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The fight to save the world's biggest watch show

Baselworld is now smaller and sparser after several big-name departures but its new management team is determined to radically revamp the fair for the digital age.

The 2020 show has cleared one big hurdle: Baselworld's two top anchor brands - Rolex (above) and Patek Phillipe, without whom it cannot survive - have indicated that they support the new management's long-term plans and will return.

The 2020 show has cleared one big hurdle: Baselworld's two top anchor brands - Rolex and Patek Phillipe (above), without whom it cannot survive - have indicated that they support the new management's long-term plans and will return.

During the show, there was speculation about the intentions of three major watch firms, including the LVMH Group, which makes brands like TAG Heuer.

FOR the second year in a row, the big story at Baselworld, the world's largest watch and jewellery show, was the show itself. Last year, when the number of exhibitors dropped by 50 per cent, Baselworld was fighting for its life. It still is. 

All the leading indicators at the 2019 show, held from March 21 to 26 in Basel, Switzerland were down: the number of exhibitors was down 20 per cent to 520; visitors were down 22 per cent to 81,200; and media representatives were down 12 per cent to 3,300. 

The smaller, sparser show was a shock to many visitors. "Welcome to Baselworld Lite," the US brand manager of a Swiss brand said as I approached his booth. There is one huge difference, though, between this year and last year. This year Baselworld has a new management team determined to radically revamp the show for the digital age. They introduced some changes this year. The big ones come next year in a fierce bid to save the 102-year-old show. 

Whether the new team can do that depends on decisions that Swiss watch CEOs make over the next few weeks about whether to return next year. Show management is pitching not just current exhibitors, but the 1,000 that left over the past three years. As an incentive, Baselworld announced on the last day of the show a new price structure that will reduce fees for exhibition space by 10 per cent to 30 per cent next year. 

The 2020 show has cleared one crucial hurdle: the show's two top anchor brands - Rolex and Patek Phillipe, without whom it cannot survive - have indicated that they support the new management's long-term plans and will return. Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern told Hodinkee during the show that Patek Philippe will be back. And Rolex signed on for four more years during this year's show, exhibitors reported.

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The vote of confidence by Switzerland's two most prestigious watch brands will reassure smaller firms, who still rely on the show for a large percentage of annual sales, and will certainly be back. So will long-time supporter Chopard, sources say.   

But, for Baselworld to rebound, it needs to hold onto other top brands already there and lure back defectors. One measure of the problem is that only 85 Swiss watch brands exhibited this year versus 175 two years ago.  The decisions for players big and small will be based on several factors. 

Vision 2020+

Chief among them are the dramatic changes planned for next year. "We were in a downward spiral," show director Michel Loris-Melikoff said during the show. "The whole format of Baselworld has to be changed."

The new management's new concept is to transform Baselworld from a classic business-to-business trade fair into an "experience platform" for the global watchmaking and jewellery community. That community embraces not just industry professionals, but all interested parties, including collectors, aficionados, auction houses and more.

A video explaining the new concept, called Vision 2020+, was shown exclusively to exhibitors during the show in a presentation room called the "Blue Room". It outlines a number of innovations to come in 2020, like live streaming of events, seminars and conferences, new show areas for new products and exhibitors, and a multilateral, digital exchange platform for the community available 365 days a year. 

Baselworld will also offer new services to visitors, such as an e-concierge service, allowing them to book their trips to Basel through the fair.  Management envisions changes to the show infrastructure, including more open, visitor-friendly booth designs, which will be cheaper for exhibitors to construct and store.

More details will come later, according to Mr Loris-Melikoff. The 2020 show will be the first stage in what he foresees as "a three-year period of transformation" to reinvent Baselworld for the digital age. 

The cost factor

Baselworld is notoriously expensive for everybody who attends, but especially for exhibitors. It's a major factor behind the severe exhibitor erosion over the past few years. And a major consideration on whether to return. 

The Swatch Group, the world's largest watch firm, which pulled its 17 brands out of Baselworld 2019, reportedly spent 40 million Swiss francs (S$53 million) to participate in the show.

