What happens at Davos and why is Justin Trudeau going?

St. John's church, centre right, sits surrounded by snow-covered residential buildings as night falls in Davos, Switzerland, on Monday, Jan. 18, 2015.
St. John's church, centre right, sits surrounded by snow-covered residential buildings as night falls in Davos, Switzerland, on Monday, Jan. 18, 2015. Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The author of the internationally bestselling book The Black Swan describes the World Economic Forum at Davos as follows.

The invite-only event in the Swiss Alps, said Nassim N. Taleb in 2011, is about “chasing successful people who want to be seen with other successful people. That’s the game.”

Held in the alpine town of Davos, Switzerland, every year for about four days, the exclusive meeting of world political and business leaders comes with a hefty price tag for those who make it onto the invite list, along with their entourages. The price is roughly $71,000 for a single ticket and the membership required to buy it — or $622,000 for the “strategic partner” membership level required to be able to buy up to five tickets.

Given the average price of a home selling last month in Canada was $496,500, that ticket price could seem a little hard to swallow.

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Is it really worth the cost for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and four ministers to attend?

Here’s everything you need to know.

What does Canada get out of it?

The cost of going to Davos is hefty — there’s no getting around that.

On top of the $622,000 for five tickets, are the costs of accommodations, security, food, booze and transport, and the retinue of staff tagging along for the ride.

Given that, the decision to go to the World Economic Forum boils down to two things: the chance to be seen and the chance to be heard.

READ MORE: At Davos, Justin Trudeau will focus on trade, Trump, NAFTA … and gender equality

While it might be Trudeau and his ministers sitting on panels and giving speeches, what they will be selling is Brand Canada.

“For Prime Minister Trudeau and other ministers to be there, sit on panels, make speeches and meet with people, it’s a way to remind people that Canada matters and why it matters, since we’re not always top of mind,” said Patrick Leblond, an associate professor focusing on global economics at the University of Ottawa as well as a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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“It’s the government’s job to remind people who we are, what we can offer and where we’re going.”

The spread of populist rhetoric and nationalism around the world also mean the focus at Davos will be squarely on how to tackle those issues.

For Trudeau, that means a chance to talk on the world stage about his policies around inclusive growth and progressive trade.

“In a place like Davos, this is exactly what they want to hear,” said Leblond.

Not going, he noted, would risk sending a message that Canada has little to contribute to the conversation around how to address challenges like populism and nationalism and that could carry a political cost.

So what exactly is the World Economic Forum?

The World Economic Forum is an annual meeting of world political and business leaders, along with a smattering of celebrities and philanthropists.

It first began in 1971 and each meeting centres on a theme that guides the panels and speakers who attend.

This year, the theme is “creating a shared future in a fractured world” and the goal will be to “rededicate leaders from all walks of life to developing a shared narrative to improve the state of the world.”

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Think of Davos as a swanky conference, one replete with all the folks you regularly see in news headlines along with plenty of the ones you never even knew existed.

Most come from around the world and book into hotels, apartments and chalets around the town for the four days of the conference.

The schedule for those four days is packed, from guests allotted some of the prestigious speaking slots to panels and backroom meetings and parties late into the night — in fact, some people buy passes just for the parties (and the networking they can do there) alone.

Is it just one big party?

One of the criticisms often aimed at Davos is that the event is basically one big schmooze-fest with a lot of people who all think more or less the same way.

And while the World Economic Forum makes no secret that it is in favour of keeping borders open, having all those leaders in one very small area means a lot of other things get talked about as well and the seeds of industry projects or legislative policies you might read about in two, five or 10 years can often be planted at the forum.

Some people say the whole [Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement] began very much in Davos when it was the government of Quebec that was pushing the idea by meeting with people from the European Commission and other countries,” said Leblond.
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“They said, ‘Hey, let’s talk more about it,’ and many years later we ended up with a comprehensive economic and trade agreement with the European Union.”

READ MORE: The inside story of Canada’s trade deal with the European Union

On Tuesday, Trudeau will deliver a speech that is expected to make the pitch for companies to bring their business to Canada.

He will also take part in a panel on advancing education opportunities for women and girls, with Malala Yousafzai on Wednesday. She’s the honorary Canadian citizen and youngest-ever Nobel Laureate who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban.

Later, Trudeau will host a reception that will tout Canadian innovation.

As well, Trudeau will host a roundtable discussion with business leaders from Canada and the U.S. on Tuesday to emphasize ties between the two countries just ahead of talks for the sixth round of negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) kicking off this week in Montreal.

Click to play video 'Trudeau treated like celebrity at Davos, but will that help Canada’s economy?' Trudeau treated like celebrity at Davos, but will that help Canada’s economy?
Trudeau treated like celebrity at Davos, but will that help Canada’s economy?

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“I don’t think people should necessarily just see that as hobnobbing and having a party,” said Leblond.

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“The days are very long and certainly it’s not a vacation, that’s for sure.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will also be giving a speech about the state of NAFTA negotiations.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will also be in Davos and is expected to meet with both Freeland and Mexican Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo on the margins of the summit to try to push along the talks happening back in Montreal.

Mexican President Carlos Salinas has said that the idea of Mexico joining Canada and the U.S. in a free trade agreement was “born” at Davos in 1990.

Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef will be on a panel about gender, power and how to stop sexual harassment.

As for what happens next, it remains to be seen which seeds will grow and which will not.