Davos WEF
Davos WEF

A rough guide to the World Economic Forum

Davos, Switzerland
Glowimages | Getty Images

The World Economic Forum (WEF) 2018 is kicking into action in Davos, Switzerland and CNBC has the lowdown on what you need to know about the event, its participants, the food, security and coverage.

Just what is Davos?

The World Economic Forum's annual meeting is a four-day event that is expected to attract over 2,500 participants, including many leaders from the world of politics, business and civil society. The event is taking place between January 23 and 26.

The name "Davos" refers both to the Alpine ski resort where WEF takes place every January, but it has also become interchangeable with the Forum's proper title.

WEF is a Swiss non-profit, politically neutral organization that was founded by Klaus Schwab in 1971. Although it's headquartered in Geneva, the Forum has become synonymous with the snow-covered town Davos.

What is Davos?
What is Davos?

What is WEF's mission?

In simple terms, the Forum is "committed to improve the state of the world."

It aims to do this by bringing together what it calls public and private "stakeholders" — in the main, heads of state, business, academia and society — and providing them with a space to discuss shared interests and problems.

"We believe that progress happens by bringing together people from all walks of life who have the drive and the influence to make positive change," WEF states.

It hopes that dialogue will lead to shared action to tackle the world's most pressing issues, such as climate change and inequality.

In 2018, the Forum's theme is "Creating a shared future in a fractured world," saying that it "aims to rededicate leaders from all walks of life to developing a shared narrative to improve the state of the world."

Who pays for Davos?

The Forum notes that a large majority of its funding is provided by "business entities" who join the Forum as members and partners in order to participate in our activities.

Membership and partnership fees range from 60,000 Swiss francs ($62,243) to 600,000 Swiss francs (around $622,000) "depending on the level of engagement."

The Forum notes that most types of membership include the opportunity to participate in the Annual Meeting for the chief executive of the company, "although Davos participation incurs a fee over and above membership or partnership fees."

The Forum also works with government agencies on some projects and initiatives and says that these agencies fund those activities through the Forum.

Non-business participants in the meeting — from heads of state to leaders of the arts — do not pay to participate.

In wider terms, in the financial year from July 2016 to June 2017, the WEF foundation reported a turnover of 280 million Swiss francs and a surplus of 1.2 million Swiss francs.

The latest figures available showed that, in 2015, the Forum's Annual Meeting generated an estimated turnover of around 79 million Swiss francs throughout Switzerland, with 50 million Swiss francs benefiting the commune of Davos.

What is the point of Davos?

Every year the Forum adopts a theme that is a talking point — or a starting point — for discussion. In 2017, the theme was "Responsive and responsible leadership," the year before that it was "Mastering the fourth industrial revolution."

In 2018, the theme for the meeting is "Creating a shared future in a fractured world" with WEF identifying a number of fractures in global politics, economics and society that it says need attention:

"Politically, new and divisive narratives are transforming governance. Economically, policies are being formulated to preserve the benefits of global integration while limiting shared obligations such as sustainable development, inclusive growth and managing the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Socially, citizens yearn for responsive leadership; yet, a collective purpose remains elusive despite ever-expanding social networks. All the while, the social contract between states and their citizens continues to erode."

As such, the meeting this year aims to find ways "to reaffirm international cooperation on crucial shared interests, such as international security, the environment and the global economy," WEF said.

Davos in stats

Now in its 48th year, the forum has come far from its humble beginnings, attracting global political and business leaders, economists, policymakers and celebrities.

2018 is no exception. This year, WEF executives expect over 2,500 participants from more than 110 countries.

Only 21 percent of the participants are women yet the event is being entirely co-chaired by seven women this year, including International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde, IBM Chief Executive Ginni Rometty and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg. The all-female panel is seen as a response to criticism that the event lacks more representation from women.

Overall, the Annual Meeting will feature over 340 top political leaders with 10 heads of state and government from Africa, nine from the Middle East and North Africa and six from Latin America.

WEF said that 1,900 business leaders from all industries will be attending, there will be 230 media representatives and almost 40 cultural leaders.

In addition, WEF notes there will be social entrepreneurs, technology pioneers and leaders of civil society, unions and faith-based institutions.

Davos will be covered by some 500 journalists reporting for domestic and foreign news outlets.

Who's who in Davos in 2018

Headline guests this year include President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron.

In addition, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni, Argentinian President Mauricio Macri and new Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa are among the 340 top political leaders attending.

Other well-known participants include actors Cate Blanchett, Shah Rukh Khan and musician Will.i.am and singer Elton John.

In previous years, attendants have included Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Bono from U2, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Yo-Yo Ma, Forest Whitaker, Goldie Hawn and Yao Chen.

Schmoozing and exclusive parties are a part of the Davos experience for its high-profile participants although getting an invite can prove tricky.

What happens in Davos?

The Forum holds multiple sessions, panels, speeches and seminars over the course of the meeting where participants can listen to debates by key policymakers and audiences on a variety of subjects.

