I didn’t quite know what to expect from Mipim 2021 — not because it was the first one post-pandemic; rather because it was my first one ever. The event had been sold as one of high-profile figures, revolving drinks, ubiquitous canapés and exclusive parties. I had heard anecdotes about life on and off the stage at Mipim, and was ready to experience it for myself. 

“Are you in town for the Yachting Festival?” the taxi driver asked as I made my way from Nice airport to Cannes in the first sign that some of the wind had been taken out of Mipim’s sails this year. 

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In an average year pre-pandemic, Mipim, usually held in March, would attract more than 20,000 visitors. This year, the real estate conference welcomed only a few thousand to its a hybrid September edition and saw its grandeur dwarfed by the neighbouring boat show. 

The pandemic dealt Cannes, the glitzy city of festivals and conferences, a difficult hand. The city had thrived on this industry, making up for 85% of its income. Once the pandemic hit, events such as Mipim sank into a never-ending cycle of postponements and cancellations, costing the city an estimated €800m.

We might have turned a corner, though. “It’s better than last year, that’s for sure,” the taxi driver told me, adding that difficulties remain due to the reduced numbers of visitors. Despite some fires in the Var, he said, the summer has been good for the region, with tourists returning to the Côte d’Azur.

As he dropped me in Cannes, the Croisette was as one would expect for September: a general buzz of activity with a waning autumnal undercurrent. But from the languages spoken around me, most tourists appeared to be French or Italian, with few Americans and Brits. The Riviera, it seemed, had gone local. 

On the first day of the event itself, I moderated a panel on the Italian real estate market in Palais 1 of the Palais des Festivals, next to the auditorium where the Palme d’Or — the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival — is usually announced. Incidentally, the film festival also staged a tame revival earlier this summer. This was my first live panel, with speakers from the Italian Trade Agency, investment promotion agencies, advisory firms and the Mayor of Rome herself, Virginia Raggi

Afterwards, with my speaking duties completed and my nerves subdued, I got the chance to speak to other delegates. There was a strangeness and even a nervousness hanging over the proceedings, with business connections and corporate decadence in shorter supply than anticipated. This was not so much the hesitation of a first-timer, but rather that of an old-timer in a new, uncertain age. 

Still, I wanted to get a sense of the business community’s thinking as to the challenges we all currently face. Generally speaking, the punters were more interested in being back in the swing of things — being back at events like this — and less concerned with the unanswerable questions: are the disruptions of the pandemic largely over? What threat does the Delta variant really pose? Indeed, the casino next door looked like a better cradle of prophecy. 

In step with the city itself, the whole event felt decidedly off-season. The first day felt rather like we were already halfway through. The drinks and canapés were hard to find, as were top-brass speakers, such as mayors or deputy mayors. During the Mipim awards on the final day any attempt to pick up a complimentary glass of champagne was comically thwarted by the bar staff who would say that this was reserved only until the awards ceremony was over. The result was roughly 80 dehydrated suits loitering in front of rows of wet champagne flutes.

For as much as it failed to live up to the hype, however, it was both sobering and gratifying to be at a physical event, sharing ideas and perspectives with a host of investors, consultants, fellow journalists and industry leaders. After 18 months of remote working, it was a rare pleasure not to be attending a conference through a Zoom lens. 

When March rolls around for the first “proper” Mipim since 2019, and now with a dash of experience on my side, I will be back better prepared and less restrained. I only hope Mipim will be too.

Seth O'Farrell is fDi's global investment reporter. For any comment, you can reach him at seth.ofarrell@ft.com