Michel Loris-Melikoff, who took over as managing director of Baselworld in July this year, is prepared to take radical steps to bring the exhibition back to its former glory, which will not be easy with two of the world’s biggest groups: Swatch Group and Richemont making alternative plans.
The straight-talking executive has already persuaded Baselworld’s exhibitors and Switzerland’s other major watch exhibition SIHH to move dates and they will run back to back from the last week of April from 2020 until 2024.
That will be welcome news for retailers from the United States that have until now been asked to travel twice to Switzerland in January and March.
However, it may not be enough to breathe new life into an event that is seen by too many as a duty or chore rather than a pleasure to attend.
I am a big fan of Baselworld, but one of the biggest issues facing the fair is the city of Basel. And I do not just mean that ludicrous prices charged for hotels, meals, drinks and transport during Baselworld week, I mean that the city itself has so little to do outside of the exhibition.
I could not put it better than Mr Loris-Melikoff himself when he describes how we-traveled, affluent global citizens schlep to the Swiss city. “People who come to Baselworld are used to visiting cities like Hong Kong, London, New York, Paris, Berlin, etc., and then they come to Basel and they feel fucked and bored,” he tells WatchPro in a forthright interview that will be published in the January edition of the magazine.
Boredom is fatal because it sets the emotional range within which everything about a trip to Baselworld is assessed. The trip needs to be so great that husbands and wives — the great backbone of the American watch retail industry — look forward to spending time together on the banks of the River Rhine; or buying teams from the major multiples fight to get on the flight to one of the best gigs of the year.
This is not the case today.
Instead the trip is seen by too many as an investment of time and money they would happily avoid, admits Mr Loris-Melikoff, who wants to put the wow back into Baselworld.
“If you visit a great city and blow your budget but the experience is tremendous, then that is OK, but if the experience is shit, then you start counting every cent. That is what had been happening to Baselworld,” he concedes.
WatchPro put it to the Baselworld boss that what the show really needs is to be re-located to a better city. There are cities like Dubai and Doha in the Middle East that would probably pay MCH Group for the privilege of hosting Baselworld. That could cut the cost for exhibitors as well, and free up money that could be spent on ensuring the most important retailers and collectors come to the event.
If entertainment around an exhibition is as important as Mr Loris-Melikoff says, then why not look at holding Baselworld in Las Vegas, London or New York where there is never a dull moment.
The problem of hotels gouging people for one week because demand is so much lower for remainder of the year would also be solved. The biggest tourist cities have tens of thousands of rooms at prices suitable for every budget.
My suggestion is for cities around the world to bid for Baselworld like they do for the Olympic Games or Soccer World Cup. This move has the potential to re-invigorate the event and bring back the excitement that it so urgently needs. With renewed momentum, brands may move back to holding back the majority of their annual product launches for the exhibition, providing an extra incentive for people to attend to see the novelties.
Selling luxury watches, as Jean-Claude Biver once told me, is about creating irrational desire for a product that nobody needs but everybody wants. That means Baselworld should be a show business event, and that means it should not be held in Basel.