Copyright: David Lawson/Financial Times Feb 1998Home page
The headlines are waiting to be written. 'Council officers on Mediterranean jaunt,' or 'Development corporation wines and dines foreigners on rates.' But the strange sight of councillors, estate agents and economic development officers gathering in the south of France is unlikely to raise the temperature of a single splenetic tabloid.
One clue is that March is a strange time for a glamour trip. This is not about sun, sand and Sangria on the rates. This is business. For almost a decade, thousands of occupiers, investors and property professionals from across the world have elbowed aside Hollywood stars and TV moguls for an intensive weekend of networking in Cannes.
Marche International des Professionels de l'Immobilier has long been known simply as MIPIM - the only opportunity you can find some of the world's biggest investors and occupiers in one place.
'I was suspicious that it was some giant jolly until I went,' says Judith Mayhew, chairman of the City Corporation policy committee. 'But I was converted when I saw that every big US investor and all the big international banks were there.'
No-one denies that Cannes has its attractions over certain dull and worthy international capitals. But there is a logic beyond the beaches, casinos and swish restaurants. The organisers, Reed Midem, were running TV and music festivals here for more than 30 years before adding MIPIM to the schedule in the late-Eighties.
'It is ideal for conferences because of easy access via the international airport and the wealth of hotels,' says UK sales director David Schindler.
The bars and restaurants are also more than just a luxury. 'The town is enclosed, so people do not disappear in the evenings. More business is done every year over a drink or meal than in the exhibition halls and meetings.'
Pinning down exactly how much business is generated is difficult, however. Attending the annual weekend is not cheap, and everyone moans about the costs. A basic stand in the Palais des Festivals costs a shade under Fr40,000. This includes registration for four people but accommodation and travel comes extra.
A running joke among property consultants is how cheaply a firm has managed to ship staff via some obscure airline - and then worked in shifts to share hotel costs. But 80 per cent of delegates return, says Schindler. Reed Midem also found that 97 per cent say they gained specific work by attending the weekend.
Britain's biggest property consultant, Jones Lang Wootton, resisted attending for the first few years but gave in eventually to the inevitable pressure. Knight Frank gave up its stand but still sends 40 people to trawl the halls and restaurants.
Michael Soames, a senior partner with international property consultant Knight Frank, has no problem justifying the cost. 'Last year we did a big investment deal just by chatting to someone over breakfast,' he says. 'That alone would have paid all our costs four times over.'
Ironically, it was with a British investor. 'I can meet more people in 48 hours there than in a whole year at home,' he says. But it is also an opportunity to bring together staff from eight other European offices. Consultancies often time their international partner meetings to coincide with MIPIM.
Public bodies are no less convinced that they can justify costs to auditors. Around 30 British local authorities and development corporations are attending this year, convinced they must match the efforts of similar organisations from other countries in the constant battle to win inward investment.
'We are not an area many would know about,' says Jenny Graham, development manager for Lincolnshire County Council, which was the first council to attend.
It relies on partners to carry through big developments like the proposed Lincoln Western Gateway, a multi-million-pound mix of employment schemes and housing. But this is not the easiest place to get onto the itinerary of an international investor.
'This is an ideal way to get on shortlists. I can't think of another way of getting so many potential investors in one place at the same time,' she says.
And the cost is marginal. 'It is about the same as two adverts in a national newspaper like the FT.'
The expansion of cross-border investment has been the main reason for MIPIM's success, says Schindler. 'We had several thousand visitors in the first few years but it really took off in the Nineties when pension funds began to diversify and multi-nationals started establishing global property and investment strategies.'
Judith Mayhew caught this mood as soon as she took over the role of promoting London through the City Corporation. Old rivalries were put to one side when the Docklands Development Corporation joined forces with London First and the Corporation to create a stand which dominated the exhibition last year.
'You have to be out there showing the world what you can offer,' she says. 'We are competing with places like Frankfurt and Paris, which also have stands - although ours was bigger and better.'
The networking with bankers and investors is also invaluable. 'I can learn first-hand what they want; the kinds of buildings we should be offering as a planning authority both to occupiers and investors.'
This explosion of global investment continues to bring in new visitors. Countries like Japan, Croatia and the United Arab Emirates have joined this year. And the South-east Asia crisis has not stopped Malaysia Singapore and Thailand joining the throng. And new MIPIMs are now planned for the Americas and Asia to create even more potential headlines for desperate tabloids.