MIPIM2009

Arriving at Cannes at first nothing really looked different from any other year – the expanses of additional tented exhibition space, the hoardings bearing the names of various agents and banks adorning the front of various hotels and the sun glinting off the boats bobbing along the Jette Albert Eduoard.

 
‘Less is more’
Monday 16 March 3.30pm
Rhodri Pazzi-Axworthy, real estate partner, Nabarro

Arriving at Cannes at first nothing really looked different from any other year – the expanses of additional tented exhibition space, the hoardings bearing the names of various agents and banks adorning the front of various hotels and the sun glinting off the boats bobbing along the Jette Albert Eduoard.

Then you notice it. This year there really was less of everything. The branding was more discreet, like a huge banner which usually takes up the whole of one side of the Palais de Festival, not there at all. The boats were still there, but the only law firms represented in the harbour this year were Freshfields, Norton Rose, Orrick, Jones Day and Lovells, although there were a number of local authorities that chose to splash out on a boat for the week. This year the tent on the edge of Le Croisette, which used to be the pride of a global law firm, carried Savills’ branding, and where were all the people? You could get a seat in Café Roma at almost any time of the day or night and the restaurants were half full. And the hotel bars, which in recent years have been no-go areas without a Mipim pass, were freely accessed by anyone willing to pay €7.50 for a coke.

This is counter-intuitive. The efficient delegates who booked months in advance were paying much more than their counterparts who booked a couple of week’s ago. Flights, accommodation and passes were all cheaper as the event got underway than they were six months ago. Even the ‘Earlybird’ offers on passes didn’t come close to matching the Bogof deal reputedly being offered last week.

There were fewer parties across the board with most opting to limit their entertainment to lunches and dinners for a number of select guests and hold face to face meetings (over coffee, tea or water), set up in the last few weeks when the usual inbox full of party invitations failed to materialise. Could this be a return to the original purpose of Mipim?

However the sun was shining in Cannes and, although this seemed to buoy the delegates, there was also a cooling breeze (strong enough to blow the temporary partitioning at a beach front restaurant over onto a number of Nabarro’s lunchtime guests on Tuesday – fortunately with no casualties). The talk this year was of equity-starved properties chasing new cash (rather than the wall of cash which was chasing property two years ago) and that opportunities for those who have the cash must be “just round the corner”. Let’s hope they’re right.

‘The tragedy of the French waiters’
Thursday 12 March 3pm
Graham Prentice, real estate partner, Dewey & LeBoeuf

Wednesday and Thursday are traditionally the busiest time at MIPIM, so what did Wednesday bring? Possibly a few more people, but it is quite apparent that the crowds of last year are not holding back to make a dramatic late appearance.

At one stage last night it briefly looked as if the bar of the Martinez might reach something approaching its usual crowd, but the moment quickly passed. Not all is bad though – many have commented on how pleasant it was to be able to circulate around the MIPIM opening party without feeling like it was the middle of a rugby scrum. People are philosophical, accepting that if there are not quite as many people to meet or meetings to go to as last year, then they might as well enjoy the less frenetic pace – silver linings may be in short supply, but this is one.

Wednesday seems to have been my day for meeting lawyers from other jurisdictions. Richard Rennie is flying the flag for Burness in Scotland, together with two other partners; they have included a property litigator in their number for the first time – a canny move in this market.

I had an interesting meeting with two partners from Djingov, Gouginski, Kyutchukov & Velichkov, one of the leading firms from Sofia, Bulgaria. Their take on the general mood of the conference was that “no-one is smiling”. It does sound as if the Bulgarian property market has not been as severely affected as London’s (is that why smiling is still permitted in Bulgaria?) and their currency has been propped up – maybe that is what made 7.50 Euros for a Coca Cola in the Martinez bar seem less shocking to them than to those in the sterling zone (those approving my expenses, please note).

If the local bars and restaurants have heard there is a recession, they’re not showing any signs of this in their prices. In the afternoon and even in the evening it has even possible to get a seat in Caffe Roma – unheard of (I’ve never been able to get close enough to Caffe Roma to see the seats) – last night, the excursions into the road seemed to be more in memory of past tradition than any real need to spill on to the street: the beer sellers were still on their podiums outside, but they would abandon their posts and come inside to serve you if you caught their eye.

