The forum is best known for its annual meeting at the end of January in Davos, a mountain resort in Graubünden, in the eastern Alps region of Switzerland. The meeting brings together some 2,500 top business leaders, international political leaders, economists, celebrities and journalists for up to four days to discuss the most pressing issues facing the world. Often this location alone is used to identify meetings, participation, and participants, with such phrases as "a Davos panel" and "Davos man" being used.
The organization also convenes some six to eight regional meetings each year in locations across Africa, East Asia, and Latin America, and holds two further annual meetings in China, India and the United Arab Emirates. Beside meetings, the foundation produces a series of research reports and engages its members in sector-specific initiatives.
The forum was founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a German-born business professor at the University of Geneva. First named the "European Management Forum", it changed its name to the World Economic Forum in 1987 and sought to broaden its vision to include providing a platform for resolving international conflicts.
In the summer of 1971, Schwab invited 444 executives from Western European firms to the first European Management Symposium held in the Davos Congress Centre under the patronage of the European Commission and European industrial associations, where Schwab sought to introduce European firms to American management practices. He then founded the WEF as a nonprofit organization based in Geneva and drew European business leaders to Davos for the annual meetings each January.
Schwab developed the "stakeholder" management approach, which attributed corporate success to managers actively taking account of all interests: not merely shareholders, clients, and customers, but also employees and the communities within which the firm is situated, including governments. Events in 1973, including the collapse of the Bretton Woods fixed-exchange rate mechanism and the Arab–Israeli War, saw the annual meeting expand its focus from management to economic and social issues, and, for the first time, political leaders were invited to the annual meeting in January 1974.