Uphill rush: Before Davos forum, ‘organized chaos’ descends on staff of Belvedere resort


The village of Davos, Switzerland, during the opening plenary session on the first day of the 44th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum on Jan. 22, 2014. (Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA)
January 22

On Tuesday, the first day of the World Economic Forum’s 2014 annual meeting, staff members at the Steigenberger Grandhotel Belvedere seemed either stunned or giddy.

In a span of 24 hours, the hotel, where they live in army-style barracks in the back yard, had gone through a complete transformation.

For 360 days a year, the Belvedere is simply a five-star resort high in the Swiss Alps, where families come to ski in the winter and hike in the summer. The venue is grand, but in a subtle way, attracting a diverse group of guests — some affluent, others less so — who are as active or lazy as they want to be. Locals sometimes visit to have a glass of wine after work or for a peaceful dinner on a family member’s birthday. Hotel staffers describe it as “peaceful,” “relaxing” and “serene” — a modern Alpine retreat evoking the work of Thomas Mann.

During the World Economic Forum’s meeting, however, the Belvedere is the unofficial hub of the festivities, a place of “organized chaos,” as Katharina Schmitt, a 26-year-old event manager at the hotel, describes it.

“It’s crazy, I must admit,” she says.

Guests include chairmen, CEOs, heads of state, secretaries of state and prime ministers. (This year, that list includes David Cameron and John Kerry.)

And it’s all set in a city that doesn’t even allow salt, so all these business leaders and politicians spend the week slipping and sliding through the streets of Davos, repeatedly changing from their snow boots into dress shoes as they make their way to the Congress Center for the official meetings.

Bookings go so quickly that even Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer was turned away this year. (She can take solace in the fact that Bill Clinton couldn’t get a room in the past. The hotel’s manager famously handed over his personal lodging to the former president until space could be made.)

Stefan Buchs, the area general manager of Steigenberger, the hotel’s parent company, asked, “Where else do you have 126 chairmen of blue-chip companies [worth billions] in one hotel under one roof for five days? It’s obscene.”

Not surprisingly, the security is stiff. Armed, uniformed military personnel surround the property, forcing the public to take alternative routes away from the site. And every accredited guest must go through airportlike security before entering the premises.

Over the five-day forum, the Belvedere hosts 322 events (the norm for the rest of the year is 15 events a week) sponsored by organizations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Korean government. Other groups set up “work spaces.” Demand for space is so high that the hotel sets up temporary walls to partition rooms and reconfigures the same space up to six times a day.

Even experienced staff members can be overwhelmed, Buchs says. “They are all really nervous, and they look forward to it, and they all want to do a good job. You feel the energy.”

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The Belvedere has a long history of welcoming prominent guests. Because it was the first five-star hotel in the Alps, figures such as Josephine Baker, Charlie Chaplin and Thomas Mann visited for inspiration and some fun.

Buchs believes that it is this legacy that enticed guests to the World Economic Forum to stay there. “Far beyond the WEF, I do believe there is also a history, and that’s why people come here.”

Following in their predecessors’ footsteps, recent guests have certainly made their own memories for the hotel.

Such as when Clinton spoke during the World Economic Forum and the hotel had to paint a wall yellow because the U.S. Embassy believed the original white washed him out.

And when the hotel forbade photographers from using flashes because Nelson Mandela, just released from jail, was sensitive to light.

Many of these stories are told by Ernst Wyrsch, the former general manager who retired in 2012 with so much material after his 20-year tenure that he wrote a book and is now on the lucrative speaker circuit. As Buchs says, “If you don’t tell the story, you don’t create curiosity.”

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Not only do the high-profile hotel guests — often drinking in the bars until wee hours of the morning and producing fabled stories — bring the hotel an aura of mystique, but the WEF is also a major source of revenue. Buchs says the hotel makes 60 percent of its revenue during the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting.

The sheer size of the preparations is astonishing. It takes six months to hammer out the details, such as room lighting and the type of chairs, and to learn about VIP clients and ensure everything is perfect for their arrival. (The U.S. Embassy, for example, spent hours with the hotel working out escape plans, how Kerry can arrive discreetly, what will be stocked in his mini-bar, etc.)

This year, the Belvedere hired an additional 160 staff members and 40 hotel management students from schools in Switzerland and Belgium for the forum. It carried out more than a half-million dollars’ worth of construction (turning the pool into a dance floor, the sauna into VIP offices, and the bar into three distinct event spaces). It also has to order a mass amount of supplies, including about 770 pounds of meat and 660 pounds of fish.

“This is unique in the world,” Buchs says. “You will never see this again.”

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