And the restaurants – spaces in the cafes in the old quarter – whatever next? But spare a thought for the French waiters, if you will. Bankers may be hamstrung, investors may have lost their shirts, but their plight is as nothing compared to the waiters. The whole raison d’etre of the Cannes maitre’d has gone, their entire reason for being, their sole source of pleasure – the Gallic shrug, the insolent turn of the back, the dismissive flick of the wrist – as if to say: “you stupid Englishman, why do you think we would have a table for you in zis restaurant?”. The chagrin, the humiliation of having to admit a table is available, the distress of having actually to acknowledge and serve us, can hardly be imagined. They may never recover.

Steve Norris addressed the London stand on Wednesday afternoon, stressing the honesty of our politicians and integrity of our political system and, more than once, the UK’s relatively low tax burden. Personally I preferred Boris’ jokes. There was a lower turnout than for Boris the previous day, but probably about the same person to joke ratio. The London model continues to attract admiring glances, particularly when people realise the new buildings light up when the computer screen “all projects” button is pressed – they seemed to have plenty of time to play with it.

Parties, or lack of them, have continued to be the talk of the conference. Most have been scaled down or cancelled, in favour of discreet dinners for limited numbers. Berwin Leighton Paisner seem determined to buck the trend. With over 20 delegates in Cannes, they were reputed to be hosting a lavish party for 90 people.

On Wednesday evening, Norton Rose’s boat and the adjoining quayside were overflowing in a way which would have done Caffe Roma proud in its heyday –standing room only and no way through. Recession or not, some people still know how to enjoy themselves, and are not embarrassed to be seen to be doing so. The general talk remains gloomy, however, how long will it last, when will it end, who will survive?

But there are opportunities for those with funding – two surveyors/investors to whom I spoke yesterday independently expressed the view that the London property market had reached the bottom and they were seeing some signs of increased demand for and activity in well-let properties – strong covenants, good locations and relatively long leases: let’s hope they are right and this will help lead the recovery.

‘The Yachts’
Thursday 12 March 9am
Graham Prentice, real estate partner, Dewey & LeBoeuf

What do Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham have in common? The only English cities to have provided European Cup winning teams? No, this year they share the distinction of having a boat at Cannes for MIPIM. Do they think their council tax payers won’t find out? (They know now..)

Allen & Overy is conspicuous by its absence this year. But Freshfields, Norton Rose and Lovells are here, along with Jones Day and Orrick for the Americans – and they’re all daring to be seen flying the flag from a well turned mast.

I’m guessing that the firms just put on a brave face and decided to turn up rather than lose the deposits they paid a year ago. Those lucky enough to be on the boats are finding they have much more elbow room, with almost everyone reporting much smaller teams this year.

Freshfields has a quarter of last year’s contingent, and Lovells significantly down, although they sensibly use the occasion for overseas partners to get together. Not that anyone would notice the absences though: The giant frame of Freshfields’ John Fordham fills a boat by itself and the gregarious Chris Morris greets all-comers with enthusiasm.

Bob Kidby likewise for Lovells, always charming and as always armed with guitar for his regular appearances with Clarence King and the Regents. Our Dewey and LeBoeuf team is similarly reduced this year: Ralph Wagner from Frankfurt, Carmine Oncia from Milan (plus me from London) make up this year’s contingent – half of last year’s team. But numbers are not the be all and end all: it’s being here at all that counts – if you are in the market, you have to be here.

The boats, of course, are still there, but not so many of them have corporate regalia – when was a spare gin palace last spotted during a MIPIM? Some of the more conspicuous users of the huge boats, such as ING and the Russians, seem to have moved on. Savills seems to have moved on to the coffee kiosk on the Croisette which was previously used by DLA Piper, of which there is no outward sign this year.

The boats used to be crammed together so tightly that a drunken lawyer or surveyor could not even fall over the side in the gaps between them (though the probability of falling over the front or back remains as high as ever).

‘Champagne and freebies’
Wednesday 11 March 5pm
Graham Prentice, real estate partner, Dewey & LeBoeuf

Clear blue skies, sun, light breezes, lapping waves – sometimes it’s difficult to remember that there is a real world out there with storm clouds gathering. If this can’t put people in the mood to do deals, nothing can, but the unfortunate reality is that it will take more than the Cannes sunshine to make the banks lend and investors put their hands in their pockets.

The real drought here is a champagne drought. MIPIM means wall to wall champagne to hand whenever you want it, morning, noon and night. Or so it used to be. This year, a few glasses we spotted almost apologetically at the King Sturge stand, as if to make up for the cancellation of their trade mark party.

