Chronicle 4 | Swiss Economic Forum 25 years: from idea to institution

The Swiss Economic Forum grew from year to year, with those interested in attending soon scrambling to secure one of the sought-after places. The event’s reputation was boosted by the stream of prominent politicians making their way to Thun and later Interlaken. Then-President of the Swiss Confederation Adolf Ogi was the prestigious keynote speaker in 2000, and the Kandersteg-local retained very close ties with the SEF even after leaving the country’s government. In 2001 he became President of the Advisory Board established in the previous year, whose other members included Vreni Spoerry, Thomas Held, Peter Spuhler, David Bosshard (Director of the GDI) and Polo Stähli (Espace Medien). Ogi played a key role in attracting prominent international speakers.

The organisers sometimes had to invest a lot of time and effort in convincing such figures to appear. When it came to the negotiations with Al Gore, who gave the opening address in 2004, the SEF leadership duo of Peter Stähli and Stefan Linder flew to New York in person. They were able to negotiate his requested fee down to a level that was acceptable to the SEF. The stipulation that a private jet had to be made available for the trip was also no problem initially, but the prices quoted for the plane would have blown the budget. Gore eventually agreed to fly with Swiss. He would say later in Thun that he had previously flown in Air Force One, but the flight to Switzerland was the first time he had had to take his shoes off when he got on the plane! That’s how Al Gore, a global star thanks to his environmental campaigning, finally made it to Thun.

Persuading entrepreneur Richard Branson to give a keynote speech called for similar levels of tenacity and chutzpah. Through his Virgin Group, he had made a name for himself as a serial founder of companies: record labels, music shops, an airline, a rail group, telecoms companies are just some of the ventures the eccentric Brit launched. Just the man for the SEF. But he didn’t want to come. Not at the first time of asking, nor the second time, nor even the third time! It wasn’t until we promised him an encounter with the Bernese Oberland’s very own Virgin, the Jungfrau, that he finally said yes, delivering a remarkable speech in 2009 on the opportunities for entrepreneurs in times of crisis. However, bad weather meant that the visit to the Jungfrau did not happen until the following year.

You can read about what happened next in Chronicle 5 – and the SEF story in full in the SEF25 magazine, which will be published to coincide with the anniversary edition of the Swiss Economic Forum 2023.

Text and research: Felix E. Müller