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In the 17 years I have attended the Rendez-Vous de Septembre in Monte Carlo, the annual gathering of reinsurers, brokers and their clients, the banter among participants has not changed.

Some people perennially romanticize the old days of the 62-year-old Rendez-Vous, others trivialize the conference, and still others seem apologetic for attending a meeting on the sunny Mediterranean coast the first week of September.

I've heard these same comments so long that certain phrases have risen to the status of cliches. Some deserve to be debunked; some deserve to be confirmed.

With the help of friends and sources I have made over the years (a columnist can't be too careful about attribution these days), here are my favorite Rendez-Vous cliches:

* '"The book is smaller this year," a comment made every year, in reference to the published list of registrants. Some use this remark to suggest that the meeting is not as important as in years past, while others are implying they are fortunate enough to still be in business while the poor guys not in the book have lost their jobs or even their companies.

Actually, comparing the 17 registration lists, this is the first year that the book is indeed smaller, obviously attributable to the merger mania that has engulfed the insurance and reinsurance business. However, there are dozens of people in Monte Carlo who just don't formally register for the meeting, so I am not sure attendance was really down. Indeed, official statistics report that total attendance in 1998 was 2,322, down just one person from last year.

* '"I've never seen an empty table at the Cafe de Paris," or fill in the name of any other establishment where participants gather in Monte Carlo.

This clearly implies that fewer people are attending the meeting this year.

The reality is that if there is an empty table anywhere between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., it's because anyone who is anyone is attending a private, five-course luncheon in an elegant restaurant or hotel, not only in Monte Carlo but also up and down the coast of the Mediterranean.

* '"No one does business here anymore." If that's true, what are those hundreds of people talking about over Perrier and coffee at tables in hotel lobbies and cafes and restaurants, most toting briefcases? Maybe the papers exchanged aren't treaties, but a lot of marketing material is distributed. Since when is marketing one's company not business? And how about the files I still see opened at these tables? I doubt it's the office football pool. Some still use the Rendez-Vous to engage in ceremonial appointments on the half-hour, but for many this is a working meeting.

* '"I'm only here for the networking." This comment is appropriate for those looking for a new job, but it also underestimates the value of the market intelligence gained from contacts made at Monte Carlo and the relationships established.

* '"There are too many brokers here," or variations on the theme, as in "there are too many lawyers, or press, or tourists here." It's a matter of one's perspective.

* '"It's so expensive here, even the French complain about the price of a Perrier." True, I have heard the French complain about the price of a Perrier ($3.27), and the cost of cabs ($10 for five minutes), and hotel rooms and meals. Although it depends on where you stay and eat, I agree, it's not cheap.

* '"Baden-Baden is much more productive." This observation comes from those who think Baden-Baden sounds more businesslike or who want to negotiate contracts on the spot.

* '"It's too early to discuss renewals." This is a variation on the Baden-Baden theme, as the Baden-Baden reinsurance gathering is held in late October.

* "Business is as bad as I've seen it." The only years in which this was not a common complaint were 1988 for liability reinsurers and 1994 for property insurers. If business is so bad, how can people afford so many $3.27 bottles of Perrier?

* '"This will be my last year." Don't believe that one for a second. You will see the same folks next year and hear much of the same banter. I promise.

As Yogi Berra has said: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

Publisher and Editorial Director Kathryn J. McIntyre and Editor Paul D. Winston publish columns on alternate weeks.