LVMH's four brands spend around 20 million Swiss francs, an LVMH Group executive told me. The owner of a medium-sized brand with a booth at the rear of the second floor of the watch hall told me he spends six million Swiss francs to participate. "It's a lot," he noted.

Baselworld is addressing the issue with the new, reduced pricing structure for exhibition space. Efforts this year to work with hotels and restaurants to prevent price gouging during the six days of the show kept a lid on prices somewhat. But many visitors remarked that, as one put it: "It's still Baselworld prices here."

Inevitably, the combination of Switzerland's strong franc and the surge in demand for hotels and restaurants during Baselworld make it an expensive trip.


Exhibitors will measure the costs against various alternatives to Baselworld.  Some companies, for example, held their own exhibitions in Switzerland timed to coincide with Baselworld.

The Movado Group, with its 11 watch brands, held a three-day "summit" in Davos, Switzerland just prior to Baselworld. Customers, distributors and press from 40 countries, 500 in all, attended.

Chairman and CEO Efraim Grinberg told me that he used to spend US$10 million to exhibit at Baselworld. He spends a bit more than US$2 million on the Davos event, now in its second year. He plans to hold his own event again next year.

Likewise, the Swatch Group held an event in Zurich at the headquarters of Hayek Engineering AG during Baselworld for customers of its six luxury watch brands. 

Meanwhile, at two hotels on the Baselworld fairgrounds, numerous small, independent watch brands set up shop in the hotel lobby, ballrooms and guest rooms. Observers estimated their number at more than 100 (more than the number of Swiss watch brands inside the fair!).

Among them was H Moser & Cie. CEO Edouard Meylan said it would have cost him five times as much to exhibit inside Baselworld than at the Hyperion Hotel, just a hundred yards away from the fair entrance.

Another D-I-Y option is regional exhibitions. Some Swatch Group brands (for example, Longines, Tissot, Rado and Hamilton) met clients and press at regional events in top markets this year. Breitling CEO Georges Kern is known to prefer to launch new products throughout the year at regional events.  Next year, when Baselworld moves to the first week of May, Seiko will hold a regional meeting in March in Tokyo for its Asian clients to test the regional option.

Will Grand Seiko and Seiko be at Baselworld for 2020? "It's a big debate in the company," said a Seiko insider. "The cost is very high."

Finally, there is the no-event option, adopted by most brands that have departed. "What would the world be like without Baselworld?" asked the CEO of a Swiss watch brand prominently placed in Hall 1.0, the main watch area. "The answer is easy: it's digital! Business-wise, it wouldn't change." He is a strong supporter of the show, and regrets that the Swatch Group and so many others have pulled out of it. But he recognises that most brands no longer need a once-a-year trade show to do business.  

Is later better?

Next year, Baselworld and SIHH have agreed to coordinate their show dates so that buyers can attend both shows on one trip. For years, many retailers had to go to Switzerland twice in three months to source product: in January for SIHH and in March for Baselworld. In 2020, SIHH will run from April 26 to 29 and Baselworld from April 30 to May 5. 

The decision has turned out to be controversial. For three reasons. One is that the later dates conflict with Ramadan, making it inconvenient for visitors from Islamic countries to attend. Also, some think the new dates are too late in the year. Moving Baselworld to May will cause supply chain problems for some and make it more difficult to deliver goods in time for the autumn selling season.  And some CEOs were disturbed that they were not consulted about the decision. Asked if he had been consulted on the May date, an exasperated Swiss watch CEO replied angrily: "NOT AT ALL! Do you think I have an interest in launching novelties in May?"  

Other CEOs said they were fine with the new dates. In addition to solving the two-trip problem, the back-to-back shows will focus more media attention than ever on the watch industry, they say.

One consequence of the new combined dates is that it has given new negotiating power to a group not accustomed to having much at watch shows. They are the small-batch, artisanal brands beloved by watch connoisseurs, but not traditionally by Baselworld.

In Baselworld's boom times, the show assembled them in a temporary tent (ridiculously called "The Palace") erected on a lot down the street from the main fair. Not anymore. Baselworld's new management wooed them and put them in a 25-booth space, called Les Ateliers, across from Hall 1.0, where the Movado Group used to be. They also created a new, no-frills, low-cost (3,500 Swiss francs per booth) space for even-smaller watch brands and startups called the Incubator. "We have many independents and want to have more," Pascal Béchu, Baselworld's new commercial director, told me.

