If it is September, it must be Monte Carlo, says Stacy Shapiro.
Time to pack at least two suitcases, organise all the invitations and meetings, get the airline tickets and head down to the reinsurance market's biggest shindig of the year. The Rendez-Vous de Septembre is a combination of fun and frantic business that goes on from morning to night to morning again. It is seven days of never-ending talking, eating, drinking and negotiating. Someone once described it as a week-long business cocktail party and that about sums it up.
Critics of the reinsurance industry's largest gathering believe the Rendez-Vous is just an excuse to have a holiday while pretending to be working. But for those people who have gone year after year, the novelty does wear off and the holiday-like atmosphere underlies serious business.
“Monte Carlo will remain an important precursor to Baden-Baden,” noted a senior London broking executive recently, referring to the reinsurance's second largest outing in Germany in October. “But fewer people will attend this year because there are fewer players in the market . . . Monte Carlo is a very efficient mechanism for buyers and sellers to come together. A lot goes on in Monte Carlo, and you consummate the deal in Baden-Baden.''
Legend has it that the Rendez-Vous started back in 1955 when three reinsurers from France, West Germany and Switzerland met at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo during their holidays to discuss their reinsurance treaties. The next year, the first official meeting was held. To this day it is the second largest gathering of individuals in Monte Carlo after the Grand Prix, with more than 2,000 professionals attending.
Walk up to Monte Carlo's casino during the Rendez-Vous and you will get just a glimpse of the hoards of reinsurance executives who attend the meeting. If it is a nice day, the outdoor tables at the Café de Paris will be packed with mainly men talking shop or standing up waiting for their next appointment to arrive. The lobby of the Hotel de Paris also will be filled as will the hotel's bar. Others will be walking to and from the Hermitage hotel, the Loews or the Metropole. Some people will be heading down to the Old Beach Cabanas where many of the European reinsurers and brokers hold court. Others will be scurrying to the harbour where brokers have hired yachts to capture their markets for a day's outing.
At lunchtime or thereabouts there will be a rush to some lunchtime affair such as the Bermuda cocktail party which, as the market has grown, has become a compulsory attendance.
Dress will be very casual - men in shirt sleeves and casual trousers, and women in summer dresses. Years and years ago, all participants followed an unwritten rule that ties and jackets would be worn until the afternoon, but that custom has not been followed in ages. However, both men and women do change into more formal attire - even black tie, if called for on the invitation -come the witching hour of 6 pm when the day's meetings end and the round of cocktail parties and dinners begins.
Some of the evening entertainment is spectacular. Brokers outdo themselves. Aon last year hired out the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel pool for a cocktail party and had Aon flags streaming everywhere. One year a French agent had a helicopter hover over the party with a basket of red roses for all the ladies during an all-night dinner and floor show. Reinsurers sometimes have late-night cocktail parties and dancing by one of the hotel pools. The municipality of Monte Carlo also holds its opening cocktail party usually behind the Casino and its black-tie extravaganza at the Sports Club, complete with floor show and fireworks.Dinners vary, depending on the people being entertained. Sometimes it is a casual night up at one of the bistros near Prince Rainier's palace in the old city. At other times there is a small formal gathering at one of the most romantic places on earth, the Hotel le Chevre D'Or. Occasionally it is one of those intimate dinners for 300.
As the years pass, participants start setting up traditional cocktail parties and dinners that are a must to attend -until the company is no longer there or has merged or the participant no longer attends.
Journalists like myself attend the Rendez-Vous for the gossip, some of which is printable. We also attend the formal conference in the middle of the week to which only a few hundred bother to show up. Why it is held when so few people actually attend is anybody's guess.
I attended the Rendez-Vous as the London correspondent for Business Insurance magazine just about every year between 1982 and 1997. As a journalist, I was considered one of those “hangers-on” just as brokers, accountants, lawyers and adjusters are considered by reinsurers. But the London broking executive I spoke to recently puts “hangers-on” in perspective. Business today, he says, is a lot more obscure and in order to strike a deal underwriters need people like brokers, actuaries and lawyers to be in attendance. “The meetings have to take place anyway, so Monte Carlo is a good focal point to have them,” he says.
Some of my most vivid memories date from that one week in September. As I was responsible for contributing a lot of copy, I needed to interview as many people as possible in the time allotted. Sometimes those interviews took place as people came through the hall of publications following registration on Saturday and Sunday. In the early days a lot of them took place by the pool. As time wore on, interview locations spanned from the Old Beach Cabanas to the stern of a yacht.One interview took place in a bedroom at the Loews hotel. It was during the tough market of the 1980s, and I was told by everybody to talk to this one London underwriter who had brokers queuing outside his door in the early hours of the morning. His company, I might add, has since gone into run-off. He and several people on the same flight had come down with food poisoning, which is why he was holding all his meetings in his bedroom. I arrived at my appointed time just as someone else was leaving and he conducted the interview very professionally although in his swimsuit.
At the very end of the interview, the underwriter got up and said that he had to change for a luncheon and took off his swimsuit right in front of me to put on his clothes; I just kept on writing in the hopes that my blushed face did not show. It was not until years later when I got to know this gentleman better (professionally, I mean) that I told him how embarrassed I had been. He did not remember the incident at all.
Over the years, as the market has swayed upwards and downwards, journalists have been sought after in Monte Carlo. Insurers, reinsurers and brokers have saved this week to announce some new merger, product or trend and journalists are invited to come hear about it. Sometimes press releases were slipped under our doors. Other times, we attended little seminars which often seemed out of place. Often the French market invited us at the end of the week to summarise the Rendez-Vous and bought us lunch at the Hotel de Paris.
Lloyd's held a few formal sessions during its troubled years. One year, the then chairman David Rowland attended, looking rather stiff in his suit and tie. One year I remember sitting in on a presentation on Superfund in the US conducted by a US law firm. Provisional liquidators also took the time to explain their defunct companies' position. All of these made useful copy. The stories I remember, however, probably were the tips picked up during dinner or in the early hours of the morning at the back bar of the Loews or Metropole, on a dance floor at some disco, or at a late-night cocktail party.
For all those who are going to Monte Carlo or are reading this by the pool, best wishes. Though you may complain about being there, you will have a great time and learn a lot as well. Do not let anyone put you off by saying it is not worth it. There is no question that it is. And you will remember the experience long after you have stopped attending the Rendez-Vous.
Stacy Shapiro is a freelance insurance journalist.