The Future of Watch Expos, Big and Small

As budgets blow out and tensions rise, watch expos are evolving from their tried-and-tested template.

Article by Luke Benedictus

Pre-pandemic Baselworld, the annual watch and jewellery fair that began in 1917. Photography courtesy Baselworld.Pre-pandemic Baselworld, the annual watch and jewellery fair that began in 1917. Photography courtesy Baselworld.

For more than a century, Baselworld ran like clockwork. The annual watch and jewellery fair began in 1917 under the name Schweizer Mustermesse Basel and continued through world wars and all manner of social upheavals. In recent times, the Swiss city on the banks of the Rhine has been invaded every year by scores of brand reps, buyers, journalists and up to 100,000 members of the public. Packs of media thronged Basel to report on the unveiling of new timepieces and to get an overview of the direction the watch industry as a whole was heading in.

For brands, meanwhile, Baselworld presented a unique business and PR opportunity: a chance to meet retailers and press from all over the world at a single event. In short, if you were a watch company with global aspirations then attendance was almost compulsory — in 2008, some 2,087 exhibitors showed their wares. But over the past decade, Baselworld gradually lost its lustre. Today, having not run for two years, the world’s biggest and oldest watch fair looks to have finally run out of time.

The beginning of the end came in July 2018, when the Swatch Group — the world’s largest watch company and home to brands including Omega, Blancpain, Longines and more — announced it was pulling out of Baselworld. The next year, Breitling, Seiko and Grand Seiko followed suit. There’s no doubt these high-profile departures were extremely damaging. Yet it’s possible the watch fair may have survived them had it not been for the way it handled a certain global pandemic.

Baselworld 2020 had to be cancelled due to Covid-19. According to reports, organisers proceeded to inform exhibitors that they were not contractually entitled to a full refund. It’s said that Baselworld offered to carry over 85 per cent of reservation costs to cover fees for the following year’s fair, with the remaining 15 per cent to be retained by the organisers and put towards out-of-pocket costs from the 2020 cancellation. For many brands already starting to question their involvement, this was fighting talk.

It’s said that Hubert J du Plessix, the director of investments and logistics at Rolex, who is also the president of the Baselworld exhibitors committee, wrote a letter to organisers pleading for better terms for everyone. He warned that if brands were not refunded, they would not participate in future events, which could spell the end of Baselworld. These proved to be prophetic words. With refunds still not forthcoming, Baselworld received a hammer blow as two of the watch world’s most powerful brands — Rolex and Patek Philippe — pulled out, as did Chopard, Chanel and Tudor. The death knell came shortly afterwards as LVMH’s watch stable did the same.

The refund wrangle was apparently the last straw for many brands, particularly the smaller exhibitors who relied on the trade show to fill their annual orders and who might have lacked the cash reserves to absorb such a hefty investment loss. But even for companies that are cashed-up, Baselworld was a major financial drain. The Swatch Group, for example, was reportedly spending about $67 million to participate each year due to a mountain of costs including booth space hire, lodging, flying in staff and client entertainment.

The painful outlay wasn’t limited to exhibitors. During the fair, visitors were forced to stomach outrageous price hikes as local restaurants and hotels exploited the captive audience. Attending the watch fair as a journalist between 2012 and 2019, I once ordered a starter at a restaurant — a handful of asparagus spears with hollandaise sauce — that cost the equivalent of $70. Even Baselworld’s managing director, Michel Loris-Melikoff, conceded the city had become inhospitable in a 2019 interview with The New York Times. “Hotels added margins of 300 to 500 per cent during Baselworld,” he said. “This is not sane.”

On top of these monstrous costs, brands were also beginning to question Baselworld’s relevance. Digital channels are increasingly being used for wholesale orders and disseminating press information, while social media has become a proven way to reach consumers. Covid merely accelerated the acceptance of all things digital. In that context, Baselworld’s head-spinning price of entry was more unpalatable than ever.

Meanwhile, brands had also begun to consider strategic alternatives. After all, if you release a new collection at the same time as hundreds of other brands, it’s easy for your work to get lost in the noise. Companies started to monopolise the spotlight with individual showcases. The Swatch Group experimented with its own Time to Move event, while Breitling and Grand Seiko launched individual summits. This year saw the third LVMH Watch Week, which featured the conglomerate’s key watch brands: TAG Heuer, Hublot, Bulgari and Zenith.

Sadly, LVMH’s plans to hold a real-world event in Geneva was ultimately foiled by the advent of Omicron. But despite being forced into a digital- only format, LVMH Watch Week featured a host of interesting timepieces that — given the lack of competitors — secured the time and space to shine. These more tightly curated events clearly have their value. And yet anyone who has experienced the heady madness of Baselworld might also wonder if, for all its excess, something has been lost with its demise. It was an attention-grabbing extravaganza — a concerted show of strength and a focal point for the watch industry at large.

However, it seems that smaller brand showcases and larger fairs may not be mutually exclusive. The brands from LVMH Watch Week will also exhibit at Watches & Wonders, a fair that now includes most of the big brands — Rolex, Patek et al — with the conspicuous exception of the Swatch Group. Whether the major trade shows and more bespoke events will continue to coexist long-term remains to be seen. But hopefully no-one will have to pay $70 for a plate of asparagus ever again.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 30 of T Australia with the headline:
“Fair Trade”
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