Baselworld is not officially dead for 2021, but with virtually every Hall 1.0 and 1.1 exhibitor now committed to present their watches elsewhere, obituaries have already been written.
WatchPro contacted watch retailers and writers in the UK and United States immediately after the news broke that Rolex, Patek Philippe, Tudor, Chopard and Chanel were exiting, and found there are plenty of fond memories for veterans attending the century-old show for decades mixed with enthusiasm that there will be a globally important exhibition in Geneva in early April.
Mark Toulson, a man with one of the biggest checkbooks in the industry as head of watch buying for The Watches of Switzerland Group, has been a staunch fan of Baselworld for three decades, but looks forward to a new chapter for the industry as the center of gravity switches to Geneva in April 2021.
“I’ve probably done around 30 years of Baselworld and its always been one of the most enjoyable parts of my job as a buyer. Having most of the brands in one place for a concentrated period of time allows you to see the trends, meet people from other retailers from the UK and across the world but much more importantly handle the product and make a judgement on it.
“From that perspective it didn’t matter to me whether the Fair was in Basel or Basildon [a small town 30 miles East of London] as me and my team were there to do a job. That said, I do have fond memories of Basel in terms the excitement of going, queuing up at the turnstiles on Day 1 of the Fair and whole sense of anticipation of seeing the new watches. I won’t miss the travel back and forth to our hotel, or the prices for taxis, rooms and meals though.
“The prices were obscene and there was an undeniable sense of being ripped off by the city of Basel. It also sounds very much like the brands were unhappy with the organization and prices the MCH Group were charging too and last year’s Basel, without Swatch Group was a very, very disappointing experience,” Mr Toulson says.
As head of buying for one of the world’s largest multibrand watch retailers, Mr Toulson has resolutely defended the role of large exhibitions where he can meet other executives and compare dozens of collections.
“That there is now to be one big Fair in Geneva in April (Swatch and Breitling probably excluded) is fantastic news and I really hope it is the start of a new tradition that will last for years. I don’t subscribe to the view that trade fairs are a relic of the past and that local market mono brand events are better. That’s just a personal opinion obviously but the opportunity to see the majority of brands in one place at one time is a locus point for the year and establishes the business calendar for the next twelve months. I hope its successful. I certainly think the uncertainty over the last couple of years has been unwelcome and that Patek Philippe and Rolex have shown great leadership here in uniting most of the industry around a common date and location for 2021. Good for them and good for the industry as a whole,” he concludes.
Hank Siegel, CEO of Hamilton Jewelers, which has luxury showrooms in Princeton, New Jersey and Palm Beach, Florida, has been attending Baselworld since 1986, and recalls some defining moments in his career taking place in and around the show.
“It is sad for me, as an industry veteran and as a fine jeweler to see this take place, as many of my most special memories from my career revolve around shared experiences at Baselworld,” he recalls. “Like so many others, through most of my career I genuinely looked forward to attending annually, visiting with colleagues, connecting with the worldwide industry, enjoying the charm of Basel, and of course seeing new product introductions,” he adds.
As a major jeweler as well as a watch retailer, Hamilton Jewelers found it useful having jewelry, watches and equipment in one place. “I enjoyed having the opportunity to visit with a myriad of fine workshops who have done jewelry production work for our firm, and to have the opportunity to search for rare and unusual gemstones and fine jewels for our clients, and seek new equipment for our workshops, which were for us at Hamilton an essential component of the fair,” he describes.
Mr Siegel hints that the city of Basel is as much to blame as MCH Group, the owner of the once mighty Baselworld, for the current crisis. “How Baselworld essentially abdicated that role will be debated, but in any business, the customer is king and it is readily apparent that the show as well as the city of Basel – from the hotels to the restaurants to the taxi companies and more, lost sight of that,” he suggests.
Geneva has a golden opportunity to being the industry back together, and remind the world about the excitement the Swiss watch industry can create. Mr Siegel welcomes the timing of Watches & Wonders and the Rolex-anchored show in early April (no date has yet been confirmed). “April is well suited to the industry and to us as fine retailers, allowing for a transition from the prior calendar year, and hopefully for introductions to be presented for spring and fall. I am also happy for one period of time to visit Geneva for all of our watch brand appointments, and look forward to the industry’s new ‘movement’ to a consolidated fair schedule, putting the customer first, generating positive excitement about new introductions and creativity, and uniting for the betterment of all involved in the sector – as we need it as an industry,” he urges.
The world’s media shares the view that Baselworld has been an important rallying point for the watch industry, and hopes that Geneva can bring that back.
Bill Prince, deputy editor of GQ in the United Kingdom and the title’s resident watch specialist, remembers the best of days.
