This is my 12th trip to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, that extraordinary and vaguely mysterious gathering of the most powerful political, economic, and cultural leaders on the planet. I've run into (literally) Yasser Arafat (he had sad eyes and an extraordinary proboscis); gotten drunk with Russian oligarchs ("Bruce, you pay taxes for security. In Russia we have no security, so we pay no taxes."); danced with political commentator David Gergen (not literally) at the famous Friday night Google party; argued with Richard Branson about the high price of seats on his Virgin Galactica space flights; and talked with Bono about malaria in Africa at a late-night Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation soirÉe (Bill, Melinda, and Tony Blair were there).
Cool, huh? But if you're going for the first time, how do you actually meet really interesting and important people? How do you navigate the endless meetings on endless topics? And what, really, is the secret Davos handshake?
Avoid Falling on Your Face
Here is my distilled wisdom from a dozen years in Davos. I will break it down into Things to Bring, Things to Do, and Things Not to Do. The most important thing to bring is rubber-soled shoes. For some bizarre reason, Davosians never clear their streets of snow. They merely pack it down. When it snows, and it snows a lot, you can see CEOs, NGOers, dictators, presidents, and media moguls slipping, sliding, and falling all over town. To avoid broken ankles, bring rubber-soled shoes.
Bring skis, too. Or snowboards if you're youngish (the hot designer Yves BÉhar from fuseprojects is bringing his snowboard this year). The skiing is amazing, and you have to carve out time for it. Saturday and Sunday afternoons are when most people ski—and when you can meet the Europeans who always mix meeting and skiing at Davos. But beware: Every year, there is one serious accident with multibone fractures. And invariably, it is an American who cracks up. Davos skiing is serious skiing. I cross-country (yes, pathetic).
Bring business cards. Not just a lot of them. Bring 500. I'm not kidding.
Make Plans—and Change Them
The most important Thing to Do in Davos is to yin-yang it. Davos today is not one meeting but a score of meetings occurring simultaneously. The best navigation strategy is to be both hyperorganized and totally sloppy. Before you leave, go online see who is there that you want to meet, and arrange coffees, drinks, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and after-dinners (it's common) with them early. Lock them into your schedule before someone else does. Do a lot of this, and expect people to change their minds if they get a chance to talk with Angelina Jolie or the ever-present and ever-popular (at Davos) Bill Clinton (who does after, after-dinner gatherings into the night).
Remember also that Davos is all networked up these days. I belong to two networks: the Global Agenda Council on Design, and the media. There are regional, issues, and age groupings. Technology has always been huge, and all the techies are there. Want to meet the founder of Facebook? He'll probably be there. A thousand NGOs will be there as well, often dominating the discussions (to the chagrin of the business folks, who pay most of the bills). Plug into these networks before you go—or better yet, try to join one. But beware, these are among the most exclusive social networks in the world (well, not the media group). Imagine being in a small, private network with the founder of Google. You might want to begin lobbying early for entrance. If you're under 35, the Young Global Leaders is a hot network.
Hang Out and Party!
O.K., so now you are actually at Davos. What do you do? My advice is to hang out. I once spent an evening with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, drinking, talking about the sociology of social networks, and watching the beautiful people go by. Now, hanging out in Davos is a true art, and don't expect to master it in just one or two meetings. You have to know where to hang out. For me, the steps connecting the two main floors in the Conference Center works perfectly. Everyone flows through this passage on the way to the big, open-to-everyone presentations presided over by WEF founder Klaus Schwab or to the smaller rooms for sessions.
But the best places to hang are the parties. Parties give Davos that special frisson, especially in the five or six years since the conference started inviting people under 50. The rise of high tech forced the WEF to go beyond its usual stable of middle-aged politicians and business people, nearly all men. There are now lots of twenty- and thirtysomething men and women doing their thing at Davos, making parties the most important places to meet and greet.
Most of the best parties are at the Belvedere Hotel, and even if you don't have an invitation to one, hanging out in the lobby will probably get you entry late in the evening. Actually, that lobby is a great place to hang. I saw Rupert Murdoch's Chinese-born wife and the Queen of Jordan walk in together last year at midnight, looking extraordinary. The Queen is on the board of the WEF and ever-present at Davos. So is Rupert for that matter, speaking in his heavy Australian accent about what it means to be an American.
O.K. Things Not to Do. Don't get a car. In recent years, with the heavy influx of hedge fund managers, people took to limos to get around. That's just stupid. Traffic is horrible. People are now often late. And it's so much fun to walk the streets of the tiny village. I ran into Larry Summers last year as he schlepped his way to the conference center. I don't think most of the hedge fund guys and their model dates will be showing up this year anyway.
Don't go to sessions on topics you specialize in. It gets boring listening to the same people talk about the same issues. True, this year the talk will be about restoring and rebuilding the world after the recession. But much of the discussion will already be familiar to you. Instead go to the many sessions on philanthropy, music, science, health, cooking, math, philosophy, and ethics. Get refreshed and stimulated. It will help you prepare for the formal Saturday night soirÉe that will blow your mind. And the secret Davos handshake? Naw.
Nussbaum is contributing editor to BusinessWeek. Previously assistant managing editor in charge of BusinessWeek's innovation and design coverage, he was named one of the 40 most powerful people in design by I.D. Magazine in 2005.