At high-minded conferences like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the parties seem to be usurping the panels. http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/05/04/plutocrats-gone-wild-davos/?_r=0
A few weeks ago, a pyramid entitled “The C.E.O. Hierarchy of Needs” went viral. At the bottom is “Stay out of jail,” followed by “Don’t run out of cash”; at the top is “Go to Davos.”
The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, held every January in a modest Alpine ski resort, is an exclusive conclave for heads of state, C.E.O.s, self-made billionaires, central bankers, finance ministers and a few thousand assorted hangers-on. It’s a very curious place. The general tone is one of high-minded aspiration (the Forum’s official “mission orientation” is “improving the state of the world”). The dominant emotion, on the other hand, from the most senior delegates to the legions of the uninvited, is something familiar to every teenager in the world: FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out.
If you were to draw up a list of events that people are worried about not getting into, the disconnect becomes even greater. No one cares much about the official panels, but everyone cares about snagging a coveted invite to one of the many satellite parties — the more exclusive the better, naturally.
The Google party, the McKinsey party, Korea Night, Japan Night, the Accel wine party (R.I.P.), the SkyBridge wine party, the Thomson Reuters ski party, the Salesforce party, the J.P. Morgan party, ad man Martin Sorrell’s chalet party, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s chalet party, that crazy party that Sean Parker threw where stuffed animals had lasers coming out of their eyes — these are the bits of Davos (much to the organizers’ chagrin) that become the memorable highlights. The panel discussion on “Europe’s Twin Challenges: Growth and Stability,” not so much.
Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that a majority of those assorted hangers-on at Davos are employed mainly in the service of organizing parties, wrangling invites for their bosses and triaging incoming requests for invites from various levels of V.I.P.s. (I’m sorry, we would love to be able to accommodate you, but we’re all full.)
Some C.E.O.s revel in the debauchery, swapping tales about that party where the models serving the hors d’oeuvres wore nothing but melted chocolate; speculating on the pulchritude of the “translators” at Deripaska’s party this year; and happily hitting the dance floor at the fetes featuring big-name acts like Mary J. Blige or the Killers.
Others refuse to attend at all, since even in Davos the grandest of V.I.P.s needs to be comfortable in unstructured environments where assistants can’t organize everything well in advance. No one gets to walk around inside a perfect protective bubble there — not even heads of state. In a weird way, this most status-obsessed of conferences is also the best at creating a universal class of status-seekers.
Davos, of course, is far from being alone on the international conference circuit. There’s also, for instance, SXSW, the annual Spring Break party summit in Austin, Tex.: While it might not draw the likes of Bill Clinton and Mick Jagger, it has in recent years become the confab where tech stars, media big shots and hundreds of interchangeable #brandmanagers come to mingle and carouse.
You can still buy yourself a conference pass. Indeed, thousands of people do, to check out specific panels like the one on “Neuroplasticity & Tech: Why Brands Have to Change.” But, just as at Davos, it’s the parties, and especially the V.I.P. lists, that matter.
At some point, the ostensible reason why everybody is in town recedes so far into the background that it almost literally becomes an afterthought. Such is the case with Art Basel Miami Beach, possibly the most party-focused and hedonistic event this side of Burning Man. (Which, itself, is increasingly becoming an annual Silicon Valley networking event.)
If you’re young and rich and beautiful, the annual arrival of billions of dollars’ worth of art in Miami is a kind of bat signal, an unspoken beckoning that you know will attract all of your peers and potential mates. You book yourself into the most glamorous hotel you can find in South Beach, you doze through the day by the pool, and then at night you begin a long round of party-hopping. Some of the parties might even have some kind of connection to the art world, although that’s strictly optional; all that really matters is the quotient of glamour and exclusivity and general excess. Rule of thumb: If Kanye is there, you’re probably in the right place.
Nearly all conferences are, at heart, about convening a group of people with similar interests, and facilitating information exchange between them. Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, takes such exchanges extremely seriously, and likes to structure them in the form of panel discussions. These sessions generally carry names like “Fossil Fuels at a Crossroads” or “The Future Healthcare Context,” which sound as though they’ve been assembled at random from the world’s most boring set of fridge magnets.
If you’re Facebook billionaire Sean Parker or hedge-fund schmoozer Anthony Scaramucci or, indeed, any of the financial-services machers looking to press as much senior-client flesh as possible in a highly constrained amount of time, then listening to Very Important People drone on about systemic risks for an hour is probably your idea of hell. And that, really, is why the parties have emerged as so vital.
As life has become faster and more informal, the old ways of doing business — hundreds of men in suits shuffling endlessly between windowless bilateral meeting rooms and inconveniently situated hotels — have started to look increasingly silly even to the men in suits themselves. There’s something stilted about such meetings. After all, most of them don’t have any particular agenda: They’re mainly valuable as a way to check in, catch up, hang out. All of which is done much more naturally in the context of a party than it is wandering awkwardly around the conference center, trying to read name tags from a dozen paces.
Parties, much more than panel discussions, are a superefficient means of getting people learning from each other. Because there’s no formal structure, conversations can last 30 seconds or three hours. They’re also stimulating, in a way that becomes increasingly necessary as the long, jet-lagged days and ever-shorter nights drag on. They keep you awake and alert and alive: They jolt you back into paying attention rather than drifting off. They’re an unrivaled serendipity engine. And, of course, they feature large quantities of that peerless social lubricant, alcohol.
In a world increasingly intermediated by screens and apps, conferences are where real-world connections are made, where the virtual coalesces into the actual. They’re where you meet someone you know only through Twitter, who turns out to be much richer and more interesting than you ever suspected.
Delegates at these conferences see no point in separating work and pleasure, nor should they. Look beyond Art Basel Miami Beach to the art world writ large — that global caravan of artists and dealers and collectors and curators who spend all year following each other from fair to fair. Art is an industry powered by gossip and information: The more you know, the more money you can make. Which means that if you want to be successful in the art world, you need to dive headfirst into the information bazaar that is the art-party traveling circus. To be left out is to be left out.
That’s why the parties at Davos are where the ponderous Alpine gabfest is most likely to create real value for the assembled technocrats and plutocrats. Indeed, it’s why the parties are the very thing that keeps Davos Man coming back, year after year. (It’s certainly not the food.)
There’s something unedifying about the sight of overweight middle-aged bankers wearing dark suits gamely trying to dance to street music in a club where the average net worth is in the tens of millions of dollars. It’s easy to ridicule such behavior, and surely all the mockery is entirely deserved. The sad thing, however, is that — as often happens with this crowd — it’s the plutocrats who end up having the last laugh. While you were sniggering at their attempt to do the Running Man, they were getting a few million dollars richer. All that FOMO, it turns out, is entirely rational.