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FEB 5, 2010

WEF Annual Meeting 2010 in Davos – Part 2: The road to Davos

By Yoshito Hori

I left home on the morning of January 25. This was right around the time my eldest son was taking his exams for entrance into junior high, so I took my anxieties with me on this trip. I boarded the Narita Express train and then the JAL flight to Frankfurt. Swiss Air offers a direct flight to Zurich, but wanting to use a Japanese airline and particularly to support Japan Airlines after it had filed for government assistance via the Corporate Rehabilitation Law, I had decided to take a JAL flight to go to Davos via Frankfurt.

Just past the boarding gate at Narita, ten to twenty ground crew members and cabin attendants were lined up at attention, all with serious expressions. As I passed, they all bowed together with a call of “Arigato gozaimasu.” One of the ground crew members approached me, saying, “This is a token of our feelings,” and handed me a paper the size of a name card.

On the front was a photo of a JAL airplane. On the back was a handwritten message that said, “We will offer our best.” This touched me. They have done nothing wrong. It’s the senior management and the Japanese transportation authorities that are in the wrong. And yet some of the people here may ultimately be laid off: for doing nothing wrong and offering their very best service. It reinforced in me the need for senior management to make sound decisions.

Inside the plane, I checked through my itinerary. I will arrive in Frankfurt Monday evening. On the morning of Tuesday the 26th, I will visit a business school in the suburbs of Frankfurt. I have known the president of this business school – the most prominent in Germany – whom I sat with on the same panel at the WEF Dalian in 2006. We later contacted each other by e-mail and promised to visit each other when the occasion arose. This meeting is part of my activities to expand Globis’ global network of business schools.

After visiting the school, I will head to Zurich on the afternoon flight, and check in to the airport hotel. I will attend a wine-tasting event at 6 p.m., and join a pre-Davos Conference reception at 8 p.m.

Officially, this pre-Davos Conference is an annual meeting of Horasis, and runs over one night and two days at a hotel at Zurich Airport just prior to the Davos Conference. I had previously met the organizer of this meeting, and I was to be the joint conference chair at this meeting. I have attended many international conferences in my time and have been on the podium as a panelist or a speaker, but this is the first time for me to be named the joint conference chair. It is an honor.

I will take the stage at 8 a.m. on the following Wednesday, January 27, and exchange opinions on some of the issues currently confronting the world. The pre-Davos Conference will end in the afternoon, after which I will head to Davos and attend the Davos Conference in the evening.

Beginning the morning of Thursday, January 28, my schedule at Davos will become very full. I am scheduled to take the stage that day from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Japan Night will be held in the evening.

On the morning of January 29, I will attend a Harvard reception and an Infosys invitational luncheon, and on the evening flight the following Saturday, the 30th, I will fly home via Frankfurt.

I had planned to return a day earlier than scheduled, because I want to be home a day before my eldest son’s exam on February 1. The schedule for this trip is rough.

As I arrived in Frankfurt, a driver picked me up at the airport and took me to a hotel close to the business school. The scenery was all white with snow. The driver told me that such heavy snow was rare in Frankfurt. I searched my memory to think of when I had last visited Germany. After partnering with Apax Partners in 1999, I frequently traveled to their office, attended local training sessions and meetings and visited investors, but I had not come since. My recent business travel has mainly taken me to London, Paris and Zurich, and I had no reason to come to Germany.

The car pulled up at a hotel that stood humbly by the Rhine River. As soon as I had checked in, I immersed myself in responding to the vast amount of e-mail that had accumulated during the past day. It took two hours to complete. I changed into my swimming gear, put on my bathrobe, and headed to the pool on the ground floor.

Entering the pool area, I noticed a woman swimming in the pool. On casually glancing her way, I was taken aback to discover that this lady was swimming stark naked. The only person in the pool area apart from the naked lady was a man, likely her husband, wrapped in a towel and reading a newspaper.

I thought, “I remember… this is Germany; men and women enter the sauna together and you enter naked. This pool must be adjacent to the sauna; that’s why it must allow nudity.” I looked, and indeed, there was a sauna at the far end.

On a sudden impulse, I removed my swimwear, took a shower, and entered the empty sauna. After a while, the lady entered still naked, quietly spread a towel on the floor, and lay down on it face up. I hardly knew where to look.

After a period of silence, she got up and spoke to me in German as she pointed to a pail of water. I responded in English. It seemed that she wanted to pour more water on the sauna stone, and she took the pail outside and came back with water in it. I took the pail and spoke briefly with her as I poured water on the stone. She lives in the area and visits this pool frequently, as an annual member. The lady exited the sauna first. We exchanged pleasantries as she left, so I smiled and said, “It was nice talking to you.” Still naked, she took a shower and entered the pool again.

I had also perspired a lot, so I took a shower, and without worrying about my swimwear I put on my goggles and dove into the pool. The pool was only about 12 meters long, but it was cool and felt good. I practiced all styles – freestyle, butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke – to prepare for my upcoming competitions. I don’t think I would want anyone to watch me swim the backstroke buck naked.

So here at this pool was a man and a woman, complete strangers, swimming naked. A strange sight indeed, but it must be the thing to do in this area. It felt like the perfect example of “Different country, different customs.” I entered the sauna again naked, and went back to the pool, repeating the process. I finished off with a shower, and putting on my bathrobe, I grabbed my goggles and dry swimwear and returned to my room.

I thought, before going to sleep, about asking the hotel clerk tomorrow, “What’s the correct way of entering that pool – naked or in a swimsuit?” I took a nap until just past midnight, when I was forced to wake for a conference call. The call lasted a little over an hour, and I went back to sleep again.

And that ended the first day of my trip to the WEF Annual Meeting 2010 in Davos.

January 26, 2010
From a hotel in the suburbs of Frankfurt,
Yoshito Hori