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Will we ever meet again in Switzerland?

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Robin Swithinbank investigates whether Swiss megafairs will ever again have the strength and stature to attract tens of thousands of visitors from around the world, or will more focused in-country events and digital showcases take their place?

Even before the pandemic, Swiss watch fair were facing an existential crisis.

Baselworld, as it was known, had been hemorrhaging brands for a decade, waving goodbye to three quarters of its exhibitors before China had so much as coughed.

In Geneva, the show that had become Watches and Wonders had lost Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille, big beasts who weren’t shy to explain why they were leaving: the world had moved on and the (greedy) fairs had got left behind.

More than two years have now passed since the watch industry last assembled en masse, even allowing for Geneva Watch Days, the low-key, decentralised get-together that drew a largely local crowd during the brief covid travel hiatus last summer. The break might just be the best thing that ever happened to the Swiss watch fair.

Or at least, it should be. Because not having a watch fair has highlighted just how valuable watch fairs can be. After a year staring at wishy-washy watches on Zoom, no one truly believes digital tools are a like-for-like replacement for the real thing.

Ecommerce may be booming, but analysts don’t see it growing to more than 20 per cent of the total inside the next five years, while retailers say online sales usually follow in-person research. By that token, not since the fairs’ glory days of 15 years ago has the equity in physical events been so high.

Even so, far from everyone is convinced high-tariff watch fairs are the solution. And given it may be several years before the world has fully learned to live with covid, some are asking whether we’ll simply learn to live without them.

Baselworld 2018.

In the end, it all depends on the brands. Looking around, they fall into one of three camps: the ins, the outs and the still-shaking-it-all-abouts.

The ins have proved themselves staunch defenders of the watch fairs. Rolex and Patek Philippe have so far been the category flagbearers, and the glue holding the concept (and whichever fair they pledge allegiance to) together.

The outs say that in a digital world where brand hygiene is king, what’s the point? Omega and Breitling continue to champion the mindset.

And then there are those still figuring it out. Some have left the fairs already but might return; others are teetering on the edge of a grand departure. Most are torn. They like the idea of a fair and can see the value in a good one, but say the fairs need a complete rethink. That’s large-scale independents such as Audemars Piguet and Oris, and even LVMH.

Despite present uncertainties, there should be at least one centralised watch fair in 2022. The Watches and Wonders brand dynamic is still largely unsullied, and with Richemont, Rolex, Patek and Chanel behind it, the business model looks water-tight, too.
But, long-term, if the format is to expand and to work, two fundamental things need to happen.

First, a major watch fair will need to be more inclusive. Old-school, exclusive luxury is becoming ever more outmoded, and while it will always work for niche brands, for a $50 billion industry, it’s flawed.

The industry is also moving rapidly towards a direct-to-consumer model, where watches are sold through brand-owned channels. A report compiled by Business of Fashion and McKinsey that I’ve consulted on and that’s due out this month will forecast that €3 billion in value will shift from wholesalers to watchmakers over the next five years, almost doubling the value of direct-to-consumer watch sales.

Hotel rooms in short supply as Watches and Wonders names the date for Geneva 2022

This, analysts believe, is because consumers want direct interaction with the brands they buy from, which makes a thick velvet rope across the entrance manned by a heavy a huge turn-off. Watches and Wonders left onlookers baffled in April by closing the doors to consumers who might otherwise have tuned into and shared live brand keynotes, enervating though most of them were.

Privately, brands who’d paid six-figure sums for the privilege of posting content they’d generated on the Watches and Wonders platform for the benefit of only trade and press were livid.

Second, watch fairs must become more frequent and more global. Long gone are the days when the one-shot Swiss megafairs could satisfy stakeholders. The novelty cycle is year-round now, while post-covid, the world won’t travel to Switzerland as they once did. A watch fair in a Swiss city still makes sense, but only if there are equivalents in the US, the Far East and the Middle East, too. What’s needed is an annual schedule of events that’s accessible to the global watch community.

Geneva Watch Days could be the celebration we all need this summer

Could it happen? Loosely, the framework is already there. This year’s cycle has already seen Watches and Wonders gather digitally in Geneva and physically in Shanghai. JCK and Couture in Las Vegas are taking bookings for August (although not from punters – eye roll). Geneva Watch Days is scheduled for early September. Dubai Watch Week is planned for November.

And in the UK, our very own WatchPro will host a summer debut for WatchPro Market in August, WatchPro Salon in November for premium brands in November and a Christmas WatchPro Market in December.

The Windup Watch fair, currently on a covid hiatus, will surely return to New York and San Francisco with its free-to-enter, shoppable, consumer-focused experience. There is no word yet on Watch Time in New York, but it was a successful event in 2019 and should be back.

The outlier, suddenly, is Hour Universe, which is planned for August in Basel and run by the same organizer as Baselworld, but hasn’t updated its website since last September and hasn’t announced a single exhibitor that has signed up to participate.

This though, is far from a definitive, future-proofed structure. As that list shows, the sclerotic watch industry itself isn’t bowing to the pressures of the new world – yet. Most of those events are local and independent.

They have their place, but as in-country complements to a globalised Swiss product that puts trade, press and consumers on an equal footing.

Which leaves us with a final question: will the Swiss watch industry take the responsibility on itself to deliver what it wants and needs, and the opportunity the post-covid reset gives it to do this?

Behind closed doors, there’s talk that some of the bigger ins and still-shaking-it-all-abouts are working on it.

Watch fairs done right raise the industry’s core temperature, they say. We’ll make more money when we work together. And besides, who wouldn’t want to be involved in a project that Rolex, the industry’s only hyperbrand, will almost certainly hitch its wagon to?

The good news is there’s still time. The pandemic, for all its failings, has at least given the Swiss watch fairs that.

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