki to campaign against extreme poverty in Africa, “Let’s say you are president of Great Britain,” hypothesises the panel chairman. “No problem,” replies the rock singer. “The Irish have been working on that for years.” Then, with a wink to Blair, he adds: “And I would not move into a smaller house.”
It’s not clear what this boondoggle achieves. But, in the bland concrete conference centre, all the coffee and sandwiches are free. The anti-globalisation protesters are safely segregated somewhere up a mountain on the edge of town and lots of chief executives hang around with nothing much to do, except the odd spot of heli-skiing.
I run into easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who has been speaking on “Why Rich Countries Can’t Buy Happiness”. He fancies sneaking into the Blair press conference but turns down my offer to swap my excellent press pass for his white badge.
Then there’s Alan Hassenfeld, the laid-back chairman of US toys group Hasbro. Over fondue at a local restaurant, the talk is thick with global warming but I want to know what he considers the best properties on the Monopoly board (well Hasbro does own it). “The yellow and the green ones, they the ones to have but you need the entire corner,” is his immediate response, I think he should chair a Davos seminar on this important world issue but right now, orange is the only fruit as I have finally received a call telling me my pass is being upgraded. Too bad it’s now time to go home.