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Dispatch from Davos: The Greatest Workout

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I have always thought I was in reasonably good shape for my age.

As I approach my 44th birthday on February 6th, 2010, and the maturing of my 5th anniversary as a founding member of the Forum of Young Global Leaders (YGLs), an organization of vision founded by Professor Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum family with a vision to solve many of the world's problems by 2030, I have always felt rather ageless.

Adding to my confidence, I work out daily, stretch every morning, once danced in my youth on national television shows such as Soul Train and American Bandstand in the U.S., and live by the notion that an "entrepreneur works 18 hours a day to keep from getting a job," so stamina and persistence are almost virtues in my life. In short, I think I am in fairly good physical shape.

Well, absolutely none of this mattered one bit this past week in Davos, Switzerland. Compliments of one Professor Klaus Schwab, I would describe Davos as nothing short of the "world's greatest workout."

Getting there

The first insight one gains about the Davos meeting is how utterly other worldly it is about to be, and you gain that impression even before you arrive.

Think about 99.9% of meetings, conferences and events you attend, and the routine is about the same. You fly into a major city and within 20 minutes or so from the airport you are securely planted in your hotel, with the conference center normally connected or very close by. You basically never leave that place of relative comfort, until it is time to depart the conference itself. Mr. Schwab and his team of dreamers have something entirely different in mind for you at Davos.

Your adventure begins when you arrive in say Frankfurt, Germany, and then take a one hour flight to a smaller airport in Zurich, Switzerland. From there you load yourself and your bags into a comfortable travel bus arranged by the team at the World Economic Forum, and proceed on to a 2-3 hour road journey that starts four-lane highway and ends two-lane village passage way. Soon you are making your through some of the most beautiful, postcard perfect scenery of nature you have ever seen in your life.

On the way, just beyond the German border, we stopped at a local Swiss convenience stores where everything was fresh (as in right from the source, cow or whatever no more than 24 hours prior) -- from the bread, to cheeses, vegetables or the sandwiches. No preservatives here.

Next stop is your modest but comfortable village hotel, where the extremely kind staff greets you as if you were a visiting Head of State or something. "Welcome to Klosters and the Silveretta Hotel Mr. Bryant," general manager and my friend Christian says to me on first seeing me come through the front door.

The first orientation of your senses there is a room service menu that changes daily, based on what fresh fish made it from local lakes or up the mountain that day, but if you stay flexible and loose you will love whatever shows up.

But none of this matters very much, because the Forum and YGL staff don't plan to let much grass grow underneath your Swiss planted feet, and once things get moving in Davos, you will not be seeing much of your room, or the room service menu, anyway (more on this later).

Plugging in

Plugging into the Davos can only be described as possibly what it might feel like for an astronaut, landing on surface of Mars for the first time; it's simply "another world." You feel as though you have been transported into another time, place and space.

Within a day or so you start seeing strange things appear in your room without your knowledge; creative cultural gifts and personalized letters, from Heads of State to Kings, to my friend and YGL chairwoman Queen Rania of Jordan. No explanation, and don't bother asking how exactly they knew I was there, and staying HERE, or how they got into my room without my knowledge? I don't want to know the answer. I just say thank you, and act as if I get a personalized "global education" lunch basket from Queen Rania all the time (smile).

And if you had dreams of hanging out in the polar-inspired hotel spa areas you better do that the first day you arrive or forget about it. "Forget about it," as you will see, is a pretty familiar theme with the Davos experience.

The first day

On the first day you learn a few things:

• It doesn't matter who you are, or who you "think you are," someone sitting next to you is even more important, and both of you so-called important people are stuck waiting in the same shuttle line in 10 degree weather, for the same grey Davos shuttles driven by 20 year olds with shades on and not a care in the world. You also learn that these famous Davos shuttles come and go, mostly, every 7 Swiss minutes, but more so, whenever they choose to.

