: The Watch Fair Conundrum
Text by Sean Li

There has been much conjecture about the watch fairs in general over the past few months, if not the last two years; questions have been raised about Baselworld since the summer of 2018, when Swatch Group famously announced that it was withdrawing all its brands for the fair. A handful of companies followed suit, but the alarm bells had not yet turned into a full-scale alert just yet; the household names stayed on and committed to remain.

Fast forward a few months, and we find ourselves at Baselworld 2019, wondering what the organisers would do with the space that was vacated by Swatch Group, bearing in mind that they took many of the prime positions with the Messeplatz. A large portion of that space was utilised as a new press centre, much to the bemusement of the other visitors, who would observe the daily queues for sandwiches and other snacks served during the day to famished journalists who objected to the high prices commanded by the new Baselworld restaurant, or many of the establishments in the neighbourhood, where it’s been customary to have special Baselworld menus with fewer choices but significantly higher prices. In any case, there was undoubtedly a sense of transition, as the usual hubbub in the immediate surroundings was absent, save for the smokers and a couple of sausage vendors. Within the halls though, business was conducted, more or less as usual, with brands holding their regular meetings and presentations.

Baselworld had high expectations that the crowds would return in 2020

A few weeks later, we learned that both watch fairs, the newly renamed Watches & Wonders Geneva (formerly SIHH, although still SIHH in some parts – we’ll cover that in a separate story), and Baselworld, would align themselves once more, but at a later time of the year, the end of April and early May 2020. I had very mixed feelings about this move as it meant that we would be expected to extend our stays in Switzerland to cover both fairs in one trip, attending dozens of presentations that covered hundreds of watches within the space of a few days. This was manageable ten years ago, when press releases were handed to us on CD-ROMs, and media still had time to process all this information prior to publication, but perhaps not in the age of social media and embargo dates and times, which ultimately result in a repetitive stream of the same press images from the dozens of media that want to be first to publish. It also implies that the retail side of the watch business would be seeing these watches considerably later than they had gotten accustomed to.

The LVMH watch brands (Bulgari, Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith) seemed to agree, and it wasn’t long before they, in turn, announced that, although they would be present at Baselworld in 2020, they would do a first round of presentations at the newly minted LVMH Watch Week, to be held in Dubai, in January 2020, for the very same reasons I stated: they felt that the new timing of the traditional watch fairs came too late within the year, certainly for the professional side related to their commercial and media partners, and they needed to start the business aspects much earlier.

From our base in Hong Kong, there were much wider societal concerns, with the protests that substantially impacted the local sales environment; a heavy reliance on mainland Chinese customers was brought into question (not only for the watch industry), with the subsequent drop in tourism also playing a part. These worries only receded slightly as we approached the end-of-year festivities. As Hong Kong still accounts for a very significant part of the global watch market, being the second largest export market for the entire watch industry (the USA is now the largest and mainland China is third), all relevant parties entered 2020 holding their breath somewhat, hoping that we had turned a corner, and there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Besides, the drop in Hong Kong was compensated on a global basis, with an increase noted when all markets are taken into account.

LVMH’s brand CEOs welcomed guests to the inaugural Watch Week in Dubai

There was some trepidation though as, a few days before, tensions rose significantly in the Middle East due to confrontations between the USA and Iran, generating some geopolitical instabilities and fraying the nerves of those due to travel to the region. Thankfully, the situation de-escalated rather quickly, and the LVMH Watch Week proceeded, as scheduled. With hundreds of media and retail partners in attendance, it certainly felt that there was a show of force and confidence from the group, with undoubtedly a large dose of extravagance. An amazing dinner in the desert was organised, with warm scarves thankfully provided as it gets considerably colder at night in January than you might imagine, as well as a cocktail, dinner and party at the Bulgari Resort on another night, allowing both media, retailers, and brand representatives to mingle, capped off with a fireworks display over the marina. Another twist of fate was that the heavens opened up (yes, again, in Dubai), just as the last fireworks blasted off, leading to the hundreds of guests making a bee line for the after party or the buses to bring them back to their respective hotels.

