“I’m not sure that MIPIM needs to exist”

“What happens at MIPIM stays at MIPIM,” said the other passenger in my taxi from Nice airport to the hotel. This is worrying advice, and not particularly helpful, given that my job is to report on what’s going on. The 30-year-old just got married and says he’s going to limit his alcohol consumption this time around, because after the last MIPIM he was hungover for a whole week.

My first glimpse of the real estate show comes the next morning, as I step off my shuttle to downtown. I see a lot of men, all in suits. They differ only in the amount of hair they have. There are a few women among the corporate tide. Crowds rush to the registration bunker under the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès – the official venue for MIPIM on the Cannes waterfront.

The Palace (built according to the plans of former LCC leader Hubert Bennett and inaugurated in 1982) spans several floors and several buildings. It’s one of the worst seaside modernism on the French Riviera, which is ironic, given the number of architects who inhabit and surround it. It does, however, have beautiful mezzanines.

After getting a pass to the convention halls, I find the British pavilion and the London pavilion outside, nestled on either side of the glitzy Saudi pavilion. The first contains all the animation of a general practitioner’s waiting room, but with an even more refined decor. The London pavilion has more atmosphere, although it lacks the big-city model that was apparently its centerpiece.

MIPIM opening ceremony: the man on the right wonders why I’m taking pictures in the corner

Nearby, real estate giant CBRE has a pier all to itself, presumably for its many employees to conduct business. In a tent, a British architecture firm distributes very stylish tote bags in different colors. Too bad their presented architecture is not so attractive (massive projects apparently without context or human scale).

They say on the street that MIPIM is less busy than in previous years, although as a beginner I find that a little hard to believe. Official figures later show 20,000 people attended, down from 27,000 in 2019, the last time it was held. Most people seem happy with that: less time talking to junior staff (and non-decision makers) who have come around.

In the evening, I saw the official opening night of MIPIM. It’s kind of like any other big tent filled with costumes (think weddings, proms, award ceremonies). However, there is a VIP area with slightly nicer seating behind a rope – which reminds me of small town clubbing as a teenager.

Outside the marquee I find a troupe of belly dancers wiggling, getting rid of their shawls halfway. A surprisingly high number of those who stop to watch and film are women (surprising considering how few women attend). Maybe they’re considering texting the fraternity and letting them know that MIPIM is stuck in the 20and century. Maybe they just like dirty dancing.

The next day, I watch the last housing minister (11and in 10 years) talk for 20 minutes. He says almost nothing. At one point he admits: “There’s one thing I’m really confused about: we have so many different pots of money [for regeneration], I think there are four out of five funds for brownfields. I don’t understand why we don’t have just one. If only he knew who was responsible, huh.

Housing Minister Stuart Andrew reads a script so he doesn’t accidentally say something interesting

I also meet architects, some of whom, I feel, are a little embarrassed to be here. I can understand that: the orgy of fund managers, letting agents and petty politicians drinking beer and eating delicacies on seaside terraces at lunchtime is a bit unpleasant. It’s hard to feel further removed from Russia bombing Ukraine, a deadly virus that has recently killed millions, or even the world’s impending climate catastrophe.

The architects I meet, however, don’t seem to have their noses in the trough. They are largely small business owners, appealing to charm in the hopes of seducing a tipsy developer for a job or two. One of them tells me that he has met eight potential clients, and that if two of them end up giving him work, all the time and money spent on MIPIM will have been worth it.

Some architects seem very interested in industry debates, seeking to learn more about “the future of the office”. Other panel discussions include ‘The UK is open and ready for business’, ‘London and upgrading’ and ‘Investing in the UK and London in 2022’.

One person I speak to says that the real estate festival allows cross-fertilization of ideas, producing new and exciting connections and projects. I am not convinced. In fact, I’m not sure that MIPIM needs to exist. No one I ask has spent much time chatting with counterparts or potential clients from France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, etc. Surely UK-focused developers, architects and engineers could meet in Blackpool or Brighton for a day and save all the air miles? I guess MIPIM UK was meant to be that, albeit without the same bettor glamor as Cannes.

One of the highlights of the week is when The guys from MIPIM becomes a thing on Twitter. The genius of the account is its efficiency and low maintenance: sharing photos of packs of (exclusively) men in vests and blazers, which the men themselves have posted.

At a dinner party, I find myself next to a veteran build-for-hire developer. He told me he had been playing all day. He had won £500 after meeting an engineer who knew horses. He passes the three courses laughing at a man seated at another table who has a huge, finely polished forehead. At one point, he also mentions that he used to work with good architects but quit because it was no use.

I do not receive any invitations on company yachts. I meet a financial woman from a company with a boat but she says it really makes her seasick

The consultant who had invited him to dinner – looking for a job, presumably – later apologizes. “I hate MIPIM,” adds the consultant, who attends it every year. “There are not only bad people, but there are a lot of good people behaving badly here. It’s like a bachelor party, but with strangers instead of your friends.

I had planned to meet with another developer on the last morning, but they emailed me to say they had a “work issue” that they “need to resolve this morning”. I can’t help wondering if this “work problem” isn’t a hangover.

The MIPIM officially extends until Friday but the Palace is then deserted: a few last costumes buzz around the powerful carcass of the festival, seeking against winds and tides a last crumb of business. On the plane back, I feel a little sad to leave. Is this what Stockholm Syndrome looks like? I’m not sure, but I’m probably just delirious from lack of sleep.

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