(180116) -- GENEVA, Jan. 16, 2018 (Xinhua) -- Founder and Chief Executive of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Klaus Schwab gestures at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 16, 2018. Some 70 heads of state and government and 38 heads of international organizations will debate "creating a shared future in a fractured world" -- the theme of this year's World Economic Forum in Davos from Jan. 23 to Jan. 26. (Xinhua/Xu Jinquan)
JOHANNESBURG - When the masses descend upon snow-covered Davos for the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering, Esther Heldstab is determined to swim against the tide.

The purveyor of tourist mementos on the town’s main street is one of the few shopkeepers who won’t hand over their keys to multinational conglomerates who transform shoe stores and bakeries into lounges and cocktail party space for the week.

While the likes of Zurich Insurance, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank take over prime space on Promenade, Heldstab and her sister who run Swissalp Fantasy at no. 79 - where the window display features a stuffed Bernese mountain dog - simply stay put.

“On this mile, you can pretty much ask what you want,” said Heldstab. No one interviewed for this story would speak on the record about rental costs, though Heldstab said she could double her money if she rented out her shop in a half-timber house festooned with Swiss crosses. Still, “it’s so nice when the people from all over the world come - it’s like Hollywood”.

This year actress Cate Blanchett, singer Sir Elton John and Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan kicked off the WEF with the Crystal Award ceremony yesterday. They were joined by Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron and Matt Damon. John Kerry visited Heldstab’s shop when he attended as US Secretary of State, she said over lunch earlier this month.

Others local businesses have opted for the money instead. Schneider’s bakery and cafe is being rented out to the Indian delegation. Furniture is shipped in and the chocolatier’s 95-person staff takes care of the catering and service, said owner Urs Wipraechtiger. Right next door is Russia House. Now in its fourth year, it has this year decamped to this larger space close to the conference centre, according to organiser Roscongress.

Just a few steps away, M&G Investments will be hosting an evening of live jazz, drinks and canapés, while ConsenSys, a Brooklyn company that develops block-chain applications, is setting up an “Ethereal Lounge".

Making its debut on the strip is Ukraine House, which is taking over the Timberland shoe store. The location has been booked since last summer, and both Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and former world boxing champion Vitaliy Klitschko, now mayor of Kiev, will make appearances with the hope of enticing investors.

“We realised there’s this tradition of having the country houses in Davos,” Chopivsky said. He wants to showcase cuisine and hired a Ukrainian catering company to make borscht and golubsti (meat and rice-filled cabbage rolls). Wine, cognac, vodka and chocolate from Lviv will be flown in.

While the University of Chicago is holding a reception with Microsoft chief executive and alum Satya Nadella at the five-star Steigenberger Grandhotel Belvedere, business school INSEAD has opted for the Kirchner Museum, close to the conference centre.

“These events are a big source of income,” said Dolores Mark, who heads the private museum’s administration. She declined to comment on the rental fee.

And while red wine can’t be served for risk of damaging the works of the German expressionist to whom the museum is dedicated, that’s not putting off potential tenants. “Many book immediately after the event for the next year,” said Mark.

With ad-hoc sites sprouting up like mushrooms, to locals Davos seems utterly transformed during the week of the forum. “If a WEF participant came back during the summertime, he or she wouldn’t recognise the town,” said Kirchner’s Mark.