MUSINGS: The Future of the Watch Fairs

Fairs and exhibitions are part and parcel of just about every industry, from motoring, technology, furniture, fashion, photography, watches; you name it, it’s likely that there will be a major gathering somewhere around the world on a regular basis. For watches, any astute enthusiast will immediately know about “SIHH” and “Basel”, without having to give them their formal names: the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, and Baselworld.

For anyone remotely interested in watchmaking, it’s a requisite pilgrimage to attend one or both of these exhibitions at some point, if not regularly; they have been held annually, with Baselworld’s roots dating back just over a century, when it started off as the Swiss Sample Fair, also known as the Mustermesse Basel, or Muba, in 1917, with just 29 exhibitors. SIHH is relatively new, with the inaugural exhibition in 1991 with - wait for it - five brands. Today’s versions have grown tremendously; Baselworld has more than 600 individual companies in attendance, which includes not only watchmaking brands, but also jewellery and related suppliers. SIHH is more focused on the luxury segment, and hosted 35 brands in 2018.

Baselworld Messeplatz

One of the most instantly recognisable images of the Messeplatz, where Baselworld is held.

For the past quarter century, their histories have become inexorably intertwined on the watchmaking front; At the beginning, SIHH actually overlapped with Baselworld, such that those who were so inclined could make an extended trip to Switzerland to visit both fairs within a few days.

I remember quite well the excitement at receiving my first invitation to SIHH, more than 10 years ago; I had previously visited some watch manufactures privately, but it was something else entirely to have the privilege of attending SIHH, as it was well known at the time for being closed to the public, and that as a private individual, being hosted by one of its exhibiting brands was the only way to attend. As I later became involved with the watch industry as a member of the media, combined with my personal interest as a collector, the visits to SIHH, and Baselworld, became a professional requirement as well, which gave me a very different perspective.

Speaking to fellow collectors when I first started attending, there was very little awareness of the commercial side of these fairs. The fact is, both SIHH and Baselworld were, from their very inception, business fairs first and foremost. Although SIHH emphasized that aspect from day one with entry by invitation only, anyone who visited Baselworld through an entry ticket would know that getting your hands on any of the new watches presented also required, at the very least, an appointment with the brand in question. The best you could expect without that would be to see the watches in the display cases, and to, perhaps, walk away with a catalogue. I also use the past tense very carefully, because the present-day situation is evolving rapidly.

The halls of the Palexpo during SIHH

The halls of the Palexpo in Geneva, where SIHH is held

Let’s reflect on the business aspect first, which revolves around the sales and marketing of these wonderful new timepieces. Brands spend, quite literally, millions of francs at these fairs to provide a centralised environment in which they present their wares first to their retail partners, then to the media. Both are then tasked with making these watches available to the client, at the boutiques, and for the media, through their magazines. For the sales aspect, the orders placed by their retailers, which sometimes would be a wishlist rather than a firm order, would allow the brand to gauge the commercial interest in the products, and to subsequently plan their production levels and distribution strategy for the following months, if not a year or two. On the media side, we would be tasked with spreading the word about the latest creations, and ensuring that potential clients would know as much as possible about the watch before it ultimately landed in the boutique window.

This was the traditional model though, one that worked quite well in a pre-digital era, where lead times for both sales and media were considerably longer. It was also a time when both parties, retailer and journalist, would rarely get an opportunity to see the watches, or to even receive advance notice of what would be introduced, prior to the fair. Today, that’s all changed, in large part thanks to the way communication takes place to media partners, and to some extent, the evolution of travel itself. The brands  now traverse the globe in the weeks prior to the fairs, and take the opportunity to discuss their upcoming watch introductions with their retail partners, privileged collectors and occasionally with selected media. All this means that the main business reasons for going to SIHH or Baselworld have changed significantly. Brands have said that just a decade ago, they might have expected to take 70% or more of their yearly orders on site, within the week of each fair. Today, that percentage is down to 30% or even less. As such, the cost for the brands of exhibiting at these fairs is brought into question, since they seem to be generating less direct business than before.

The other consideration for these fairs though is for the media, and to some extent, the marketing aspect to the potential end customers. There is an argument to be made for asking the world’s media to travel to Switzerland to discover the watches in a centralised environment, receiving all the relevant press materials within a few days. Of course, this argument carried more weight when SIHH and Baselworld overlapped, as it meant it was one extended trip; today, the fairs are held two to three months apart, and therefore require overseas press to make the trip twice (one of the most common complaints I’ve heard from press - and retailers - over the years).

Maximilian Büsser meets the press

The fairs are also an opportunity to meet with industry figureheads; here, Maximilian Büsser make a media appearance

When all the expenses are added up, for all parties involved, the established model can be difficult to justify. Change, or rather evolution is required, and it’s here that the two fairs have taken somewhat different paths.