• It will take you a very real 40-45 minutes to make your way up that famous one-lane Swiss road from Klosters and into Davos, and pass the riffle carrying Swiss Army (during this week the entire village of Davos is literally surrounded by Swiss guards at every conceivable entry point). Note to self: remember, no one much cares if you are "in a hurry" for a session, or a meeting with the King, or whatever. This is as close to what I would call "democracy for powerful people" as I have seen. Everyone cues up in the same line, at the same time, and everyone waits their turn. You get over yourself in a hurry in Davos.

• You learn that the most important credential in your life is not your passport, nor your native identification, nor your government issued credentials, or your own in-country security clearance, or your business card showing you are "chairman of the free world."

• Your most important credentials is your newly acquired World Economic Forum, Davos (around the neck) badge, loaded with enough encryption software to launch a space shuttle, nuclear arsenal or something else important. I will repeat: literally, nothing else matters except that badge! You arrive with your delegation of 10 cars as prime minister of wherever, but you have left this badge back at your hotel? Forget about it. Don't waste your time arguing with a man who speaks only German, and carries something in two arms that shoots real bullets; just turn around, go back down that mountain road, and get your badge. Welcome to Davos.

• Once you register you are now part of the 2,200 member "Davos family," and for a week YOU now feel like you simultaneously unimportant (the Davos agenda takes principle importance for all involved) and a visiting Head of State.

• You then get your superman Davos bag, loaded with everything from briefing materials to a heart-rate-walk meter so you can track your health, to shoe cleat-covers to make sure you don't roll backwards down that same mountain to Klosters (note: in past years each participant was equipped with their own pre-programmed and personalized PDA, complete with your Davos only email address and eAddress Book for every other Davos participant, from Bill Gates to Bill Clinton).

• Another note to self: Davos is no place to obsess over "looking cute," cool, handsome, stylish or whatever else. Believe me, I have tried. Forget about it.

• I remember one year in particular, failing to pay attention to the Davos "recommended shoes or boots" warning. I wore my coolest pare of loafers, and for a minute I was sharp, believe me. Within an hour though I was also levitating horizontally on a Davos sidewalk, made of "you-will-now-respect-me" black ice. Now, let me be clear. In Davos you don't slip or slide. No friends, in Davos one moment you are walking, being cool, talking to someone important about something important, and the next moment you are horizontal, literally in suspended animation, about 3 feet above the ground. That is right before your body remembers it respects gravity, and you hit the snow-ice combination below you with a thud that says to everyone around you, "oh, dear, here is a chap that didn't get the proper shoes and boots memo." You combine this experience with the respect that comes from breathing in the 10 degree Celsius, very thin air that only exists thousands of feet above sea level in Davos, and you simply never make that mistake again. Never.

• Next it is time to get to work, and work is what Klaus Schwab, David Aikman (the incredible executive director of the Forum of Young Global Leaders) and the rest of the Forum team specializes in and expects from every participant.

• Now, at this point it is about 2pm on the first day of registration, and my pre-stated goal for the day was to register, attend the opening session for YGL, and then retreat back to my hotel for a proper meal and proper sleep. Forget about it.

• The next thing you know it is no longer 2pm, but more like 9pm, and you are being dragged up an even colder mountain slope for a Swiss "fondue" dinner (translation - no meat and no heat) with 200 of your closest friends. And then AFTER dinner, around 11pm or so, you find yourself sucked into the wind-tunnels called Davos Night Caps. But what this really means is that your brain and your body are going to hurt until well after 2am, when you then find yourself standing alone or with someone else out on the main road, with only one question - "how do I get back to my hotel?" Important note to self: the Davos shuttles, led by the carefree 20 year olds I mentioned earlier -- oh they stopped at 1pm, and I am talking Swiss precision 1am. Forget about it.

