The speculation has been circling for weeks, months even, about the now confirmed cancellations of Baselworld and Watches & Wonders (aka SIHH) for 2020 as the Swiss ramp up their collective defenses against the spread of COVID-19. Time To Move—the big Swatch Group to-do—was the first to fall, and the move clearly set the tone for further cancellations. From there came a slow downward spiral of backing out, of fear mongering, sensationalist headline writing, and far too many tasteless jokes and memes about masks and Mexican beer, but what (if anything) does this really mean for the Swiss watch industry as a whole? Rather than running screaming to alert the king with Henny Penny and Loosey Goosey over a dropped acorn, we thought it best to take a look at the bigger picture here.
The first argument that circulates is how these trade shows ‘energize’ the watch industry. Sure, a slew of new releases in a short period of time (regardless of the fair at hand) gets enthusiasts and collectors talking, salivating, or cursing depending on the releases in question. Historically March/April (based on the old schedule) is full of buzz and excitement, but does that really keep the industry moving? The reality of the matter is the bulk of the watches launched don’t actually hit retail until late Q3 or Q4; sometimes brands even struggle to stock their retailers before the holiday shopping season. When these watches finally make it to the retail market, the buzz and excitement is long gone. Because of the volume and immediacy of digital media, we’ve all moved on to the 20+ ‘next latest and greatest’ reports, and really only the hero pieces of each year still have people banging on their local retailer’s doors.
Further to this, regardless of industry, the trade show model is as archaic as it is ineffective in its traditional form. Show footprints are massive, appointments run back-to-back on 30-minute intervals, and with each brand trying to present 20+ new models at a time, anything other than a hero piece is lost in the haze of horological over-saturation and sleep deprivation. Whether you’re a member of the press, or a retailer looking to restock its showroom for the new year, those fleeting moments of face time just aren’t enough for a brand to make an impression.
This is exactly why ours and other industries are starting to move away from big trade shows in general, instead favoring the regional trunk show model, and/or spending more time out in the field with targeted client interaction. Given the outlay of cash required to host a proper booth at Baselworld or Watches & Wonders (for context, Swatch group reported a total spend of CHF 40M during their last participation, and CHF 20M for the four LVMH watch brands), dropping the shows leaves brands with a significant annual budget to get some direct face time with retailers, media, and collectors that they wouldn’t get from a standard trade show appointment. Even in the case of newer and much smaller brands, Monta Watches for example, not having to spend north of $20k on the fair does free up budget for smaller regional events. That said, There’s yet to be any word from Baselworld executives about how or if this year’s payments for fair fees will be reimbursed…
The other thing to consider is the simple fact that there are other brands out there that have been surviving just fine—flourishing even—after departing the trade show model. Bremont and Breitling have been out of the traditional show pool for several years now, and neither brand has been showing any signs of slowing down. Swatch Group also dropped Basel last year, and between their own Time To Move show in Zurich and a smattering of regional launch events seem relatively unfazed. Granted, Bremont invested significantly in their own London and NYC events, and Breitling is under new leadership that seems to be pushing the brand in a strong direction, so we cannot objectively evaluate based on the lack of trade shows alone. That said, with several test cases in the field, there’s little doubt that watch brands are able to survive without the long-standing trade show business model.
The unfortunate piece of the puzzle here is the group of brands that are most likely to suffer on account of the 2020 trade show implosion—those brands are divided into two distinct camps, and putting things bluntly, only one of two groups are worthy of any kind of sympathy. That group includes the boundary-pushing indie brands that are just starting to forge their own path in watchmaking, or who have been in business for a while but have yet to crack into the mainstream enthusiast consciousness. I’m talking about outfits like Anordain, Genus Watches, C. Purnell, Nord Zeitmaschine, Torsti Laine, and countless others that gamble on renting a tiny 5×5 table in the back corner of Baselworld, or who manage to share a small corner of the independent brand section with the help of a friendly counterpart. These brands rely on Baselworld, for the simple fact that at one point or another journalists and retailers (hopefully) find a moment of free time to explore the show floor in between appointments. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been introduced to new brands on account of these gaps, and unfortunately these small operations don’t have the luxury of being able to pick up and tour Europe or North America—they all have watches that need building, and don’t have the luxury of PR/marketing support.
On the flip side, there are a good number of Swiss watch brands that continue to seem unable of ‘getting with the times’, so to speak. I’m not going to name names, but you know who they are. Brands that are slowly disappearing from more and more ADs. Brands with social media accounts full of stock studio images from their product pages and nothing else. Brands where you see one of their pieces from a decade ago, making you think ‘are those guys still around?’. They have no presence in the collective watch-loving consciousness other than having a booth at Basel (as always), and if they’ve been unable to shift brand perception with the fairs still in place, the loss of Baselworld is likely to see their demise. We just saw RJ Watches (Romain Jerome, formerly) file for bankruptcy this past week—the difference there is they were actually trying, but the product just wasn’t what the market wants. For these other stagnant, middle-of-the-road watch brands, we finally have a proper catalyst for change—either you try a new business approach, or you implode—it’s that simple.
So what comes next?— That’s really what we’re all left to wonder, but the reality of the matter is that it’s a game of speculation. Will the industry really suffer due to the lack of two trade shows? I doubt it. We are already destined to see lower-than-expected sales figures on a global scale, not on account of the shows, but rather due to the hit that the Asian market is already taking thanks to both COVID-19 and political instability and protesting in Hong Kong. We will see an increased appearance from brands in regional markets to make up for their inability to showcase to retailers and press at the fairs. Aside from this, it’s really just business as usual for now. There are also plenty more fairs to come—Watchtime LA, Watchtime NYC, MicroLuxe, and Windup are all still in the calendar. There will be new watches—some we will love, some we will hate—and the world will go on. It will take effort and individual thought to not get swept up in the hysteria and ‘doom and gloom’ mentailty, but remember it’s never too late to turn back from Foxey Loxey’s den. The watch industry has survived crisis before, and it’ll no doubt survive a few more.
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