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Watch Industry: Unification or Division?

Baselworld was once a symbol of global unity, offering a space for the watch industry at large to gather annually. MARTIN FOSTER explains that in a post-pandemic world, such a unity between Swiss and international brands may never be seen again.

We are witnessing the strong return of confidence of the luxury watch industry in Europe and globally as we learn how to handle the twists and turns of the pandemic.

However, travel to the industry trade fairs for both retailers and suppliers to see the newest products and latest collections remains, in some cases, fraught with the politically inept decisions taken by those in power.

The fairs and exhibition organisers are still sorting out how best to protect themselves, while the exhibiting brands, visitors and the media are still assessing what the future holds.

At the end of January, with only eight weeks to go, Watches and Wonders in Geneva formally confirmed it would proceed with the spray of scheduled promo events in Geneva from 30 March – 5 April 2022.

A revamped Baselworld was abandoned in late November when MCH Group management announced that “Baselworld spring 2022 will not take place” and that it had “decided to take more time for the launch of the new concept”.

We should note here that from the retrospective viewpoint of the retail buyers, distributing agents as well as the international media, Baselworld was a complete experience and an enjoyable event in all respects.

We should note here that from the retrospective viewpoint of the retail buyers, distributing agents as well as the international media, Baselworld was a complete experience and an enjoyable event in all respects. It had traditionally catered for all exhibitors, large and small, and generally provided the exposure, which is central to the raison d’être of trade fairs.

That said, it is the third consecutive year that the world’s once premier jewellery and watch exhibition has been cancelled.

The organisers at Baselworld know the world has changed since it first canceled the show in 2020 because of COVID-19, but the truth is you can read a lot more into the future of Baselworld based on the statement on the organiser’s website.

“This decision [to cancel Baselworld 2022] is based on the one hand on the experience gained from the Pop Up Event at the Geneva Watch Days and on intensive discussions with manufacturers and retailers.

“On the other hand, it takes into account the fact that it is particularly difficult to launch a new concept for a new target segment due to the renewed aggravation of the COVID situation and the associated uncertainty among customers,” the statement reads.

It goes onto explain that a MCH Group interdisciplinary team will “analyse the target segments and, in close exchange with manufacturers and retailers, make a deep dive into their marketing and transaction needs. We hope to come back to you soon with new and positive news about the future of Baselworld.”


Above: Crowds gathered for was to be the last Baselword in 2019 before the pandemic.

Ignominious end

There has been much written about how Baselworld came to such an ignominious ‘end’, or at least dire predicament, however this is now obscured by the nonsense of how it would or could be relaunched with digital meetings, on-screen touch-and-feel product launches, digital lunches, and 24/7 meetings.

However, as has previously been documented, much of the demise of the once magnificent event lies at the feet the city of Basel and it’s local businesses which treated the 120,000 annual visitors to the fair as defenseless cash-cows. They were gouged on a relentless scale, at the same time as the fair management mishandled the interests and exhibition fees of its clients.

Therefore, any defence of the status quo was thin on the ground when the disgruntled big end of town – Rolex, Patek Philippe, Tudor, Chanel, and Chopard – abruptly withdrew their historic support for the fair.

So, after three cancellations and the turmoil before COVID-19, resulting in the various walkouts by the prestigious brands, what does the future hold for Baselworld?

Perhaps that question has already been answered – though not announced – and a better question now is: what does the future hold for one, allencompassing international watch exhibition?

Rest assured if any version of Baselworld re-emerges at some future date then it will be a very different experience - even if for all the wrong reasons. That said, most industry pundits believe it’s most unlikely that Baselworld will survive the wreckage inflicted on this once fine, historical and significant event.

If correct, the Swiss should acknowledge the old adage: greed, in the end, fails even the greedy!

The international watch market will continue, and some argue, thrive without Baselworld, in a post-COVID world; but what might it look like? Well, for a start, forget the nonsense of virtual exhibitions and hybrid shows!

If correct, the Swiss should acknowledge the old adage: greed, in the end, fails even the greedy!

For a start, there are a number of smaller, more ‘exclusive’ events, which have emerged to fill the needs of face-to-face, ‘hands-on’ assessment of new timepieces, even if they provide only limited PR to help the brands to endure the uncertainty in a post-pandemic world.

A case in point is The London Watch Show with 84 exhibitors scheduled over two days in late March. Additionally, a third exhibition in Geneva called Time to Watches with 50 exhibiting brands was also announced. It is scheduled for 31 March to 3 April and is located only 10 minutes away from Watches and Wonders’ Palexpo venue.

Of course, these smaller shows are not on the scale of the once mighty Baselworld or the luxury focus of Watches and Wonders (SIHH), which takes over Geneva for a week in April. Nor are they intended to be.

However, there already is evidence that a Basel-like ‘disease’ may be developing in Geneva with some hotels doubling prices leading up to, and during, the Watches and Wonders dates.

Greed can be contagious, especially when unacknowledged.

This begs the question: is it time to get the Swiss watch brands out of Switzerland for their annual presentations of new product? Would the industry be better served to defocus on Switzerland as the only place to host the most important annual trade event?

