Rich hobnob as Davos confronts crisis

By Leigh Baldwin

Patrons watch the annual Klosters Snow Polo event in Klosters, Switzerland. Photo / Bloomberg
Patrons watch the annual Klosters Snow Polo event in Klosters, Switzerland. Photo / Bloomberg

Europe's rich and famous faced tough decisions as they assembled at a chic Swiss ski resort this weekend: whether to drink Taittinger or whisky-infused hot chocolate; and which piglet to back in the afternoon race.

This wasn't Davos, where the World Economic Forum will urge presidents and bankers to "rethink capitalism" this week.

Neighbouring Klosters, a resort favoured by the British royal family, held its eighth annual snow polo tournament.

While young Swiss socialists protest against the power of political elites in igloos outside Davos, Duran Duran sang A View to a Kill to several thousand polo enthusiasts revelling in a bar and nightclub made out of shipping containers and snow.

The four-day event, sponsored by menswear company Hackett and Swiss watchmaker Parmigiani Fleurier, is a chance to forget the global turmoil, according to founder Daniel Waechter, whose family business sells luxury lavatories.

"Despite the financial crisis, we've never had so many team requests," he said. "Last year we had a lot of trouble getting British teams over. Now, either they've recovered or they're saying, enough of this misery, we want to have fun."

Eight teams of three horses and riders apiece, instead of the usual four, battled it out in a slimmed-down version of summer polo, which was first played in Switzerland by British cavalry officers in St Moritz in 1899. The horses wear flat shoes with studs to grip the snow, and riders, who can use six ponies during four 6 minute chukkas, wield mallets to hit a ball between goalposts shaped like giant champagne bottles.

As Klosters's VIP guests ate roast saddle of veal with morel mushroom mousse, khaki-clad soldiers rolled out barbed wire in Davos. David Roth, president of Switzerland's Young Socialists, will have fewer comforts this week as he builds an igloo to serve as a base to protest against the forum.

"In the Arab revolution, it was a revolution for democracy - and I think we need also a revolution for democracy," said Roth. "The politicians are not independent from the money, and that is a problem."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel opens this week's Davos forum, which will be attended by close to 40 national leaders. The first debate will ask, "Is 20th-century capitalism failing 21st-century society?"

"We certainly have in the world today a morality gap," Klaus Schwab, founder of the forum, said in Geneva last Wednesday. "We have undermined social coherence and we are in danger of completely losing the confidence of future generations."

The gap between rich and poor is widening across most developed economies as executives, bankers and skilled workers reap more rewards, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said last month.

The average income of the richest tenth of the population was now about nine times that of the poorest tenth, the Paris-based OECD said. The gap had increased about 10 per cent since the mid-1980s, with Mexico, the US, Israel and the UK among the countries with the biggest divide between rich and poor.

"I'm going to Davos to talk with business and world leaders about jobs, inequality and the excesses of bankers' bonuses," said Philip Jennings, general secretary of the Nyon, Switzerland-based UNI Global Union, which co-ordinates more than 20 million workers in 150 countries.

"I certainly won't be going there to play polo."

Still, while Schwab warns of "global burnout", the luxury market is close to a record. The Bloomberg European Luxury Goods Index climbed 163 per cent since Lehman Brothers Holdings filed for bankruptcy in September 2008, while the Stoxx Europe 600 Index dropped 5 per cent.

The resort's association with the royal family makes Klosters the ideal place for London-based Hackett to promote its clothing that is a "romantic vision of Englishness", said Jeremy Hackett, 58, the firm's co-founder, who arrived in an Aston Martin Rapide.

"I feel like James Bond arriving in Zurich into a Cold War sort of atmosphere," said Hackett , adding that polo helped give his company "authenticity".

"It's a way of adding credibility to the brand."

Parmigiani, which gives watches to the players on the winning team, was attracted by Klosters being the only snow polo tournament played at night, according to Catia Hoffmann, communications director at the Fleurier-based company.

"We like to do events that are a little different, not the standard things like golf or Formula One," she said.

"It's a special atmosphere, very exclusive, but also very welcoming."

Swiss luxury living costs, including champagne, private jets, a Verbier ski pass and annual polo membership at Club de Veytay outside Geneva, rose 1.2 per cent in the year through August, even as the franc strengthened against the dollar, according to London-based Stonehage Group, which manages the affairs of more than 1000 wealthy families.

At Klosters, the polo matches attract a crowd that outnumbers the 2600 delegates expected at the forum.

"Some people have just floated to the top and stayed above the crisis, particularly in the luxury sector," Paul Smith - who worked for Chelsea Football Club before starting his own company to advise soccer clubs on branding - said over a glass of champagne as waitresses served smoked salmon and shrimp canapes in the VIP enclosure in Klosters.

"They're not going to think twice about buying a luxury watch or ordering a limousine."

Tournament founder Waechter got involved in polo when he took a job as head of the Klosters tourism board after his travel company was hurt by the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Two years ago he inherited the family business and is using snow polo to market The Golden Throne, his range of luxury portable lavatories named after European monarchs - Elisabeth, George and Sissi.

Polo clubs were "popping up like mushrooms" and they're not only for the super-rich, Waechter said in a December 23 interview in Zurich, adding that he plays with an architect, an insurer and a restaurateur.

"I got into polo because I loved golf and always wanted to ride a horse," said Stefan Locher, a doctor by training who runs his own media company and is playing at Klosters.

He keeps his four ponies over the border in Germany, where costs are lower. "It's like golf on horseback."

In Klosters, where Parmigiani's riders edged Team BMW 9-8 in the polo final, the sponsored racing jackets are taken off the piglets after bad weather forces cancellation of the 3pm event.

As Duran Duran takes the stage to sing Ordinary World up the valley in Davos, Roth suspects the polo crowd is out of touch with reality.

"These people are not really connected," said Roth, as a protester adds the final brick to an igloo. "They don't relate to the problems of the world."

- NZ Herald

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