“Whatever the naysayers felt about its amenities, the convening power of Baselworld was second to none while so many brands chose to exhibit there. However, with the expansion of the watch calendar, and in particular the desire of brands to exhibit new pieces in an environment of their choosing, it was inevitable that the trade fair model would suffer. I for one will miss Basel, and in particular, my ‘stolen hour’ at the Fondation Beyeler. But, on balance, the opportunity to see many more brands in and around Geneva at the same moment will be considerably more time efficient and therefore cost effective. I am certain that the FHH will create a very powerful moment; one which the entire watch industry can support,” says Mr Prince.
In the United States, Ariel Adams, founder and editor of aBlogtoWatch, suggests Baselworld has become a proxy for wider battles and difficulties for the Swiss watch industry. “Baselworld and other watch trade shows are one of the current battlegrounds — and the brands who exhibit there continue to ask the question “am I getting my money’s worth?” In better times the question was easier, since the value of Baselworld visibility and prestige was real. As the world and the watch industry tightens its belt, collectively managers are re-evaluating many of their traditional expenses — Baselworld being a not insignificant one. Indeed, if attending the Baselworld trade show was not as formidable a financial investment, much of this hoopla over the cancellation of the show would likely have been avoided,” he says.
With 44 Baselworlds under his belt, David Andrews, chief executive of the iconic Weir & Sons in Dublin, Ireland, has more experience of the show than any other executive responding to WatchPro. “Basel was very important to Weir & Sons,” he says. “I attended for 44 years on the trot. I was a great fan.”
But even with this much history and affection for the show, Mr Andrews concedes that the seeds of its demise were sown long ago. “In recent years I got more and more dismayed by the ripoff attitude of Basel city, the hotels and the fair itself. The news that the big players have pulled the plug came as a shock, But it is the correct decision for suppliers and retailers. I think April is a better time to hold the fair. January was too early and had the added risk of weather problems. Weir & Sons will certainly support Geneva 2021,” he promises.
Ezra Bekhor, CEO of LV Luxury Holdings, which has five luxury watch and jewelry showrooms in Las Vegas, and who has been attending the show since 1998, says he had mixed feelings when he read the news about Baselworld. “On the one hand we all put up with years of gouging by hotels, restaurants, cabs and everyone else in Basel. However there are a lot of fond memories as well. This is where I met many other retailers, reps and vendors and made many lifelong friends. I am also nostalgic about some events like the Breitling party that we will never see again, the Cigar party as we were ready to leave and the many small dinners that were very personal and hosted by individual brands. Our own dinner upon arrival at Latino and the beers and pretzels at the end of every day. The early breakfast at the small hotel that we were in, and the late drinks at the Three Kings [Les Trois Rois Hotel]. The feeling that we were in the center of the Watch universe and the privilege of seeing new product before the rest of the world. Those moments were truly magical and unfortunately will never be experienced by those that are now coming into our industry,” he remembers.
However, like every successful businessman, Mr Bekhor is looking forward, not back. “It is a sad day to see Basel on its deathbed but with hope that Watches and Wonders, Geneva and the leaders of our industry will see a way to get a global watch show like no other continue in Switzerland where watches and the Swiss are inseparable,” he predicts.
Back in the UK, Charlie Pragnell, managing director of Pragnell in London, Leicester and Stratford-Upon-Avon (birthplace of William Shakespeare), also says he read the news with mixed feelings.
His father Jeremy, who is still active in the business, has attended Baselworld for over 50 years, and first took Charlie to the show 20 years’ ago, and he has great memories of the early years. “We have always stayed in the same small rustic hotel across the border in Germany, deliberately but slowly refining our meeting and dining schedule over the years as it’s requirements have evolved. We have had some wonderful and fond memories from these trips including some landmark business developments. There were a lot more late night parties 20 years ago which added a little culture and a lot of fun,” Mr Pragnell recalls.
The city of Basel and MCH Group must share responsibility for the demise of Baselworld and the fragmentation of the watch event calendar, he suggests. “The writing has been on the wall for the last few years as the inconvenience for buyers needing to attend multiple annual shows at different times of year increased. Few independent manufacturers exhibited and the cost of stands, hotels, local taxis and a simple lunch that week in Basel became increasingly remarkable. A sense of complacency from the exhibition organizers and many of the surrounding beneficiaries seemed to have grown.”
There is considerable optimism that Geneva in April could be the scene of a great renaissance for the Swiss watch industry if it can rally around the FHH-run shows and work with the city’s greatest businesses. “I like this fresh new beginning,” says Mr Pragnell. “Following this challenging and extended ‘Winter’ we would benefit from some ‘Spring’. I think April is the right time of year to launch novelties in our trade and a single week in a single city is efficient. It also allows greater comparison perspective for a buyer, healthy competition and a coordinated calendar. This move also sends a clear and important reminder to our industry. Whether you are an exhibition venue, a manufacturer or a retailer, our customers are our Kings and Queens,” he concludes.