Dispatches from Davos: The attraction of the unbadged

By Matthew Prince , written on January 24, 2013

From The News Desk

Barry Colson had a bad night. The Canadian entertainer, who has been a staple at the most popular Davos watering hole for nearly all of the last 20 years, couldn't get his drum machine to stop making a terrible buzzing noise. Rather than belting out popular tunes over his booming piano he fell back to the role of deejay. "I'm spinnin' the hits, baby!"

Live from the Piano Bar

The Tonic Bar at the Hotel Europe is a staple of the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, but it is also a bit of a puzzle. First, no one calls it the Tonic Bar, even though that's technically its name. Instead people simply refer to it as the Piano Bar, largely as an homage to Barry.

Second, while the Annual Meeting technically takes place just a few blocks from the Piano Bar in a conference hall locked down by endless waves of Swiss military with very big guns and very little sense of humor, the Piano Bar itself has the open and riotous feel of an almost out-of-control frat party. By day, in the main conference hall in Davos, you'll see mucky mucks surrounded by bodyguards and TV crews as they scurry from meeting to meeting. By 2:00 am, they've slipped their entourages and are swing dancing — badly — to Barry playing Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."

Scoring an invite

It turns out there are two ways to attend Davos: you can be invited or you can just show up. I'm in the former camp, although that's a bit of a puzzle in itself. This is my second year attending and likely my last. While I'm more familiar with the rhythms of the place this year — for instance, I led a group to the Piano Bar this year where last year I was the one being led — the whole thing continues to strike me as surreal.

So how'd I score an invite? CloudFlare, the company I co-founded, was selected last year as a "Technology Pioneer" by the World Economic Forum. That garnered us two years of invites at a heavily subsidized entry price. I'm not exactly sure how we were selected. Someone, probably one of our investors, nominated us. We got a letter and a little plaque in the mail. And so, a year ago, I trundled off to the Swiss Alps for the first time to this mysterious event. If you're a startup reading this, and you want to attend, the first step is getting nominated, which you can do yourself via this form.

If you're a multinational corporation reading this, and you want to attend, the process is much more straight forward: Pay a bunch of money. The entry fee for most attendees starts at around $100,000. If you want to be a sponsor that starts at $500,000. It turns out there's money in throwing conferences and, if you're throwing what's been called "Burning Man for Billionaires," there's lots of money in it.

The problem is that most billionaires are boring. My guess is that no matter how long you left Bill Gates, Michael Dell, George Soros, Marc Benioff and Thomas Pritzker together in the room with Barry, his piano, and a fully functioning drum machine, swing dancing would never spontaneously erupt. And, among the 80 billionaires currently occupying this tiny Swiss village, that list is likely among the more fun.

The unbadged

Which brings me to the second way to attend Davos: just showing up. For all of the over-the-top security, getting into Davos is remarkably easy. You fly into Zurich and then take a cute, little train about 2 hours south into the Swiss Alps. To the best that I can tell, at least half the people in Davos right now weren't technically invited. The Swiss guards you pass on your way into town do look for bombs and weapons, but they don't require you show the invitation or little plaque you receive in the mail. And, while these uninvited attendees don't get the fancy, RFID-equipped badge that garners you entrance to the main conference hall, there's nothing that keeps them from attending virtually everything else.

And so, every night, the Piano Bar, and almost every other party venue, is filled with a weird mix of world leaders combined with socialites, social climbers, party crashers, paparazzi, prostitutes, and the occasional Davos local who generally finds this time of year a complete nuisance. These "unbadged" attendees are, on average, a generation younger, far less likely to possess a Y-chromosome, and far more likely to spontaneously swing dance. And, for all the talk of the work that gets done in the main conference hall, it is access to them that I have a hunch motivates a significant number of the invited attendees to pay the big bucks to show up.

Last night around 2:00 am, with his drum machine still on the fritz, I wondered how much Barry was in on the whole scheme as he played "Sweet Caroline" — a song a much older Neil Diamond wrote about a then 11-year-old Caroline Kennedy — and I watched the CEO of one of the world's largest energy companies awkwardly spin a 22-year-old unbadged "peace activist" named "Carolina" across the dance floor. Regardless of whether Barry gets the drum machine fixed, with all that he's seen over the last 20 years, I doubt he has to worry much about work.

[Image courtesy World Economic Forum]