MUSINGS - Thinking through the 2020 Watch Fairs

I received a cryptic message from a friend in Switzerland late on the night of December 17th, asking me if I was still awake, and if so, that I’d soon be sent some interesting information. I would never have guessed that a few minutes later, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) and Baselworld would jointly announce a re-alignment of both watch fairs, starting from 2020. SIHH will kick it off on April 26th in Geneva, running until April 29th, before handing the baton to Baselworld, which will open on April 30th, and go on until May 5th. On top of that, the announcement states this this agreement will continue until 2024.

I’ve now had a night’s sleep and a few hours more to contemplate this news. There has certainly been an immediate show of support; in a way, this goes back to the arrangement that existed from the earlier days of SIHH until 2008, when Baselworld would initiate all the new watch announcements in March or April and would overlap with SIHH the following week. When SIHH was moved to its January slot in the calendar in 2009, it wouldn’t be long before industry veterans would pine for the warmer days of spring, which are certainly a more pleasant time of year for visiting Geneva. Then there were those who bemoaned having to make a long haul journey to Switzerland twice in the first quarter, as it was difficult, on a professional basis, be it for media or retail partners, to not attend both fairs.

Geneva Riverside

There is no doubt that Geneva is considerably more pleasant when the weather is warmer

Since 2009, the topic of whether SIHH and / or Baselworld would change their dates so that they would overlap again would pop up regularly, and I always felt that the success of SIHH in January, from a business perspective, outweighed the logistical and climatological challenges. The brands – sorry, maisons – would tell us that it made more sense for them to see their retail partners in January, as it gave them more time to plan for production and delivery subsequent to having received the orders during the fair. Baselworld was, well, Baselworld, seemingly immune to change, a cornerstone of the industry, and of all walks of life, for it encompassed many more brands with offers at every price point, not to mention their suppliers, and of course the jewellery brands as well.

Then, over the past few months, a seismic shift occurred; first, Swatch Group decided, en bloc, to exit Baselworld entirely. It was indeed a surprise, although with a handful of independent brands already having made the shift from Baselworld to SIHH in the form of the Carré des Horlogers, there was already talk of Baselworld needing to implement some immediate changes. It seemed that rarefied air at SIHH was becoming more appealing and was overcoming the gravitational pull of the sheer size of Baselworld. First, the suppliers revolted in 2017, and saw no need to even attend in Basel, preferring to have a separate show in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Then the Swatch Group announcement in July this year quite literally pulled the rug out from under the MCH Group’s feet. Sweeping changes in that company’s management were made, with promises of listening to the exhibitors, addressing directly the core issues that made Swatch Groups (and others) decamp, all to be announced in the near future.

When those changes were finally unveiled, primarily centred around one of the big complaints regarding Baselworld, where the city’s hotels and other accommodation providers would see a captive audience and brazenly increase their rates by multiples of three, if not more, it was difficult to keep a straight face when one of the key “concessions” the organisers said they obtained was that Basel hotels would not raise their prices for 2019. This was followed, a few days later, by an email to justify why this was indeed a positive point. It should not be a surprise then that there is, unusually, still some availability in Basel’s hotels for the 2019 edition; I can’t stress enough how this is an indication of the state of affairs in and around the Messeplatz. In previous years, I would try to book a hotel room in Basel for the following fair, almost as soon as I would be back in the office, and there would be no availability.

Basel Rhine River

A walk by the Rhine River in Basel has always been a welcome relief from the madness of the Messeplatz

Amidst all this, Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille announced, almost simultaneously, that they would be leaving SIHH after 2019. With all due respect to both of these brands, while it was still very surprising, it wasn’t on the same scale as the Swatch Group leaving Baselworld. It did, however, start some discussion about SIHH itself, and the relevance of the two watch fairs in general. Both Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille gave similar reasoning for leaving, saying that the fairs, in their current formats, did not serve their client base well.

At the risk of repeating myself, it is certainly reasonable to say that the fairs are not as relevant for B2B meetings as they once were. SIHH has already undergone some adaptation, looking at its infrastructure and facilities, with a number of the brands putting considerably more effort into their own booths, making it a much more experiential exercise, with less emphasis on the closed-door meetings with retail partners. In any case, preparations have been well under way for the 2019 edition, which starts on January 14th. In the midst of arranging the last few SIHH appointments, ensuring that the travel bookings are finalised, I certainly did not expect to be thinking of the 2020 fairs just yet, so the recent announcement was a major surprise.

