Sex workers banned at Mipim event in Cannes as industry tries to shed sexist and racist image
Under palm trees on the French Riviera, the property industry is desperately trying to shake the shadow of the Presidents Club, the men-only charity dinner at which estate agents and developers reportedly groped and harassed female hostesses.
The organisers of Mipim, the property industry’s annual “champagne, yachts and fun” bash in Cannes, have repeatedly warned delegates to “respect all individuals” and reminded the 25,000 attendees that “under no circumstances does Mipim register prostitutes”.
“What other industry on the face of the earth in 2018 needs to remind businessmen that they can’t bring prostitutes to an industry conference,” asked Jane, a 29-year-old delegate from Manchester. “That alone tells you how backward property is.”
While most property bosses have condemned the behaviour at the Presidents Club gala dinner in January, some of those closest to the event continue to defend it.
Harvey Soning, a multi-millionaire property developer and a trustee of the Presidents Club until it was dissolved in the wake of the scandal, told the Guardian at a champagne-fuelled beach party that “definitely nothing” untoward happened at the black-tie dinner in the Dorchester hotel.
Soning, 72, the founder and chairman of developer James Andrew International, said he still could not understand the uproar and continued to defend the all-male party until a PR man stood in front of him and told him to “go away Harvey”.
Soning traditionally hosts the most popular party during the week-long Mipim jamboree, but the James Andrew bash was a rather muted affair this year.
Coutts, the RBS-owned bank which has served the Queen and every member of the royal family since George IV, pulled out of co-hosting the party at the last minute and barred all staff from attending Mipim. HSBC and Bank of America Merrill Lynch also withdrew their delegations from the conference.
Chris Grigg, the chief executive of British Land, the UK’s second-biggest property company, said the Presidents Club scandal had revealed the “sleazy underbelly” of the industry and businesses needed to do more to banish unacceptable behaviour and promote diversity and inclusion.
Grigg said there were “a lot of dinosaurs” in the property industry and forward-thinking executives needed to work together to clean up the sector’s image.
He said British Land had worked hard in a bid to increase diversity among its staff but he feared that the Presidents Club furore may have put off more women from joining the industry.
The Association of Women in Property says female staff make up just 15% of the workforce in property and construction, and occupy even fewer roles at executive levels.
Filippo Rean, the head of real estate at the conference’s organiser Reed Midem, warned delegates that “attitudes towards equality, diversity and behavioural norms in the workplace are under scrutiny” and sent the event’s code of conduct to all attendees.
The code defines inappropriate behaviour as “any form of verbal or physical abuse; the use of depreciative or discriminatory language, gestures or actions; any form of harassment, racism or sexism; inappropriate physical contact; or any targeted comments which may cause personal offence to other individuals”.
Ronan Vaspart, the director of Mipim, promised “if we receive a complaint we will take action”. He did not respond to questions about whether there had been any complaints.
While the organisers explicitly banned prostitutes from conference venues, sex workers were frequently seen walking the beachfront Promenade de la Croisette. An exotic dancer, who gave her name only as Alex, said Mipim continues to be one of the busiest weeks of the year and “girls have come in from Nice, Toulon and Marseille”.
Alex, who works at a cabaret bar tucked away on a backstreet behind the five-star beachfront hotels, said more than 35 men she thought were in town for Mipim had paid for private dancers on Tuesday night alone. “Most are from your country [the UK],” she said.
She said in previous years girls from the bar were hired to work as waitresses at private parties on yachts and in hilltop villas but no requests had been made this week.
Tamsie Thomson, the director of the London festival of architecture, said the Presidents Club scandal had “just scratched the surface of the discrimination and harassment that women and other minorities are routinely subjected to in our industry”.
Thomson launched the “the elephant in the room” campaign to encourage women and others to challenge any inappropriate or uncomfortable behaviour and distributed pink elephant badges to raise awareness. The Guardian did not see any male property executives wearing the badge.
At least three events at Mipim were dedicated to women and increasing diversity, including a women in property breakfast on the beach and a “women’s cocktail” evening. The cocktail evening was co-hosted by Nathalie Palladitcheff, the president of Ivanhoe Cambridge, a Canadian real estate investor which cut all ties with Residential Land, a luxury London property company owned by Bruce Richie, the co-chair of the Presidents Club. Palladitcheff said women had to “stand up and change this industry”.