In the middle of all this, there were indeed some interesting watch presentations, which we will delve into at a later stage, to give each brand its due individually. As  a group though, there was still this sense of a transition year, as there were not as many different watches on hand as you might expect, say, if we were already in Baselworld; the fair was still very much on their minds and I couldn’t get past this sense that we were only seeing parts of the collections in Dubai, as if it were a trailer rather than the full movie. Certainly, the absence of a formal presentation from TAG Heuer may have contributed to this impression, even if one watch was ultimately unveiled by the brand (that was the teaser to the trailer, I suppose).

A festive close to the LVMH Watch Week

Of course, these events are important, not only as a platform for unveiling the new watches, but as a networking opportunity; the discussions that happen behind the scenes are extremely valuable in gaining insight into the brands’ strategies, and occasionally, to see some watches that will be presented later on, but aren’t ready to be formally unveiled just yet. On this occasion, as expected, there were smiles all around, with just about everyone saying how pleased they were with the turnout and the feedback they had received on this inaugural event.

One executive though did say that they felt it was a bit of a missed opportunity; through all the fireworks and desert sand, the format was, more or less, very similar to what has been done for many years before: everyone sits around a table, the watches are handed out, photographs are taken (when possible), the watches go back in the tray and the pattern repeats itself for the next group. The setting was different, the hosting was truly excellent, but it’s true that there was a sense of déjà vu in the way the presentations were made. That being said, there’s really only so many ways you can show a watch collection, especially given the large number of guests in attendance, and a venue that was not purpose built, as the watch fair booths tend to be.

Upon returning to our respective countries, the news turned its attention away from the tensions in the Middle East, to a new virus outbreak that originated in China. Whilst our local news had some reports of a few people getting sick in Wuhan as early as December, the approaching Chinese New Year holidays meant that millions of people would be traveling, not only throughout mainland China, but in all of Asia. The rapid spread of the as-yet unnamed disease, which could be accelerated by the movements of hundreds of millions of people through the region on all forms of transportation brought about a drastic response from the mainland authorities, starting with the shutdown of Wuhan, an entire city of 11 million people, on January 23rd, with the ensuing chain of events that we are all familiar with, and that is unfortunately still ongoing.

One of the many preventative measures that was undertaken on a global basis was the reduction, or even elimination of air links between China and the rest of the world, an unprecedented move even compared with the SARS epidemic in 2003. In spite of this, the virus inevitably reached international shores, leading numerous events to reconsider their planning.

Swatch Group’s Time to Move event in Zurich was the first to cancel

The first to tumble in the watch world would be Swatch Group’s Time to Move, scheduled for early March, in Zurich. The decision was made in early February, when there was still some latent optimism that the outbreak might be short-lived, so it seemed slightly premature at the time, although in hindsight, it was a wise and prescient decision. Just over a week later, the stunning news came that Bulgari had decided to immediately pull out of Baselworld. Compounding the surprise was that the brand was making this move on its own, with its LVMH colleagues, Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith, re-committing to their presence at this year’s fair. It only highlighted the fact that Bulgari seemed to have been more enthusiastic about the inaugural LVMH Watch Week, and that the other brands had much more to unveil than what they had brought to Dubai.

As the virus continued its spread, still mostly within China, there were rumours building about the impact this would have, not only on Baselworld, but also on Watches & Wonders Geneva, scheduled for the end of April. It brought back memories of how the Hong Kong contingent had been shunned in 2003, and not permitted to attend much of Baselworld back then. Given that the Asian market represents, very roughly, half of the Swiss watch industry’s global exports, there was good reason to question whether these attendees would be welcome, or even able to travel to Switzerland, given the travel bans that showed no sign of abating in the short term. Seiko, who had exited Baselworld after the 2019 edition, and planned to unveil its new watches in Tokyo in March 2020, promptly cancelled that presentation.

Outside of the watch industry, numerous events were falling by the wayside, starting with MWC Barcelona, the world’s largest trade show devoted to the mobile communications industry, prompted by the withdrawal of several of its important Asian-based exhibitors. ArtBasel Hong Kong would also be cancelled, as would the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Even the Hong Kong Sevens, that had proclaimed in January that it would proceed as planned, would throw in the towel and postpone until later in the year. And as you would expect, the Geneva Motor Show was also cancelled, just a week before it was due to open, thanks to a restriction imposed by the Swiss government on any gatherings of more than 1,000 people, when it became clear that an outbreak was starting within the country.