• And so, as you walk, slide, skid, stumble down this road, after oh... 5 minutes or so, you begin to feel or shall I say not feel your feet, or your hands. It is COLD redefined, and you still have no idea how you and your colleagues are going to get to your new temporary home. 15 minutes in the elements and your mind is made up. It doesn't matter how captivating your conversation is with the great Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, or the CEO of some Fortune 500 company who happens to be stranded with you at 2am. Your only priority is heat, and home. Translation: TAXI! $100 U.S. or Swiss Francs later and you are now standing in front of your hotel with a strange look on your face. It is dark, like, ahh... "closed." If you have lost your key card, which opens the outside door, forget about it. You will be sleeping with nature.

• To underscore the point here, my dear friend and fellow YGL Alvaro Alvarez, one of the most successful businessmen and social entrepreneurs in Mexico, got locked out of the apartment they were renting and became more familiar with "natural-Davos" than he would have liked. He looked like a building had hit him when I ran into him the next day. I understand. Without even asking Alvaro, I know his response; "this will never happen again."

• It is now 3am in the morning and you finally make it your hotel and you are past ready to go to sleep, but there is one little problem - your home office is now in full swing on the other side of the world, and they need ANSWERS. Blink and it is 4:30am, or later, and your first session the "next morning," which is now today, is 7am. And this my friends is the drill for the rest of the week. Workout regime - forget about it. Standard sleep pattern if you have one - forget about it. Your treasure this week is something north of 3 hours a sleep a night.

• Here is the magic: the Davos energy keeps you going and completely alert on a continuous stream, and the next thing you know you find yourself awake, completely dressed in your business suit, pen in hand, sitting next to the President of like Mexico or something, and at a session on "combating climate change" or "reducing poverty through micro-finance in Africa and Latin America." You don't know how you got there, but you are glad you did because "you speak next!" "...John, please tell us about ---." I spoke in more than a dozen formal sessions and dinners during this the busiest week of my life, and each time somehow, with God's help, I managed to contribute to the dialogue before me.

• From this point on you can forget about any sense of so-called control you may have. You are hurling yourself somewhat uncontrollably, but amazingly, through a scheduled agenda that begins at 7am and ends at 2am every morning, making your way back down that mountain, finding your bed and kissing it, and doing this for 5 days straight.

• One minute you are being bathed in comfortable, perfect-temperature deliberations on something important in the Davos Congress Centre, on topics such as "resetting global capitalism," and 30 minutes later you are freezing your toosh off, standing on the room of that same Congress Centre, giving a live interview on "who-knows-what-but-please-make-it-quick-I-am-freezing" for Al Jazeera (the CNN of the Middle East), or doing an outside live Davos "Bell Ringing" with and for my friend Duncan Niederauer, CEO of the NYSE, and 20 of his and NYSE's closest friends and partners. As I was there to highlight the importance of financial literacy post global crisis, I considered it an honor to freeze my toosh off.

• Here is the funniest thing. On day one or two, you hear that the YGLs are having a private, interactive chat with say the President of the European Union, and you are tripping over yourself to get there and everywhere else too. And on your way to the session you just passed Arianna Huffington ("Hey my friend, I write for you -- honored"), my friend Alex Cummings, chief administrative officer and effectively #2 at Coca-Cola worldwide ("John, let's try to meet back in Atlanta -- this is just too crazy here. Agreed."), the President of Latvia "(John, will you come to speak in my Presidential Speaker Series in Latvia soon, on Love Leadership and financial literacy? Yes, of course Mr. President. So cool."), the CEO of Pepsi ("thanks John, ...please do send me your book. Done before you asked."), Congressman Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee (who despite the fact that I think he is brilliant and told him as much, it appears got rather tired of me reminding him of the vital importance of financial literacy (smile), but "that's my job," and his too, so all good on both sides. Much respect), and for good measure, my friend and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus ("I get all of your emails Operation HOPE emails John. Big smile. Sorry -- thanks").

