As a member of the press attending a World Economic Forum (WEF) conference, I was surprised by how welcomed I felt. For three days the so-called “Meeting of the New Champions” in Dalian, China was an epicenter of power where world leaders in business, non-profits, academia, science and government networked and discussed ideas. As a student reporter, I was able to attend multiple panels, converse with numerous panelists, and interview over a dozen participants. I left with a sense that I had really seen it all.
But had I? Was the WEF really all that welcoming?
To understand the dynamic at the conference we must start with the dichotomy of its attendees. The meeting attracted three distinct groups: the media, general attendees, and WEF “Strategic Partners”—mostly representatives of big global businesses. Each group was treated in subtly different, but important, ways. The group with the most restricted access to the conference was the media. We could attend only a select number of panels that were handpicked by the “powers that be.” We had “access” to most participants, but only if we happened to meet them in the hallway or if they chose to respond to an interview request through the Forum’s networking system. Lunch was graciously provided to us, but it was served in a windowless basement three floors below the other 1,600 participants.
In contrast, general attendees paying CHF 8,000 in registration had access to every panel and could network freely with each other, being invited to special after-hours parties. This group’s base of operation was the “Village,” a safe zone in which to network freely away from prying eyes (watch this video to learn more about the conference layout). The food was reportedly superior to ours, according to a general attendee who ate with me in the media lunch area. When I asked how our lunch compared to his, he just rolled his eyes and gave me that sympathetic look your friends give you when they don’t want to give you difficult news.
The last group, the Strategic Partners, seemed to have it all. WEF Partners, who in part help to underwrite the Forum by each paying over half a million dollars in membership fees, had access to everything at the conference including the “Village,” their own lounge, and the “bi-lateral” meeting area on the top floor of the conference center. More than a few of the people I observed taking the exclusive escalator to the bi-lateral meeting area had monogrammed dress shirts. I can only imagine how sumptuous their lunches must have been.
Upon reflection it is clear to me that the WEF is taking its cues from Downtown Abbey, the period drama that details the lives of Victorian England’s haves and the have-nots. WEF Partners serve as the “upper class aristocracy,” living lives of privilege apart from the rest of the world, replete with their own lounges and meeting areas; WEF attendees make up the charming “middle class” that are tolerated to the extent that they also want to be upper class; and lastly, the media make up the “lower class,” living and working below deck and, in this case, serving as a mouthpiece to the upper classes.
This dichotomy was reflected in my access to participants. Out of the dozen or so interviews I was able to arrange, by far the majority were general attendees. My requests to interview WEF Partners were either rebuffed or ignored. Yes, there were opportunities to interact with newsmakers, but primarily through two controlled means: panels that were under Chatham House Rules that limited the extent to which a story could be told, and press conferences that were about as dry as toast and as newsworthy as paint drying.
To be fair, in addition to the paid partners there are also a number of individuals who attended the Forum free of charge, including the “Young Global Leaders” and “Global Shapers who the WEF”—individuals the WEF has recognized as young leaders with very high potential.
With over 1,600 people in attendance, I suppose it makes sense that there would be some sort of stratification among participants. After all, some members are paying through the nose. I respect the fact that different people attend the Forum with various agendas and that those agendas may be best served away from prying eyes of the press. But I wonder if the Forum itself and the world at large would be better served if the WEF granted greater media access in order to highlight the marketplace of ideas that the Forum facilitates. There are few places in the world like this, where the best minds in the world all come together. The people I met were amazing examples of what the world has to offer. Surely the “upper class” participants have just as, if not more, amazing stories that can be shared with the world. Surely they have ideas that can be better communicated though open dialogue with the media than through staid panels or stodgy press conferences.
As it stands, Violet Crawley, Downtown Abbey’s deliciously vicious defender of the aristocracy, would be so pleased.