Freshfields offered me a glass of water on their boat (only still, not sparkling – to avoid the risk of being mistaken for champagne?), pointing out that their party had been cancelled this year. Lovells are still having a party, but much scaled down from previous years. No more either the enjoyable Balti on the Beach party from Birmingham City Council.

Parties are cancelled or scaled back everywhere – it still seems inconceivable that JLL will not be throwing their renowned bash on the beach on Thursday night, tickets for which even Michael Jackson would have had to queue. But thankfully Overbury are still maintaining that fine French tradition of plying all-comers with unlimited quantities of Guinness at Morrison’s Irish Pub, the quality of which I tested on Monday night (purely in the interests of making sure standards have not been allowed to slip since my last visit there, during MAPIC in November, you understand).

The Palais has the feeling of only running at half pace. No vacant stands, but lots of deserted ones – no-one manning, and no-one visiting or showing any real interest. Some of the iconic exhibits are not there this year – the wonderful Dubai model with its futuristic spiralling glass towers is missing: Dubai cancelled – foundations of sand? And models of another kind are also in much less evidence: the Krasnodar region stand is still there, but much less crowded than last year –the Kazan section is not there and male visitors in particular are not seeming to find the same reasons to linger.

The most disappointing moment so far? A strong contender is the apparently delicious ice cream which the Torino and Piedmonte stand was serving, which turned out to be goat’s cheese. Torino and Piedmonte are also in the running for the most bizarre freebie of the exhibition: a block of compacted rice the size, texture and weight of a brick . Quite why I carried this back to my room rather than finding the nearest bin remains a mystery to me.

Other serious competitors for this award include Vilnius’ offerings of wooden spectacles and clothes pegs, while the City of Stockholm seems to think that bottles of water will wow people into investing in their products –sorry, but that does not float my boat, although the vast uncollected quantities at their stands may eventually do just that.

‘A thought from Boris’
Wednesday 11 March 11am
Graham Prentice, real estate partner, Dewey & LeBoeuf

The London pavilion was packed this afternoon, probably because Boris Johnson made an appearance.

According to Boris, MIPIM stands for May I Push you Into the Mediterranean. There were a few other phrases his speech-writers dreamed up for him, which I might have been better able to recall had I not carried out my inspection at Morrisons the previous evening.

Boris was characteristically upbeat for the long term future of the London property market in particular – as was Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation, whom I bumped into looking at the model of London developments.

Come to think of it, while London model is an excellent display of projects completed, planned and under construction, it’s puzzling that it still omits one of the most architecturally interesting and important developments of them all, the new Rothschild’s headquarters redevelopment at New Court in St Swithin’s Lane – maybe next year?

For once, MIPIM got its opening party right this year. It’s often a dire event in some distant and uninspiring barn, but this year it was in the Carlton Hotel on the Croisette, spilling out on to the beach. The Carlton’s magnificent ballroom is a lovely venue in itself; the use of the whole ground floor and the roadside terraces had differently themed areas, and the music was far enough away that anyone who who wanted to talk and mingle could do so without having to yell themselves hoarse. And there was plenty of champagne.

But the party wasn’t nearly as crowded as previous years: there’s no disguising the downturn in numbers. You can even get to the bar of the Martinez without a battering ram and get a drink within a time which can be measured with a watch rather than a calendar. The beach pavilions aren’t throbbing to the sounds of dance music or sending lasers across the sky. But there’s only been one full day of the main conference so far – will more find their way here for the latter part of the week?

‘On the way to Cannes’
Tuesday 10 March 10.30am
Graham Prentice, real estate partner, Dewey & LeBoeuf

My inbox has been bombarded over recent months with offers of cheap travel and accommodation. Last autumn you couldn’t even get on a waiting list for Heathrow flights, let alone economy class. This time I not only flew economy from Heathrow, but there was even a choice of flights. My prime time flight was maybe a third empty (another first, in recent years), my seat costing a third of the price of my original inconvenient and vastly over-priced tickets – eat your heart out BA.

No business class then for this trip, but what joy to have a free middle seat and not be sat next to one of those keen types who feels he has to make the most of his marketing opportunities from the moment he boards the plane. There are many stories of half price accommodation and really cheap flights for the last-minute bookers, and a number of people have taken the option of a more relaxed trip by train across France.