EXCLUSIVE WATCHPRO RESEARCH: What retailers want from the Swiss exhibition industry


With Watches & Wonders cancelling today, and Baselworld hanging by a thread because of the Coronavirus outbreak, it would be easy to conclude that the industry would rather they simply never happened again. Not so, according to exclusive research by WatchPro, which surveyed 127 owners and buyers from the UK’s largest independent and multiple retail businesses, and found an overwhelming desire for the fairs to get their act together and return to their former strength.

Although the research was done in the UK, the results are likely to translate to the United States. Recent conversations between WatchPro and major US retailers have unanimously found similar attitudes towards the fragmentation of shows, the amount of travel, expense and time they take, and the need for a more coordinated approach in coming years.

Well before Coronavirus emerged, the big two global watch trade fairs — Baselworld and Watches & Wonders Geneva — had gone through massive changes in the past three years, with both losing major exhibitors including Swatch Group, Breitling and Bulgari from Baselworld and Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille from Watches & Wonders. Now they are both facing the threat of total closure this year if the Coronavirus threat cannot be brought under control.


Baselworld, in particular, has been accused publicly by the likes of Jean-Christophe Babin, chief executive of Bulgari, of costing too much. “Trade fairs are outrageously expensive,” Mr Babin said at the opening ceremony of the LVMH Watch Week, held in Dubai in January. “This is much cheaper,” he added.

Swatch Group’s chief executive, Nick Hayek, suggested he was ready to be part of finding a solution to what he perceived as dwindling value of traditional business to business fairs. “I invited the executives and told them they have a big opportunity to change. The Swiss watch industry is booming so now is the time to make changes. All of the Swiss watch industry is ready to help, not just Swatch Group. But you must open up. You must do something now,” he urged in the summer of 2018 as he announced his group was exiting Baselworld.

Everybody appears to agree that the shows need to change, including the current management at Baselworld and Watches & Wonders Geneva, but the fear is that we will see too little too late at this year’s events.

Patrick Graf, chief commercial officer at Bucherer, is on the same page as Mr Hayek. “We had the opportunity over so many years to do things differently, but did not take it. Right up until now, we have had people paying for tickets to come into Baselworld, only to find that they cannot get onto the booths and be shown any watches. We come across as so arrogant as an industry when we do that. It is not how it should be,” he tells WatchPro in our Big Interview this month.

Retailers responding to our survey also shared their views in more colorful terms. “Come on – it’s time for the industry to come together, bash some heads together and build a single future show with ALL the brands exhibiting their products to the convenience of their clients – us the retailers,” one retailer suggests.

If the mood music coming from Baselworld and Watches & Wonders turns into concrete action, the shows are likely to build future events around what consumers want rather than the media and trade, which has been the case until now. If they get it right, the shows should generate huge positive energy, which will ultimately benefit retailers, but there will have to be compromise along the way.

WatchPro’s survey of retailers aimed to discover whether the state of this year’s shows was affecting their approach to them. The survey was conducted at the height of the Coronavirus crisis, which is likely to affect how they thought, but the results show a broader dissatisfaction with the timing, format and fragmentation of major events, and that is going to affect their attendance.

Only 14% of respondents say they intend to attend Baselworld as usual with the same size team visiting the show for the same duration as previous years. 41% are sending the same team but for a shorter time and 28% will have a smaller team for a shorter time at the show.



Watches & Wonders is a different animal. Only partners of Richemont brands attend, and they have all their travel and accommodation expenses covered by the brands. This means a lower percentage of retailers in our survey are attending, but it is likely to be the same retailers as previous years. Even so, of those certain to attend, 38% said they will be going for a shorter time or sending fewer people than in previous years.



The next part of the survey looked more broadly at retailers’ attitudes to the major Swiss shows, not exclusively this year, but over time. This is where the news gets significantly better for the exhibition organizers, because the majority of respondents say they are still important.

Asked, “To what extend do you agree with the following statement: The major Swiss shows are an essential part of my buying and business planning for the year?” 31% strongly agreed and 34% agreed. Only 17% disagreed. Conclusion: trade fairs are still a big deal to retailers.



The survey results were similar when asked about the importance of the trade shows when it comes to meeting key people and discussing ideas. Almost 60% of retailers agreed or strongly agreed that this is important to them.



Flipping the tone of the question around made little difference. We asked to what extend retailers feel the major Swiss shows are outdated and unnecessary, and got roughly the same sentiment. Almost half (48%) disagreed or strongly disagreed they are with the statement, although 38% said they were neutral. The good news for organizers is that only 14% agreed with the negative statement.



The strongest consensus came when we asked to what extent retailers agree that there should be one major Swiss exhibition. 90% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the option. There is no doubt that the time and cost of trawling around the world for months of product launches from all the brands is hugely unpopular.



LVMH might have loved holding its kick off 2020 event in Dubai this year, and it is fair to say that those that attended enjoyed a bit of winter sun in January and the luxury of the Bulgari Hotel. However, retailers clearly believe it would be a nightmare if everybody hosted something similar. Only 7% said they like the way all the groups are holding their own events in different locations. 82% are against.

Many retailers have complained to WatchPro about the changing state of affairs, sharing dismay at the amount of time they have to spend out of their stores and not running their businesses as they fly around the world at the behest of the brands.



Another complaint we frequently hear is that the trade fairs are irrelevant because retailers have been shown the new products before they even get to the shows. Some of this will be done by executives bringing around samples of the watches, but most of the time the information is simply fired over by e-mail. This year, because the shows are so late, a huge amount of product has already been announced to the press. About the only brands WatchPro has not yet heard anything from are Rolex and Patek Philippe, which have clearly decided to give Baselworld maximum support by holding back announcements and pushing their retail partners to attend.

As is so often the case, Rolex’s decision to hold back its news until it can share it in one go with its retail partners in one go is precisely what those retailers prefer. Our survey found that receiving information from the brands digitally is not appreciated. Only one in ten of the retailers responding to the survey say they want information digitally. The rest, exhibition organizers will be overjoyed to year, want to see it in person.



Finally, since the survey is broadly about how brands should market themselves to retailers, we asked what media sources they value most when it comes to staying updated on news, new products and information of value to their business.

We are delighted to learn that over 90% of the retailers surveyed said they use WatchPro, matched only by social media and miles ahead of titles like Hodinkee, GQ and Esquire.

We thank you.


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