Tales of a Davos Barfly: Billionaires, Royals and ScotchMatthew G. Miller
There’s an alternative universe at the World Economic Forum, where panel discussions are swapped for private meetings with bankers, and the scent of Johnnie Walker Blue Label wafts through the air beginning in the early afternoon.
The venue for the parallel world is the Steigenberger Grandhotel Belvedere, reached after an eight-minute hike from the Congress Centre in Davos, Switzerland -- up a hill through a white inflatable tunnel, across several blocks of icy sidewalks, up 33 stone stairs and down a ramp bathed in blue KPMG signs.
In the lobby, billionaires mingle with executives, many of them flanked by bodyguards, press handlers or assistants. Some head to the Audi Lounge, where they can check out a prototype of a gray sedan featuring a three-dimensional dashboard.
“There are some top guys -- heads of state, billionaires, CEOs -- who come here for a specific meeting or two, and they want privacy for those meetings,” former professional hockey player and venture capitalist Richard Stromback, 46, said Thursday at one of the sponsored bars in the Belvedere. “The other Davos exists because it’s so hard to find private spaces.”
In the hallways on the first and second floors, financial companies such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Deutsche Bank AG keep small offices so bankers and their clients can meet behind closed doors.
The New York Stock Exchange and information technology consulting firm Infosys Ltd. have rooms on the second floor. Further down the hall is OAO Sberbank, the Moscow-based bank that was sanctioned by the U.S. and EU in September in response to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.
Clients waiting for meetings yesterday sat on sofas on a landing between floors. Aloke Lohia, the chief executive officer of Bangkok-based polymer and yarnmaker Indorama Ventures PCL, roamed the hallway mid-morning on his mobile phone.
The Belvedere is also where politicians, celebrities and the world’s wealthiest collide. Bill Clinton, Angelina Jolie and Bill Gates have all been spotted there in previous years, and some of the week’s best parties are held at the hotel. It’s one of almost a dozen hotels the forum rents space from for events.
Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, surrounded by two bodyguards, was in the lobby Thursday evening, as was Glencore Plc Chairman Tony Hayward.
Makeshift lounges, hosted by consulting firms, are spread across the hotel. Art is also sponsored, including a piece created for Deloitte composed of blue and green Post-it notes that decorates the entrance hallway.
PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP’s lounge, with orange lights and white couches, is located on the basement level of the Belvedere. It has several semi-private areas roped off for guests, some wearing bespoke suits and ice boots, if they want to have meetings.
“Deals that get done in Davos happen because the people who come here need trust that is only made eyeball-to-eyeball,” Walter Schindler, founder of venture capital firm SAIL Capital Partners LLC, said Thursday sipping red wine in a bar sponsored by software maker Wipro Ltd. Schindler said he struck a deal earlier that day at another hotel.
“The reason I come to Davos is because I can meet the people I want to do business with,” Schindler said. “I don’t need to go to the conference to do that.”
Languages spoken in the PwC lounge included English, German, Italian and Mandarin, and discussions overheard focused on current events such as the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing policy and the Swiss National Bank’s unpegging of the franc to the euro.
Another front-burner topic: which parties to attend. Consultant McKinsey & Co. held its annual fete Thursday night. The previous evening, brewing company SABMiller Plc hosted a party that featured cocktails made up of Italian beer Peroni, chili, passion fruit and smoked tea, according to a bartender who served them, asking not to be identified because he works at several Davos events.
Upstairs at the Wipro bar, where a club sandwich and French fries cost 42.50 Swiss francs ($48.72), bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue were on display along the entire left side of the bar. The first scent of whiskey could be detected at about 2 p.m.
Stromback, the investor, said he’s been coming to Davos for a decade. He rented a penthouse apartment close to the Belvedere, where he hosted a space-themed party with billionaires Henry Ross Perot Jr. and Richard Branson.
Not everyone wants to have private meetings at the Belvedere. Billionaire Rahul Bajaj, the 74-year-old chairman of Pune, India-based Bajaj Auto Ltd., maker of the country’s popular three-wheeled auto rickshaw, was at the hotel to attend a private reception held by Prince Andrew, the second son of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
Bajaj said he loves Davos because he never does business there.
“I’ve been coming since 1979, never done a deal,” Bajaj said while walking to the reception. “Just see friends, enjoy the weather.”
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