For SIHH, which is organized by the Fondation de le Haute Horlogerie (FHH), the transformation already started a few years ago, when the SIHH exhibiting brands were invited to participate at Watches & Wonders (W&W) in Hong Kong, in 2013. The aim of that exhibition was to bring the newest watches directly to the public and to the media in Asia, in a format that was reminiscent of SIHH, removing some of the invitation requirements and turning it into a general public event. W&W was, at its core, not about the B2B aspect of the industry; rather, it was educational, with the brand booths designed as exhibition areas with far fewer meeting rooms, in some instances more akin to brand boutiques where visitors were able to handle the watches. Related workshops and presentations added to the programme, and the age restrictions were relaxed so that families could attend.

W&W ran for three years before the brand themselves put a pause to it, in large part due to the related expenses (again) for hosting another large-scale exhibition, especially now that the digital world has made global presentations the norm, needing just a few clicks to make it happen. The experience with W&W led the FHH to make some significant transformations to SIHH, one of which being the introduction of a public day, where it would be possible to buy a ticket to gain entry on the last day of the fair. This option was put in place just two years ago, and has proven rather popular. This year, we also saw a much more concerted effort paid to the digital media aspect, with a revised and modernised entrance, where attendees could take photos specifically aimed at social media. An auditorium was also added, for presentations and lectures that were not possible in previous years. Details such as Internet access through the fair’s dedicated WiFi has been improving steadily, and long gone are the days where the fair’s security would check whether your pass bore the required sticker for authorisation to photograph on-site. The FHH have certainly recognized the value of SIHH as a showcase, not only catering for the business deals made within the offices, but as a venue where the watches and brands are on display, all wearing their Sunday best, for the world to see.

Baselworld, on the other hand, has not seen much adaptation, let alone modernization, certainly in the past decade since I’ve been attending. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not personally attend in 2018, although I have discussed this year’s fair a number of times with friends and business contacts. The feedback I received was similar from all: attendance has dropped, and there did seem to be more available space within the halls as a large number of brands and companies have exited; in fact, this year’s figure of 650 or so exhibitors is barely half as much as the 1,300 that were present last year, and a far cry from the 2,000 exhibitors it hosted at its height in 2011, right before a major renovation of the halls was undertaken. The number of exhibitors levelled off around 1,500 for the next few years, until the sharp decline for the 2018 edition.

Booths at Baselworld

The question remains whether the investment in large-scale booths is still warranted for the brands

The decline is largely due to the mounting expenditure for anyone to attend Baselworld, whether it’s as an exhibitor or a journalist. Rumours were rife earlier this year, and are continuing, about the immediate future of Baselworld itself. The organisers have acknowledged that they need to change, with a first concession taken towards ensuring that major brands will return for 2019 by allowing them to keep their booths as they are for the next year, built and stored within Hall 1. However, it doesn’t address the rest of the infrastructure, that hasn’t materially changed even during the renovation; the WiFi access has not really improved, the food and beverage options are very limited, and there is little done to attract more media and general public attention to the fair.

This is not to say that SIHH has gotten all the answers right, either. The fact that the organisers there have already started making changes is encouraging, but it remains to be seen whether this evolution can continue over the next few years. One concern is that if brands start moving in greater numbers from Baselworld to Geneva, not necessarily within SIHH itself but at satellite exhibitions and private venues, some of the infrastructure and accessibility issues will migrate with them.

Perhaps one solution is in the form of the reborn Watches & Wonders exhibition, which was held earlier this year in Miami, albeit in a very different format; held in Miami Design District, in conjunction with Miami Design District Concours and the Miami Yacht Show, the new W&W fully embraced the customer facing aspect by utilising the retail spaces already available within the area to showcase the new watches, eschewing entirely the B2B aspect of SIHH and Baselworld. It attracted the end clients, and also was an opportunity for people who are not already knowledgeable about high end watchmaking to discover the timepieces in a more natural environment. A similar concept has also been explored in the Middle East, with Dubai Watch Week, hosted by Ahmed Seddiqi and Sons, one of the regions most important retailers.

Watches & Wonders Miami 2018

Watches & Wonders in Miami took a very different approach to the traditional fairs (© Worldredeye)

There are certainly no easy answers to how the evolving landscape will ultimately affect SIHH, Baselworld, and the newer exhibitions such as Watches & Wonders Miami and Dubai Watch Week. I have no doubt that the regular pilgrimages to the cradle of fine watchmaking in Switzerland will continue in the long term; all parties involved will want to visit the country, the watchmaking  manufactures, from the large scale ones to the individual ateliers, and to experience the unique landscape and culture that has allowed watchmaking to develop for so many centuries there.

Although brands travel regularly, the experience is far from being comparable, and there’s something to be said for the build-up on an emotional and intellectual level to the large scale events we have seen so far. However, there are some very real challenges facing both SIHH and Baselworld that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later, particularly in an industry that has based its very fundamentals on history and heritage, and is not known for proactively addressing core issues until the very last minute.