SINGAPORE (Mar 13): Coronavirus hits Swiss watch fairs

As Watches & Wonders Geneva and Baselworld 2020 announce cancellations, the question is, should the show even go on?

Who could have imagined that the Covid-19 outbreak would succeed where World War II and the SARS scare of 2003 could not? We are, of course, talking about the postponement of Baselworld 2020 — the first time Switzerland’s largest and oldest watch show is skipping an instalment since its inception in 1917.

The announcement came hot on the heels of a similar statement by Watches & Wonders Geneva — formerly known as the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) — which would have celebrated its 30th edition this year.

Beleaguered by criticism over its spiralling costs, poor value and refusal to adapt with the times, Baselworld had hinged its success this year to changes introduced by a new management and a juxtaposed schedule with the increasingly attractive Watches & Wonders. Eliminating the need for stakeholders to trek to Switzerland twice in a quarter — SIHH was traditionally held in January and Baselworld in March — the new calendar saw the events organised side by side from end April to early May. With Swatch Group and Seiko Group cancelling independent shows Time to Move in Zurich and Grand Seiko Summit in Tokyo respectively, there seems to be a dearth in novelty releases this quarter.

Messe Basel, the venue of the watch show

Baselworld and Watches & Wonders have been rescheduled to early 2021 as the Swiss government imposed a temporary ban on public gatherings of more than 1,000 people, a necessary precaution as the coronavirus has been running rampant in neighbouring Italy. The ban is in effect until March 15, subject to renewal.

However, the rumour mill has been working overtime in recent months with pundits commenting that this might be the last we see of these monolithic fairs anyway. The second-quarter date displeased brands and retailers, who deemed it too late in the year to begin rolling out novelties.

“By postponing the show to January 2021, we have found a solution that enables the industry and all our customers to avoid losing a full year and at the same time reset their calendars for the beginning of the year, a period that is conducive to the presentation of their new products, new trends and order taking,” Baselworld managing director Michel Loris-Melikoff said in a statement. That’s one concern addressed, but — and this giant question mark has been hanging over the exhibitions for the past half-decade — is the large-fair format still relevant today?

Participants at a previous Baselworld event

The late staging date and coronavirus seem like timely excuses for participating brands to politely withdraw and experiment with other forms of engagement.

Breitling, for instance, immediately declared it would be absent from Baselworld when the dates were released while Bulgari was among the earliest names to cite coronavirus fears and pull out. Just last week, however, both announced they would be participating in the new Geneva Watch Days, a decentralised and self-managed event in late April featuring Urwerk, Ulysse Nardin, Girard-Perregaux, Gerald Genta, De Bethune and MB&F. Neither Breitling nor Bulgari are wholly reliant on Baselworld to showcase their novelties. The former has pulled off several editions of the Breitling Summit in cities around the world while the latter feted international journalists at the maiden LVMH Watch Week in Dubai in January alongside Zenith and Hublot. The overall triumph of the LVMH event proves that the luxury goods conglomerate has sufficient pulling power to go solo — and ready venues to do so with Bulgari’s portfolio of hotels and resorts.

The Geneva Watch Days is not intended to replace the major fairs, but provide an efficient alternative on a smaller scale. This has been the direction brands like Maurice Lacroix, Audemars Piguet and Corum have taken in recent years with intimate domestic or regional launches. The razzmatazz does not dim so many miles away from Switzerland; rather, attendees are treated to appearances by celebrity ambassadors and increased one-on-one time with the timepieces and C-suite spokespeople. This approach generates high value in brand image and immersive experiences, and manufactures may explore this path further.

Dig deeper and some pundits are even questioning the necessity for retailers in the age of e-commerce. “Watchmakers are waking up to the fact that authorised dealers no longer rule the roost,” writes The Truth About Watches publisher Robert Farago. “It’s all internet, all the time. Then maybe a visit to a dealer. Then back to the internet. Then data capture by the mothership (via product registration). Then B2C marketing, cutting out the dealer.”

While many manufactures are adapting to digital demands — Bell & Ross’ website, for instance, is easily navigable with prices clearly displayed and one-click additions to the shopping cart — timepieces are too tactile, sentimental purchases to migrate entirely online. And then there is the question of provenance and audience.

An overdependence on Asia for both manufacturing and market sees the industry taking a hard hit. For one, Apple Watch supplier Foxconn in Taiwan is offline, forcing the tech giant to attempt ramping up production outside China. This might push watchmakers to rethink these strategies, though supply and demand are expected to bounce back once the situation stabilises.

That said, not all manufactures might survive this long night as some independent brands lack the resources to withstand a prolonged downturn. They benefit greatly from the mammoth trade shows, leveraging their draw to tap an already present audience. Baselworld hosts the Les Ateliers section for boutique watchmakers but where the barriers to entry are too high, they simply set up fringe events around the fairs. At press time, the Geneva Watch Days suggests a cooperation between established and indepedent brands that might breathe new life into the multi-brand format.

Covid-19 accomplished what a devastating war and global epidemic did not, but the death knell for Baselworld was perhaps already sounding when it struck. What happens next year — a mere return, a resurrection or a complete reinvention — will set the tone for the industry’s approach in the new decade.