MIPIM blog 5: The tragedy of the French waiters

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.


Thursday 12 March 3pm

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.