As executives in the $600bn reinsurance industry log on to video calls this weekend, they might be forgiven for thinking wistfully about Monaco.
They should have been gathering in the glitz of the 2 sq km principality on the French coast, where every September for the past 63 years talks have begun over the world’s biggest insurance contracts.
Officially known as the Rendez-Vous de Septembre, the conference is one of thousands to have been cancelled by the pandemic. While the dining and entertainment will be missed, some executives say the coronavirus crisis will prove the overdue catalyst needed to overhaul the industry’s most lavish event.
“The value of Monte Carlo . . . needs to be dramatically rethought,” said Steve McGill, chief executive of McGill and Partners, the insurance broker. “When you look at Monte Carlo in terms of an intimate location where you can gather 3000 people . . . and you can pretty much walk to any meeting you want to attend, it is quite efficient. But when you think about the carbon footprint and 3,000 colleagues coming from all over the world, how necessary is it today?”
That some executives are contemplating the future of the conference underlines how the pandemic has forced the business world to question longstanding assumptions, including how often face-to-face contact is needed. It is also a chilling prospect for a conferences industry that has been hit particularly hard by the crisis.
At the heart of the gathering is reinsurance — the cover that insurance companies buy to protect themselves from major losses. It is not just the biggest reinsurers such as Swiss Re and Munich Re that pitch up in Monaco to lay out their views on the state of the market, the outlook for pricing and the latest on the natural catastrophes that typically define whether the industry has a profitable year or not.
It is also a magnet for rating agencies, accountants, lawyers and consultants, all chasing new business.
The talks typically unfold in a blitz of half-hour meetings between reinsurance executives over three days in venues including the Cafe de Paris and the Hermitage, Metropole and Fairmont hotels.
As with every industry, some fear the absence of face-to-face contact will impede contract negotiations that begin at the conference and then typically intensify later in the year at another industry gathering, also cancelled, in the German town of Baden-Baden.
“It’s a sales business ,” said Rupert Swallow, chief executive of broker Capsicum Re. “It is very hard to form new relationships without the ability to meet face to face.”
Others point to the fact that the absence of a physical conference eliminates the possibility of a chance — and potentially valuable — meeting.
“It’s unique. It’s the only time in the year when you get most senior people in insurance and reinsurance in the same place,” said Julian James, chief executive of international insurance at Sompo, who has been going to the Rendez-Vous for 18 years. “The value is the ability to bump into people and have a spontaneous conversation with them,” he added.
For the CEO of McGill and Partners it is an argument trumped by the fact that much of the insurance and reinsurance industry has learnt to work from home successfully over the past six months.
“These sort of events need to be reconsidered and rethought based on the experience we’ve all had through Covid-19 and remote working,” said Mr McGill. “A hybrid event where some things are being done in person but maybe more selectively and more focused, and other topics are being done virtually, that could be a really powerful combination.”
He is not alone. Speaking at a recent event, Moses Ojeisekhoba, chief executive of the reinsurance business at Swiss Re, said: “Our industry is one that is built on relationships and those relationships are important. I think in the future we need to question whether we need Monte Carlo in its full scale or whether it’s a version of it.”
The scale of the economic disruption wrought by the pandemic is adding to the unease over a conference unfolding in one of the world’s wealthiest enclaves.
“Everyone is completely aware of the image issue — it’s not great,” says one industry executive. “We’re not tin-eared.”
Old habits die hard though. While changing or moving the event might appeal to many reinsurance executives, especially in the finance department, there are other hurdles.
“If you were starting from scratch, you wouldn’t choose Monaco because of the cost,” said an executive at one insurance broker. “But to recreate it you’d need real unity of thought.”
The pandemic may yet force that on an industry that has long trumpeted the value of meeting in person.