Scenes From A Conference

Last year, the world's rich, famous and powerful waited willingly in long New York lines for the ultimate party favor--a nifty hand-held computer dubbed the Davos Companion. This year, they got blue bags instead.

It's a useful laptop-style bag, admittedly, with the words "World Economic Forum" emblazoned in white on the front. And it did include a Swiss flag mouse pad tucked in among the documents inside.

But the nifty little iPaqs were no longer part of the package. Each of the more than 2,000 participants at the Davos gathering did receive one when they registered, but this year they had to give them back at conference end. Those who wanted them badly enough could keep them--but only if they paid more than $400 for the privilege. The money, like the returned iPaqs, is to be donated to WEF-sponsored community projects. (Truth be told, most participants were probably only too happy to be rid of them. Their vaunted search features may have been cutting edge technology--but that counted for little when would-be users of its new wireless network repeatedly got "out of range" error messages even when they tried to log on in the heart of the Davos conference center.

Certainly, Davos was less glitzy than usual this year. The traditional Saturday night black-tie affair was replaced by a sedate performance by the UBS Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra; receptions tended to be earnest corporate-hosted opportunities for networking.

Still, there were some memorable moments. A selection:


Turkey hosted a celebrity-laden soiree down at the swish Seehof hotel. Those who trudged by the metal detectors to attend included actress Julia Ormond and financier George Soros, to name a few. Whirling dervishes entertained the audience; buffet tables groaned with stuffed eggplant, vine leaves, lamb, chicken, halvah and Turkish delight.

But the award for the hottest party has to go to South Africa. Jimmy Dludlu's jazz band had cabinet ministers and corporate chiefs rocking on the Hotel Schweizerhof dance floor until well into Sunday morning. Roodeberg wines, savory samosa pastries and dried mango provided the fuel for party-goers. Biggest moment: when Brazil's Gilberto Gil--the music star turned culture minister--joined Dludlu in a joint performance on stage.


Not all attendees were created equal. Davos delegates are categorized by the color of their badges, with white (full participant status) at the top of the heap. WEF staffers wore blue, journalists not designated as media leaders got tagged with an orange that enabled the blues to keep them safely away from closed sessions.

But even the right color badge wasn't always enough. At a gathering where making contacts was the order of the day, shmoozing at receptions involved wandering about with one's eyes at chest-level to read who was who and what they represented. Those who came as accompanying spouses, though, had to be content with white cards that conspicuously lacked any organizational or country affiliation. "People keep looking down to see who I am," complained one professional woman at the meeting with her husband. "And when they see my badge is blank, their eyes just glaze over and they move on."


It's still Bill. At a gathering attended by the likes of Colin Powell and Brazil's new President Lula, it was the former President Clinton who stopped traffic when he and daughter Chelsea strolled through the conference center. And his informal late-night panel called "Reflections on the Past"--moderated by TV anchor Charlie Rose--drew a crammed crowd that stayed till well past midnight to listen to some personal musings as well as his insider stories on the Mideast negotiations.


Would-be stunt drivers got their chance from Audi. The auto company offered delegates a half-day safe driving course on a specially built ice lake. Participants got the chance to try high-speed braking, pulling their cars out of spins and a high-speed slalom ride with a professional driver. They also received pens, certificates and a brief photo, but--like the iPaqs--the cars had to be returned when the course was over.


Davos's famed magic mountain certainly looked spectacular when it wasn't obscured by snow and cloud. But when it came to background briefings, Wesley Clark took the honors. The retired general drew top reviews for his formal and informal off-the-record talks about likely military scenarios in Iraq.


Boots and suits tend to edge out style in staid Davos. One item of clothing did cause a stir for a different reason, though. Hayrunnisa Gul, the wife of Turkey Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, drew gasps from those in the know when she arrived at the Turkish party wearing a traditional headscarf. It may have seemed innocent, but it was a distinct political statement. Such attire is forbidden at official functions in Turkey, which has long guarded its status as a secular state. The first lady's scarf signaled that Turkey's new Islamist government will be doing some things differently--and while nobody was sure whether she'd actually broken any Turkish laws by donning the scarf outside the country, it was enough to cause a stir back home.


"We don't like America to be on top, but we do like to have it on tap." Cited by Indonesian analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar at a first-day conference briefing, picked up repeatedly by both non-Americans and Americans alike to explain international ambivalence toward the United States.