Consider Inhorgenta Munich

For a start, it’s important to ‘divorce’ the industry from – what has become a predominant Swiss ‘sport’ – of financially gouging your own customers and show visitors each year, before you have sold one watch?

Accepting that there should be one pivotal event on which the global watch industry can focus annually, perhaps the attention should now shift to Germany’s Inhorgenta Munich Show.

Inhorgenta announced that it would shift its dates this year – from February to 8-11 April – to give it a better chance of proceeding in a far more benign period of global pandemic restrictions.

And herein lies a potential sleeping giant; Inhorgenta is perfectly placed to step into Baselworld’s shoes.

It is a Baselworld-style trade fair with the capacity of the same scale. It offers six modern spacious halls and is assisted by an experienced and stable organiser and management team offering ideal opportunities for both large and small exhibitors.

Better still, Inhorgenta’s April dates make it easily possible for the watch brands, buyers, distributors, and media to travel to Geneva for Watches and Wonders from 30 March – 6 April and then move on to Inhorgenta Munich two days later. It seems for once some useful logistical thought went into the planning.

There already is evidence that a Basel-like ‘disease’ may be developing in Geneva with some hotels doubling prices leading up to, and during, the Watches and Wonders dates. Greed can be contagious, especially when unacknowledged.

In the same way as Baselworld exhibited watches, jewellery, clocks, tools, equipment and all the associated branches of these industries, Inhorgenta currently does the same, albeit with less watch focus.

At the time of writing, there were 280 registered exhibitors for Inhorgenta 2022, which translates into a huge potential for new starters to register even in the short time before the April opening.

Inhorgenta provides the ideal landing point for the return of watch brands exhibitors who have been left stranded by the ‘closure’ of Baselworld.

Prophetically 20 years ago, the then editor of the prestigious Horological Journal, Timothy Treffry, commented in the February 2002 issue: “The facilities Inhorgenta has to offer are outstanding. With up to 165,000m² of contiguous exhibition space and 50,000 hotel rooms within 30 minutes by underground, Basel’s accommodation problems, in both senses, would be solved if it moved there.”

Certainly, the potential is now there for Inhorgenta Munich to resume its place with a strong and significant leadership role in the annual horological trade fairs calendar.

In ‘normal’ times, there would or could be another option: Hong Kong. Its annual Watch and Clock Fair traditionally held each September which could be seen as an opportunity to remove the focus on Switzerland, however with its recent ‘politics’, along with the impact COVID-19 is still having on the Chinese territory, the risk would be too great.

You only need to consider that the organiser of the Jewellery & Gem World (JGW) exhibition has announced that this year’s exhibition will take place in Singapore, not Hong Kong.

JGW is owned by the London-based Informa Markets and while there is no doubt that COVID has played a part in the decision to move country, one must wonder if it’s about testing the waters for future changes, given the geopolitical risks of Hong Kong.

At the time of publication, it had been reported that Hong Kong has the highest death rate per capita in the world - higher than London, Milan or New York at the peak of the world’s deadliest global waves. One in 20 COVID-19 patients are dying. COVID deaths have reached a level where Hong Kong has run out of coffins!


Above: 2021 London Watch Show
Above: Inhorgenta Munich

An industry divided

While the thought of Baselworld never returning is not something that people would wish for, the world has changed to such a degree since early 2020 that following three years of cancellations and half-hearted attempts at saving the show, it’s a distinct possibility that Baselworld will go the way of the dinosaur.

While the thought of the Swiss brands throwing their weight and support behind a German show as a step towards filling the gap for one all-encompassing show to replace Baselworld is a pipe dream, the industry must consider the ramifications of the prestigious and high-status Swiss brands continuing to go it alone – divorced from the wider industry.

It’s one thing for the pre-eminent brands to set themselves apart from the rest of the industry at Baselworld by being located in the famous Hall 1; at least it was done under the guise of an international event.

The demise of Baselworld could mean there will no longer be one annual celebration of the international watch industry but, instead, one celebration of Swiss (in Geneva) and another for everything else.

The separation was part of a celebration of the entire watch and clock industry and allowed everyone to be amazed at the beauty of what we do.

The famous US boxer Sugar Ray Leonard said it best: Within our dreams and aspirations we find our opportunities. 

Baselworld was the opportunity, however I feel its demise will have far reaching ramifications, especially if Inhorgenta steps successfully into the gap.

And if that occurs instead of a unified international industry we might see it divided; one separated by an 1,800 kilometre border physically creating two territories, Switzerland and the rest of the world.

While this has probably been how the actual market has operated for 100 years, at least Baselworld allowed, saluted and encouraged one industry, albeit with two categories - Swiss and the rest.

It’s for all the reasons above that I think there’s a distinct possibility that the watch world has changed forever. The demise of Baselworld could mean there will no longer be one annual celebration of the international watch industry but, instead, one celebration of Swiss (in Geneva) and another for everything else.

We just don’t know where just yet!

 

2022: CALENDAR OF EVENTS


 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Martin Foster

Martin Foster is a freelance journalist and Jeweller’s resident watch ‘guru’. Based in Sydney, Martin attends major international exhibitions covering the watch and timepieces categories.








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