• And just before you reach your intended location, you walk down a nondescript hall and there you are face to face with one Queen Rania of Jordan ("hey John, thanks for the Tweets on my education initiative. Well of course..." Queen Rania is as brilliant and authentic as she is gracious, kind and of course beautiful). And as it happens ONLY in Davos, while speaking with Queen Rania, whom Global Dignity co-founders HRH Crown Prince Haakon, Professor Pekka Himanen and I did a Dignity Day session with in 2008, I mention to her the name of a mutual friend in Jordan. Well, guess who appears directly behind Queen Rania literally 10 seconds later? Our mutual friend and brilliantly successful entrepreneur Fadi Ghandour himself, founder and CEO of Aramex, the FedEx of the Middle East. I called his name, and then he APPEARS? Forget about it. Only in Davos.

• By the third or fourth day, in an effort to pace yourself, you shift your energy down into another gear or two altogether, and it is called (inspired but) "worn down yet moving." The center of the "wear" is a sort of mental over-stimulation, one that you would not trade for anything in the world, but also gives you the mother of all headaches. If you are truly here to help solve the problems of our world, you simply suck it up and engage, recognizing it for what it is -- a priceless opportunity to speak with whomever you like over the course of a week in a completely informal environment.

• As if this was not enough, the craziness decisions come next. You have listened with rapt attention to former President Bill Clinton in an up close and personal, off-the-record discussion with YGLs. Priceless. I then find myself hitching an impromptu ride with my Global Dignity co-founder, His Royal Highness (and my brother from another mother, as I call him) Crown Prince of Norway, and his security detail (believe me, much better than the Davos shuttle, no disrespect intended to the shuttle folks), attending two more sessions, and at some point, find yourself so exhausted and whipped that when someone asks "John, are you heading now to the private chat with Bill Gates," you just stare at your friend and answer blandly, "ahh...I don't think so." Can you imagine this response? I mean, it's Bill Gates for God's sake. Who is their right mind would turn down a private conversation with Bill Gates, but this is the environment called Davos, Day-4. Forget about it.

• Following the absolutely packed and completely substantive agenda of a typical Davos-Day, and with two dinner appointments on your calendar at say 7pm or 8pm, followed by 3-4 Night Cap sessions starting simultaneously at 10pm that night and EVERY night, you find yourself with what I humbly call "High Class Problems."

• And so, you do what you can, attend what you are able to, support your friends when they speak, never miss your own speaking commitments (smile), and then surrender to sending a lot of post-Davos "sorry I could not attend" notes, to like the CEO of Bank of America, or Zurich Financial Services (the CEO here is a really good man), or whomever.

• And the world need not worry that the 2,200 hand-picked attendees will get a big head from being at Davos. The 2am shuttle-less trek back down to your hotel in 10 degree Celsius weather, banging on your hotel front door, always brings one back down to earth.

I could say much, much more about the Davos experience, but I think you get the gist of it.
It is nothing short of a once in a lifetime experience, happening annually, focused on only one single goal - improving the state of the world. It is the only week in the famous winter months of Davos that all the hotels are 100% occupied and there is almost no one on the ski slopes. They are all doing the same thing I was - trying to honor the spirit of Professor Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum by coming ready to work.

In some ways, I feel like I work out all year, not to finish a marathon or a cycling century, 100 mile road race, but to simply make sure I can stand up (and stay up) and deliver at Davos. It is a world class workout for mind, body and spirit alike. Honored to do it. Exhausted with a purpose, and wouldn't have it any other way.

Hats off Klaus Schwab. Hat's off.

John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, vice chairman of the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy as well as chairman of the Council Committee on the Under-Served, financial literacy advisor to the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council, a Young Global Leaders for the World Economic Forum, and author of LOVE LEADERSHIP; A New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), which debuted in August, 2009, on the CEO Reads Top 10 Best Seller List, and was published in November, 2009 in digital audio book format on Audible.com, iTunes and other audio book retailers .

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