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How to dress for Davos

27 January 2014

One of the World Economic Forum annual meeting’s core themes this week has been climate change, something those of us arriving in Switzerland from Australia have certainly experienced. Here in Davos you’re lucky to get out of single figures during the day, and night-time temperatures plummet below freezing. Last week, Cost Centre #2, who is staying on in Australia for part of his gap year, posted a picture on Facebook with the caption, “I am not built for 46C.”

Nor am I, so planning my wardrobe was especially difficult. I made sure to change planes in London, specifically to collect my fur coat and walking boots, but what else to wear? My guidance to other female delegates has always been to pack that staple of every working woman’s wardrobe: the black trouser suit. And especially if you are going to be on a platform during one of the debates.

But My Professorial Girlfriend, who made her Davos debut in 2012, tells me I have got this all wrong. MPG (just this side of 60 but in great shape) concluded that, in fact, women should dress more sexily for Davos than they normally would. But who for? It is all hidden under a coat half the day. And dressing sexily involves high heels that look great at the drinks parties and on the dance floor but otherwise have to be carried around in your handbag. I am afraid the WEF delegates of 2014 have had to put up with me in a black trouser suit.

I at least have not had to add accommodation angst to wardrobe woes. The population of Davos has swollen by at least 10,000 this week and, before any of these arrive, they must overcome a yet more pressing challenge: finding somewhere to stay. I’m lucky – two years ago a couple of FT readers took pity on me and now allow me to stay in their wonderful apartment. The 2,500 official delegates, including more than 40 heads of state, are assigned accommodation, if they have not made their own arrangements. But those 2,500 delegates bring 7,500 “others” – support staff who must fend for themselves. It makes Bethlehem look positively under-occupied.

The view from my flat overlooking Davos Dorf is so stunning that I am loath to leave in the morning. Unfortunately, meetings are what Davos is all about. As Klaus Schwab, who founded the WEF, said: “There is no place in the world where so many stakeholders of our global future assemble.” That’s why so much business gets done – and why meeting space is at an absolute premium, even my staple “meeting room”, a table in a coffee shop. Many companies have been putting their M&A capability to use to take over every coffee shop on the main street.

Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, was someone else whose people were tracking down meeting space. His country is chairing the G20 this year, and so as well as addressing the WEF delegates, Abbott has been meeting his G20 colleagues ahead of their convening in Brisbane in November. You would have thought that with the increasing sophistication of electronic communication, face-to-face meetings might no longer be needed. Had Richard Nixon had Skype in 1972, would he have needed to visit China? And might Ronald Reagan have used FaceTime in 1985 to chat to Mikhail Gorbachev instead of travelling to Geneva?

My own experience is that the digital age has made personal interchange more valued, not less. Of all those people available to you on Facebook or LinkedIn, how do you know whom to trust? If you can shake someone’s hand, you are far more likely to trust them. Trust, as economists know, lowers transaction costs. The face-to-face meeting is the only way to make sense of the wealth of electronic information we have about our fellow human beings. It will always matter, which accounts for the thousands of people who turn up for these events. Whatever the temperature.

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