Again, on the surface of it, there’s a lot of positives; we get to enjoy spring in Switzerland, barring any weather-related surprises (I remember a Baselworld that was considerably colder and greyer than anticipated). It’s as if SIHH threw Baselworld an olive branch, in one fell swoop giving it a lifeline beyond 2019, as there was growing concern about brands following either Swatch Group and exiting Baselworld entirely, or of a wholesale move towards Geneva in January. It’s clear that the effort of including the detail that the agreement runs for at least five years is significant, giving Baselworld some breathing room to make its own adaptations, perhaps taking a lesson on broadening its appeal from SIHH. Those averse to travel are collectively breathing a sigh of relief at making one extended trip to Switzerland in 2020. As I thought more about it though, there are some key details that it doesn’t address, and some obstacles that may yet throw some clouds on the horizon; allow me to elaborate.

Geneva City

A side of Geneva that visitors at SIHH have not seen for the past decade

Fundamentally, this announcement doesn’t address the basic criticisms of Baselworld, being that the fair is out of touch, exhibitors and attendance has been dropping, and the cost of the whole exercise, as an exhibitor or attendee, has risen with little control or oversight. Some added premium would be acceptable, but let’s be honest, this is not on the same level as summer holidays, where we expect prices to rise. We have options for our holidays and can choose other destinations or activities that are less cost prohibitive. Baselworld is more binary: either you attend, or you don’t. Even a couple of days, should you need to travel there from anywhere that’s not accessible by car or train, is an expensive exercise. To be fair, so is Geneva and SIHH, but having been centrally managed by the Fondation Haute Horlogerie (FHH), costs have been more digestible. Some of the independents actually told me directly that they were surprised at how much more affordable exhibiting at SIHH was, when all ancillary expenditures are taken into account, compared with Baselworld. I should add as well that the level of service and accommodation is a few notches higher in Geneva, which makes the eye-watering Swiss prices seem more acceptable.

Another personal concern is that it’s challenging enough to give adequate attention to the brands when the fairs are held over four or five days only. I’ve raised this concern relative to SIHH, which has gone from 16 brands to now 35 when the Carré des Horlogers is included. Baselworld is several times that number, even if the overall exhibitor numbers are reduced from its peak. Add that all up over a period of 10 days, and you will have more novelties introduced virtually simultaneously than ever before. I will be honest and say that either in Geneva or Baselworld, it takes me a few days post-fair to really absorb what I’ve seen, so the thought of having to do that with both fairs almost concurrently is somewhat daunting.

Combined with this is a very different media landscape, compared with just a decade ago, when the two fairs overlapped previously. Facebook was in its infancy, and Instagram wasn’t even launched until 2010. Social media was a way of re-connecting with long lost school friends and extended family and did not become the commercial and media maelstrom that we face today. Everyone with their mobile and its built-in camera can provide coverage, and it seems that a large majority do. Think back to the phone you may have had in 2008, and how basic its built-in camera and image processing were; you would have been hard pressed to make any kind of qualitative post (not to mention that internet connections were considerably slower and more expensive, particularly on cellular). Just imagine, with 5G being launched in several countries in 2020, you’ll get instant wrist shots notifications scrolling incessantly on your iPhone XI, Samsung Galaxy S11, or Google Pixel 4, or whatever is your smart device of choice. Who knows, maybe the Apple Watch 5 will have the ability to holographically project a mechanical watch as an overlay over itself, à la Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mask in Total Recall.

Then comes the logistical aspects for the brands and their retail partners. January was often cited as an ideal time because it meant that the watches that were presented then, would arrive on the markets before summer, and certainly before the end of the year. If the latest and greatest aren’t shown until April and May (remember, there’s the “vacances horlogères” in summer, where the entire industry goes on a state mandated holiday), when are we then to expect the watches to be available? I would definitely urge those responsible for these kinds of details to give this aspect some thought, starting from January 2019, rather than February or March 2020 when the marketing plans are being finalised.

Baselworld Hall 2

This entente cordiale between SIHH and Baselworld could be for nought if the brands and organisers do not adapt to a very different landscape

An additional detail is that this later schedule runs squarely into the traditional watch auction weeks in Geneva. While they do address a somewhat different audience, there is still a significant overlap, leading to a 10-day trip being potentially extended by another week, should those who bridge both aspects of the watch industry need to attend it all.

Along the same vein, and I say this with the greatest respect for Switzerland, it’s a big ask to expect even ardent watch enthusiasts to take an extended two week trip to attend both SIHH and Baselworld, unless they choose to focus on the tail end in Geneva and the early days in Basel only. This will only amplify the challenge of trying to give the brands their due attention, if we (and I use that word broadly, to address everyone who has a personal or professional interest in the watch industry) are in a situation to have to pick and choose carefully which brands we visit in both cities.

On a positive note, we have 16 months to prepare for when SIHH and Baselworld will join hands and lead us into a brave new world of horological watch fairs. I certainly hope that the watch industry will use that time productively to see how the above challenges can be addressed, so that the organisers and the brands can once again turn these into genuine gatherings driven by passion for these marvellous timepieces.