“And I for one shall dance on the ashes of your funeral pyre. Peace out”
Those were the closing remarks from Revolution’s Wei Koh; in his somewhat infamous Baselworld article posted back in March. The contents of the article could pretty much be summarised as a well-seasoned critique on the culture and practices found within the world’s largest watch fair – at least I think it was; I had to use a thesaurus every 10 words to try and figure out what Wei was actually saying.
I ended up deciphering the article on my final day at Basel during a bit of downtime which I think was probably the best moment to do so as I had a little bit of personal context to understand what Wei’s points were actually covering. I found myself agreeing with some of the topics raised as I had those very conversations on the matter with various exhibitors and press teams throughout my stay. What I found particularly interesting is that the overall picture painted of Baselworld could also be used to highlight the stagnation of watch fairs as a whole.
As someone who operates as a hobbyist and as an industry outsider; my interest of the macro watch industry tends to be a bit skew from the likes of marketers, business strategists and established watch collectors alike.
Watch fairs act as a proxy to interacting with the industry and give me an opportunity to get updated on the ventures of watch labels of all kind. Here’s the thing: I started following the world of watches just as the influence of watch fairs began to dwindle and global sales were in a slump. As a result, it’s difficult for me to benchmark contrasts of the “good old days” and the present. What I can do however, is share a few thoughts from my own personal experiences and conversations.
Dealing with the modern age
In the last decade, the activity of conducting business in watches has met the obstacle of facilitating a new scale of complexity that wasn’t expected before in the sector. With the advent of globalisation and the crazy catalyst that is the internet, watch brands and event organisers have had to take into account variables that extend far beyond the dated business practices entrenched within the two heavily consolidated industries.
The backbone of events such as Baselworld and SalonQP has pretty much been a monopoly of brand exclusivity and a relatively high and condensed footfall of potential clients and distributors. What’s been quite clearly established across the board is that this is no longer the main cause of appeal for watch labels deciding to be part of a particular fair. The internet has paved a way forward for diversity and commodification in outreach and I would even hazard a guess that Instagram alone has probably lead to higher levels of direct brand exposure and sales than participating in a fair such as Baselworld and SalonQP – at least on the boutique independent scale.
There is also the fact that brands (both holdings companies and independent labels alike) are paying a lot more attention to their investment strategies. I covered how the overture of Breitling’s relaunch in China under ownership of CVC Capital and direction of Georges Skern was a very well thought out plan to break into a new market and do so effectively – the fruits of which seem to be flowering quite well. Skern also commented how he was able to have private showcases in three different continents and it still cost him less money than it would have to have a spot at Baselworld.
Similarly on the boutique side of things Moser and Carl F. Bucherer have used online media to complement their presence in fairs such as SIHH and Baselworld, but have made targeted strides at expanding their distribution networks in Asia – the most notable of which is partnering with Chinese eCommerce retail giant JD. Ultimately footfall – or even lack of it – isn’t as important for watch brands as it is for event organisers given the option of alternatives.
Acknowledging that experience is a thing
One of the points that Wei raised in his Baselworld piece and subsequent follow up is the awful experiences the show actually offers for media outlets, brand partners and visitors alike. I was warned that Switzerland is an expensive country to be in, but I had no idea that there was an actual conspiracy to rinse out as much money as possible from visitors to Basel. Restaurants and hotels hike up their prices to extortionate levels (in this case ‘extortionate’ might be too kind of a word) during the week and this is carried out in conjunction with the management of Baselworld.
I spoke to a friend who apparently had their hotel booking cancelled a couple of days before the fair as it had been booked out to someone else paying three times as much. I personally ended up paying 127CHF a night to sleep on a bunkbed in an 8 person hostel room on the outskirts of the city just so I could be in relative close proximity to the fair itself (I checked the online prices for other dates only to see figures drop by about 60CHF). It probably would have been more cost effective to commute from Zurich each day but I ended up losing my money and passport for 48 hours before I arrived in Basel (which is another story).
Small watch labels who barely managed to get through the front doors of the fair were cooped up in a tiny corner of the les ateliers part of the fair – which in turn was already quite difficult to find. I was trying to meet up with the CEO of a brand I’ve been following; Fugue only to get lost for about 20 minutes because they were holed up in an area that I originally thought was out-of-bounds.
The press experience at Basel is also terrible, with the biggest gripe being having no proper Wi-Fi on site and no facilities to sit down and do actual press activities. I had to sparingly use my own mobile data to post brief updates though during my time at the fair and I wasn’t able to upload a single post on Instagram until I was finally at my hostel in the evening – not exactly ideal when trying to uphold the dynamism of watch blogging. The contrast was pointed out with Richemont’s SIHH who have dedicated press booths to carry out work and interviews as well as hi-speed Wi-Fi.
Know your audience
There is also the problem of identity and what exactly watch fairs can cater for: whether the management of fairs admit it or not, the reality is that they aren’t neutrally positioned and severely lack diversity. SalonQP is the example I’ll use here in that under new management, they’ve left their grassroots of showcasing boutique independents and have instead veered towards what the Watchmaker’s club described as “Bond Street regulars”. I’m literally writing this article the night before QP and the agenda for this year’s show seems to have isolated the core (to my understanding at least) of directly connecting watch nerds with beloved watch labels and has opted to veer towards the ‘one size fits all’ luxury lifestyle approach.
This can be simply interpreted as making the show more suitable for a new audience – particularly millennials and those not traditionally affiliated with the watch industry.
The isolation of QP from certain brands and the existing fan base has to lead to something of a quasi coup d’etat being led by the watchmaker’s club (Watch this space for a follow up)
Recent news articles and press releases involving watch fairs haven’t exactly resulted in the best publicity for the event organisers involved and the attempt to recover form bad PR can make it difficult for some watch labels to justify any kind of affiliation. I made a few memes of my own for the Baselworld exist story a few months back, though some much more established outlets published some very damning articles of their own.
The prospect of a healthy return of investment is rather ambiguous for small brands and the immense volatility means that holding positions at certain events could tip towards either having the benefits outweigh the costs or vice versa. The underlying macro story is a key component to facilitate confidence.
There is also severe miscommunication between larger participants and the event organisers. I recall a memorable press release at the end of March (Will need to dig it up at some point) from the managers of Baselworld stating that the CEO’s of their major partners were quite satisfied with the event and were “here to stay”. It was much to my amusement when a few weeks later it was announced that Swatch group was pulling out.
For something as large and significant as Baselworld, you can’t afford to have poor communication between your largest participants.
Making a direct conclusion on the future of events such as Baselworld and SalonQP is a bit beyond my depth. I’ve only been to Baselworld once and I have yet to experience SIHH or Dubai Watch Week (which are on my 2019 agenda). In the defence of Baselword, the recent press releases have been quite proactive in addressing the issues raised by various outlets stating that they are now working in partnership with hotels in the surrounding area to find fairer prices for accommodation as well as launching a media hub that should suit the needs of journalists and media outlets. There has also been mention of allowing smaller brands to take up the space that Swatch Group once inhabited – allowing for much more range in brands showcased. QP had a mini event with William & Son under Hearst some months back and it was an interesting taster on how the topic of lifestyle can organically blend with traditional watch-geekery. If the 2018 SalonQP is an extension of that, then I’ll be looking quite forward.
The proof of the pudding however, is in the tasting and we’ll have to wait until tomorrow for QP and March for Baselworld to see whether this is simply another case of over promising and under-delivering.