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Life, death, and resurrection: Baselworld survives an execution

ARABELLA RODEN explores the reasons for Baselworld’s unexpected return – and why it wasn’t so unexpected after all.

A little over a year since its cancellation, the most venerable of luxury trade shows, Baselworld, is back from the ‘dead’.

As chronicled by Jeweller, the iconic fair had been in decline for several years before COVID-19 seemingly hammered the final nail into the coffin.

"The chorus of disappointment during Baselworld’s fall from grace was so deafening that it was easy to forget what made the show special. Its most priceless assets were the show’s atmosphere and the business connections made; both of which were eroded by dissatisfaction with costs and management missteps"

Costs rose, visitor numbers waned, exhibitors complained – and all were met with a perceived indifference from upper management and organiser MCH Group.

A turning point came in 2018 when major exhibitor Swatch Group withdrew all its brands from the show. A spate of senior executives resigned that same year, including MCH Group CEO René Kamm and Baselworld managing director Sylvie Ritter.

Then, at perhaps the worst time – while new management scrambled to rework the show – a global pandemic broke.

The inevitable cancellation of the 2020 show followed, before confusion over refunds led to a further exodus of support.

Even anchor brands such as Rolex and Patek Philippe voted with their feet, and it seemed all was lost.

MCH Group decided that new, drastic measures were required to turn the tide; in mid-2020, it changed the name of the 100-year-old show and rebranded it as HourUniverse, along with promises of a new digital platform and pricing structure.

In Depth A Complete Timeline: The rise, fall and resurrection of Baselworld

Unfortunately, with the pandemic still raging in the early months of 2021, the first HourUniverse – like so many other ambitious projects of the past 18 months – never had a chance. It was cancelled before it could even make its mark.

Still, the winds of change had not finished blowing. In a surprising move, on June 23, the show’s managing director Michel Loris-Melikoff wrote three words few expected to read: “Baselworld is back.”

But before we pop the champagne corks or crack open the kirsch, we should evaluate what the reversed rebranding means for the show, and the watch and jewellery industry.

Out with the new?

At second glance, the news that Baselworld will return – first as an August-September pop-up, and then in 2022 as a full physical show – is less surprising than it first appears.

Speaking to Jeweller, Loris-Melikoff explained the decision: “Our initial thinking was to rebrand the show and create something totally new.

“During the pandemic, we intensified our communications with the brands and stakeholders to identify their wishes and needs, and were both delighted and surprised with the confirmation of the strong attachment to the Baselworld brand.”

As it turns out, 104 years of history is actually worth something!

It took decades to establish the show and build it into the behemoth it became, and even its most fervent critics would agree that the Baselworld name remains synonymous with luxury.

So, why rebrand it in the first place, especially to the less memorable ‘HourUniverse’?

The chorus of disappointment during Baselworld’s fall from grace was so deafening that it was easy to forget what made the show special.

Its most priceless assets were the show’s atmosphere and the business connections made; both of which were eroded by dissatisfaction with costs and management missteps.

Many of the most important deals and relationships in the watch and jewellery industry were forged in the restaurants and cafés of that modest Swiss city.

"Baselworld’s mistake was to jettison an institution rather than adapt and transform it. Not only did MCH Group come to realise that discarding a name does not make a problem go away, instead it discovered that the problem was never the name in the first place"

Ironically, ‘time’ is the ultimate measure of a brand. A brand deemed valuable by its customers will become an institution over time, and even ‘institutional’ ones – such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Bulgari – must adapt and adopt brand transformations to resonate with an ever-changing audience.

The world is shifting faster by the day, and while international brands attempt to dictate trends, increasingly, they must evolve with them.

Baselworld’s mistake was to jettison an institution rather than adapt and transform it. Not only did MCH Group come to realise that discarding a name does not make a problem go away, instead it discovered that the problem was never the name in the first place!

In the watch, jewellery, and gemstone industries, memories tend to be longer than most; heritage, tradition, and legacy are an integral part of many businesses, and count for more than they do in, say, the tech sector.

While jewellery lasts forever, the latest digital device is lucky to last 12 months.

Far from being old-fashioned, the connection to the past informs the identity of these businesses and allows them to endure, creating an intangible connection that supersedes the transient and ephemeral of today’s consumer culture.

It took time to realise that the true needs of Baselworld’s exhibitors and visitors were not to completely sever the ties of the past, and bury the show for good, but to return to the values that made the former glory days so glorious while adapting the show for today’s business environment.

Saving the best

The Baselworld resurrection also offers a lesson in – excuse the marketing jargon – brand value.

The challenge for businesses, particularly in times of crisis, is identifying which qualities consumers and clients genuinely value about a product or service. Then one must invest resources into improving and promoting those qualities.

And like finding a new customer, building a brand from scratch is far more resource-intensive than retaining an existing one.

With its ignominious ‘end’, the flaws in the Baselworld model were made abundantly clear – and all-too-publicly articulated.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, as Loris-Melikoff attested, also shone a light on what exhibitors valued most about it and emphasised the strong connection they felt after years of attending the show, while clarifying what any new iteration needed to offer from a business perspective.

History is the greatest teacher, if its lessons are heeded and applied; and in an encouraging sign, Baselworld management appears to be focused on rebuilding the convivial atmosphere, reducing costs, fostering business relationships, and investing more in the neglected jewellery and gemstone sector.

Still, the question remains: can Baselworld – even a revitalised, renewed, and refocused one – truly be brought back from the dead?

Time will tell.


More reading:
Baselworld resurrected, HourUniverse defunct; new dates confirmed
The rise, fall and resurrection of Baselworld: A complete timeline
Swiss shows announce return dates
JCK Las Vegas postponed; Basel show in doubt











ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Arabella Roden • Editor

Arabella Roden is the editor of Jeweller and writes in-depth features on the jewellery industry. She has ten years media experience across Australia and the UK as journalist and sub-editor.

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