Artificial intelligence, the digital economy, poverty, conflict and the gender pay gap are common themes of sessions held in the main congress center but there are many more unusual, fascinating alternative talks. The "IdeasLab", for instance, is hosting a range of topics on neuroscience, the "Science Hub" will focus on innovations in the scientific world whereas the "Mixed Reality Space" hosts the latest virtual reality tech.

The Forum states that the key pillars of the program of events are to allow participants to experience, discover, debate and collaborate.

Many of the sessions will be webcast on the Forum's website, here's a program of WEF events taking place.

Security at Davos

With so many world leaders in one place, security is tight at the World Economic Forum with vehicle checks and armed police and soldiers a common sight.

Security is also extremely tight to enter the congress center where the bulk of WEF seminars, keynote speeches and panels are held.

Security measures in Davos are entirely in the responsibility of the government of the Canton of Grisons (a canton is a state in Switzerland), a spokesperson for the Swiss Ministry of Defense told CNBC.

While the Grisons authorities have the overall lead over security they can ask for help from police teams outside the state, as well as from the Swiss Armed Forces, a spokesperson said, adding that the ministry was not responsible for WEF security.

The additional security put in place for the Forum in 2018 is estimated to cost around 9 million Swiss francs, roughly the equivalent in dollars, though if the threat level is raised additional funds are made available from the state government (albeit a limited amount).

An armed member of the Swiss Police watches from the roof of the Hotel Davos ahead of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Monday, Jan. 16, 2017.
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

André Kraske, a spokesman for the WEF Committee of the Grisons state government, told CNBC that security was tight but was understandably tight-lipped on details.

"We do not provide information on the number of police forces deployed. The Federal Council (of Grisons) has approved the deployment of a maximum of 5,000 soldiers," he said.

The deployment of armed forces at Davos is funded by Switzerland's Federal Department of Defense, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS), WEF said.

"Overall, the cost of deploying troops at the WEF Annual Meeting is much the same as that incurred by the same battalions when on regular training," WEF states, adding that in previous years, the deployment of the armed forces has cost an average of around 28 million Swiss francs per meeting.

The Forum notes that security costs are shared with Swiss government entities on the federal, cantonal and municipal level.

Is Davos a terrorist target?

There has been a number of high and low-profile terrorist attacks in Europe in the last few years, with the so-called Islamic State militant group and its affiliates claiming responsibility for most of the attacks.

As such, the terror threat level in Europe remains high and the threat of terrorism is a concern for any high-profile event, including WEF.

The Forum says in a security document that "the Graubünden (Grisons) cantonal police and its partners ensure the security of visitors to the WEF Annual Meeting, the local population and guests" but that Switzerland is a target for jihadists.

"In light of terrorist attacks in Europe since 2015 and the ongoing activities of jihadist groups and organizations, the terrorist threat in many European countries remains elevated or high. Switzerland is part of the Western world, considered anti-Islam by the jihadists, and is therefore also a possible target of terrorist attacks."

Swiss army soldiers install surveillance equipment in Davos, Switzerland
Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

Heads of state and government at Davos get "other special protective measures if necessary," it says, and there are "security restrictions on the airspace over Davos to safeguard air sovereignty." Helicopter travel to and from Davos is controlled by WEF.

This year, with Trump's attendance confirmed (he will be giving a keynote speech at the end of the meeting, on January 26), security could even be stepped up.

"Our security measures are oriented on protecting important heads of state and government. I refer in this regard to the visit of the Chinese president at last year's WEF," Kraske told CNBC.

Donald Trump
Carlo Allegri | Reuters

"Further consultations will indicate whether the visit by the president of the United States will necessitate any changes, and if so what changes, to existing security measures," he said.

Lastly, is Davos any good?

While it would be hard to argue with the World Economic Forum's explicit mission to improve the state of the world, the means it employs to do so i.e. bringing the rich and powerful (and those with the expertise but not the means to change the world) together in an exclusive and expensive ski resort has been a source of criticism.

President Donald Trump's attendance at the event in 2018 was something of a surprise given that he has eschewed the elitism that an event like Davos is often accused of.

Attendees and organizers alike have refuted accusations of "champagne socialism" with many participants saying the event does far more good than harm. Nobel-Prize winning economist Robert Shiller told CNBC that he had been to Davos around 15 times and said he was a fan of the meeting.

"I'm more of a fan. Some people don't like it and think it's just full of talk or people talking about things they don't know about, but I think it's full of values and it changes your (focus of) attention."

Lee Howell, WEF's global head of programming, conceded that the Forum could improve in terms of compelling leaders to some shared action rather than just shared purpose, however.

"What I think Davos could do better is to take that sense of community and actually catalyze much more change in those areas (of discussion)," Howell told CNBC ahead of the Forum in 2018.

"Having that shared interest (in resolving problems) is great but it's not sufficient. We need to get to a shared vision of that future and take action on it and I think if we can compel more of the community members to do that in whatever domain, then that alone would improve the state of the world," he said.

Correction: This report has been updated to reflect the proper spelling of Lee Howell's name.