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As the European commercial property market gets together for its seventh year at the MIPIM convention in Cannes, UK law firms will again be there in large numbers. And it is not just the prospect of a weekend escaping the British winter, to wine and dine on the French Riviera, which entices them back year after year. Regular participants say MIPIM is an excellent forum for networking and can bring in business.
Michael Stancombe of Lovell White Durrant describes how his firm got hooked on the event. "We were offered a one-day ticket to the first MIPIM in 1990," he explains. "Bob Kidby went and was amazed; it was unlike anything else - it was full of our clients. He was so impressed, he decided we ought to be represented. We have taken an exhibition stand ever since."
Another firm impressed by the forum is Baileys Shaw & Gillett. As the UK arm of Legalliance, a European Economic Interest Group (EEIG), the firm also finds the pan-European and increasingly international spread of contacts particularly appropriate.
Baileys Shaw & Gillett first tested the water at MIPIM as delegates in the early 1990s. Tim Stranack, the partner responsible for MIPIM, recalls: "We first heard about it through contacts in the property world. From the first visit, we found it was good for business."
The lawyers reported to their colleagues in Legalliance that MIPIM would be a good showcase for their activities. They have shared a stand at the gathering each year since.
Stranack reckons the decision has paid off. "We have been introduced to clients who have gone on to bring us a lot of business," he says.
Baileys Shaw & Gillett is using new tactics this year. It will be using its exhibition stand to promote client's activities. "One project is a European resort development in its early stages. We will be sounding out financing possibilities and looking at marketing routes," Stranack says.
"MIPIM is ideal for this, since all resort projects sell to a worldwide market like the one represented in Cannes."
But not all firms can quantify the returns from an event which can cost tens of thousands of pounds each year. The cost of a delegate pass is £850, while the additional expenses involved in getting to Cannes and staying there can hike this bill up to £2,000 per person. An exhibition stand will set a company back around £5,000.
"We have had a stand from year one," Freshfields' James George says. "It costs a lot of money. But to be frank, we cannot put any specific business down to contacts made at MIPIM."
In spite of this, Freshfields has "no regrets" about attending the meeting every year. The team this year will be more broadly based, to emphasise the range of its property expertise. "Traditionally, MIPIM has been a pure property conference, catering for investors or occupiers," George explains. "There is a lot more work in unusual transactions like discounted debt relevant to recent major London deals like Broadgate and Canary Wharf."
Over recent years, as the commercial property recession has deepened throughout Europe, some lawyers argue it makes more sense to attend gatherings such as MIPIM. Rather than spending the time and money setting up meetings with potential clients at venues around the world, many of these people can be found in one place, once a year. In this light the cost of sending representatives to Cannes or taking a stand in the exhibition hall begins to look like good value.
But there is a counter argument, that the annual event is now swamped by lawyers. "Last year there were more lawyers than chartered accountants. It has to change to involve more end users," complains Nick Hadley of McKenna & Co. "We review our decision to go each year. But there's nothing like it."
"It's also overcrowded and overhyped," thinks Michael Stancombe of Lovell White Durrant. "There is nothing we can do," he adds, "a lot of our clients are there. So we can use the venue to highlight areas of our expertise and to market our overseas offices."
This year Lovells' lawyers will emphasise their skills in areas such as property derivatives, which let investors take a financial stake in the market without having to take possession of bricks and mortar. The firm's track record in the prospective growth market of private finance initiatives will also be stressed. "These are areas of new potential sources of work," Stancombe says.
Despite all this effort and the huge costs involved in attending MIPIM, Stancombe also admits it is impossible to quantify what the firm gets back. "We do attract people to our stand who would not otherwise stop to talk to UK lawyers," he says. "And there are a lot of serious property professionals who are not from the UK, who we would not meet otherwise."
He cites a meeting of Swedish property investors Lovells has caught wind of. "As lawyers, even if we wanted to go to the meeting, we would probably not be invited," Stancombe says. "At MIPIM, we can meet those investors informally, with no commitment."