At one of the first sessions of Davos 2011, Nouriel Roubini, the economist famed for predicting the financial crisis, raised his water glass. The economy, he said, was like his glass: "half empty, half full."
As they have for 41 years, members of business and political royalty scaled the Swiss Alps to hear fellow wise men make similar pronouncements. The roughly 2,500 attendees listened to heads of state defend the euro in doth-protest-too-much moments, and they got in a little skiing. Davos is the rare event that can "bring billionaires to stay in three-star hotels," says Adrian Monck, managing director of the World Economic Forum. Thread counts don't matter much, since little sleeping gets done. After days filled with private meetings that have more to do with dealmaking than the WEF's professed goal of "improving the state of the world," most attendees get down to serious partying.
While Davos is a meeting of the elite, some elite are more elite than others. A rainbow of badge colors conveys status, with white badges at the top of the heap. At the tippy-top of the top of the heap are those who have multicolored plastic discs, dubbed "disco dots" by some security personnel, that fasten the white badge to its lariat. Only heads of state and über-ministers with disco dots have the privilege of using a door marked "public figures" to enter the main hall. Chief executive officers and Nobel laureates must use a door several feet away.
That level of distinction was underlined by ex-President Bill Clinton, the conference's biggest draw and its best-received. After WEF founder Klaus Schwab called him "Bill" a few times, serial White House staffer David Gergen stood to ask some questions pointedly addressed to "Mr. President." Clinton hosted one of the private parties that really do require an invite: a lunch to discuss unemployment with senior executives on a mountaintop accessible by funicular. Goldman Sachs's (GS) Gary Cohn and Bank of America's (BAC) Brian Moynihan were among the guests.
The party scene resulted in some unlikely combinations. Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who said he was there to talk to European financial regulators, attended Goldman's dinner on Friday evening at Restaurant Bündnerstübli. At a Coca-Cola (KO) soiree with a vague sustainability theme, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner chatted with Yale law professor Amy Chua, aka the Tiger Mother. A contingent from Facebook, including Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, attended. And President Clinton, the guest of honor, praised the good works of Coke CEO Muhtar Kent. Too late to catch his remarks was Britain's Prince Andrew, who arrived desperately in search of the "loo."
McKinsey's bash was at the Belvédère hotel, which had a sniper on its roof. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) CEO Léo Apotheker elbowed his way ahead of others at the coat check on his way in. Tall consultants overflowed the dance floor, raising the question of whether consultants should be allowed to dance at all. "If you have a million dollars, clap your hands!" shouted one member of the house band. Roubini was seen fleeing the scene.
Google's (GOOG) party, thrown the next night in the same space, was, not surprisingly, a bit cooler. There was a lot of black clothing (though Eric Schmidt sported a salmon-colored sweater), and everyone looked like they'd received the proper Swiss permits to dance to music provided by two U.K.-based DJs. The last guests were ushered out at 4 a.m. The final night's gala was a mostly white-badge affair, with cuisine whipped up by a chef flown in from New Delhi's five-star ITC Maurya hotel.
Davos occurs in a bubble of sorts, and it takes a while for news to seep in. By the time the forum added a panel on Tunisia, Cairo was erupting. Egypt was discussed in a plenary session on Saturday. The moderator asked audience members to "speak up" if they saw fresh news on their iPhones. Kishore Mahbubani, dean of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and former president of the U.N. Security Council, announced that "something profound has happened," and several panelists referred to Egyptian public sentiment as coming from "the street." On the forum's final day there were plenty of other distractions: It was a great day for skiing, and there were piles of Norwegian lobster to lunch on.
The bottom line: The world's pundits partied and pontificated at Davos yet had to scramble to gather intelligence on the turmoil in Egypt.