That has set up a contest between Baselworld and SIHH. In 2016, SIHH opened its doors to independents; 17 of them exhibited in its Carré des Horlogers section this year. Some also exhibited at Baselworld. Others opted for the hotels.

With the coordinated dates next year, independents will likely select one show. SIHH, aware of Baselworld's lower prices, is expected to negotiate rates for 2020, sources say.


All of these factors are pieces in the increasingly complicated Swiss watch show puzzle. Baselworld wants the independents and mid-sized firms back, of course. But its fate hangs on the star brands with big booths in Hall 1.0.

Said show supporter Dieter Delecate, owner and CEO of Germany's Tutima Glashütte, located in Hall 1.1 on the second level: "It all depends on what the big exhibitors decide."

During the show, there was fevered speculation about the intentions of three major watch companies, whose "power brands" draw retailers, and whose yea or nay on Baselworld 2020 will impact the show for better or worse. They are the Swatch Group, whose absence left a giant space at the centre of this year's show; the LVMH Group, whose four watch brands (Bulgari, Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith) dominate the entrance to Hall 1.0; and Breitling, known to be dissatisfied with Baselworld.

Odds are that the Swatch Group will not be back next year.  That was the majority view of industry executives and observers I talked to. They noted that Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek said, in a Bloomberg interview a week before Baselworld opened, that the group would not return to the show. "There is no need for it anymore. They world has changed," he said. 

More evidence: exhibitors said that the Swatch Group Baselworld booths had been destroyed and recycled. Others argued that Mr Hayek would lose face returning after his public criticism of the show when he announced the group's withdrawal last July.  But others noted that many retailers were unhappy that they had to lose a day in Basel to go to Zurich for Omega and the other Swatch Group brands. Some clients did not go. Retailers also detected some dissension in the Swatch Group ranks about the decision: some brands managers wanted to be in Basel, they said.

Another factor: Mr Hayek had called for changes to the show and the new management team was making them. If he likes the Vision 2020+ proposals, Mr Hayek could return without losing face. 

Show director Loris-Melikoff has not given up on the Swatch Group. He noticeably preserved the Swatch Group's footprint in Hall 1.0; no exhibitors were in that space at the show. Instead, he created a Central Plaza, containing a restaurant, a new press centre and meeting areas. All of that easily can be moved should Mr Hayek change his mind. At the show's final press conference, Mr Loris-Melikoff said of the press centre: "I cannot guarantee it will be in the same location. You will understand why."

As for LVMH, odds are good that at least three of the four brands will return. Each brand CEO will decide for his brand. At show's end, the CEOs of TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith seemed positive about the Blue Room presentation, sources said. The one holdout could be Bulgari.

Expect Breitling to leave the show: CEO Kern reportedly has told his team that he does not intend to return.

For Baselworld, the stakes riding on the frenzy of negotiations now underway could not be higher. That was made clear in a little-noticed announcement that Baselworld's parent, the MCH Group, made on the show's second day. 

More red ink

On that busy Friday, MCH released its 2018 financial results. The group, which organises 74 exhibitions, reported a 6 per cent increase in sales to 522.8 million Swiss francs for the year ended Dec 31, but a net loss of 190.4 million Swiss francs. That loss follows a loss of 110.3 million Swiss francs in 2017.

Baselworld is not the only cause of the group's mounting losses. But it is a big part of it. "The downscaling of Baselworld 2018" was one of three factors cited for the 2018 losses.

MCH said it expects further losses this year. Ten years ago, when Baselworld had more than 2,000 exhibitors, it was MCH's cash cow. Now it's a cash killer. The MCH board has no choice but to be patient. "They told Loris-Melikoff he can lose five million Swiss francs for the next four years," a show insider told me. "They know they have to invest in Baselworld." BLOOMBERG

* Originally published by Joe Thompson on Hodinkee. Hodinkee is the pre-eminent resource for modern and vintage wristwatch enthusiasts.

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