Seiko followed suit, pulling the plug on its Tokyo presentations

Whilst the viral outbreak seemed to stabilise in China in late February, South Korea and Japan appeared to suddenly gather pace, with northern Italy and Iran showing that the virus would not be ultimately contained to Asia. It’s upon the first cases reaching Switzerland that it became clear that the watch fairs would be significantly impacted, prompting the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie to pull the plug entirely on Watches & Wonders Geneva, through an announcement made at 8am local time on Thursday, February 27th. It was not entirely unexpected, as a handful of brands had followed Bulgari in exiting Baselworld already; the question was whether W&W would be postponed by a few weeks or months, or cancelled entirely. Given that the April and May timing of the fairs had not met with universal approval, there seemed to be little point in postponing the fair by a few weeks.

The attention immediately turned to Baselworld, that had, in spite of the spread of Covid-19, and the aforementioned exit of some of the brands, ploughed on with several press releases to talk about new developments, and their commitment to providing a safe environment as it prepared to host the fair’s exhibitors and visitors in May. Perhaps the FHH’s announcement took the MCH Group by surprise, as there was very little action on the coming out of Baselworld, as many had expected that they would be in lock step on any such decision. On the morning of Friday, February 28th, a statement was made by the Baselworld exhibitor’s committee that they would meet on the morning of Monday, March 2nd, to discuss whether the fair would ultimately be going ahead or not. It turned  out that we wouldn’t have to wait that long; by the afternoon, the MCH Group itself sent its own announcement, to say that Baselworld was not being cancelled, but rather, postponed, until … wait for it … January 2021. Now, unless Baselworld plans on hosting two fairs next year, I would interpret this as a cancellation rather than a postponement; this reluctance from Baselworld to use the term “cancellation” is perplexing and remains unexplained.

There you have it; before February was finished, the bottom had fallen out of the year’s watch fairs, at least for the foreseeable future. The only significant one that seemed to escape, not due to any particular foresight, rather thanks to some fortuitous timing, was the LVMH Watch Week in January. However, just as our thoughts started turning towards how the brands would then proceed to do their major unveilings this year, with the proverbial ink on the Watches & Wonders and Baselworld press releases barely dry, we now have news that, prompted by Jean-Christophe Babin of Bulgari, there will be a new event called Geneva Watch Days, to be organised for April 26th to the 29th (if those dates look familiar, that’s when W&W Geneva was due to take place), regrouping, as of this writing, Breitling, Bulgari, De Bethune, Gerald Genta, Girard-Perregaux, MB&F, Ulysse Nardin, and Urwerk, with Chopard and H. Moser & Cie being cited as possibles. The event will be hosted primarily within watch boutiques, such that the preparatory logistics should be considerably simpler than a dedicated event in an exhibition hall.

Watches & Wonders Geneva promised a whole new experience, which will have to wait until 2021 (© SIHH 2019)

Whilst it was inevitable that brands would want to hold a launch event in some form, to replace the traditional watch fairs, the timing of this announcement took me by surprise, especially on the back of the reasons given, not only by the FHH and the MCH Group for their respective cancellations, but by Bulgari itself, for pulling out of Baselworld in the first place. There are so many uncertainties relating to how Covid-19 will continue to spread, it seems premature to make these plans and such an announcement at this juncture, particularly as the related virus seems to have taken hold in Europe. That being said, I have no doubt that they will soon be joined by quite a few more brands, especially those that had planned on having presentations that coincided with W&W Geneva in the first place. It’s interesting though to read between the lines, and to highlight that this is not a group-led decision, as there’s no sign yet of the LVMH watchmaking stable of Hublot, TAG Heuer, or Zenith showing interest in the Geneva Watch Days. Given that they all have boutiques in Geneva, perhaps they will come on board at a later stage.

However we look at it, 2020 will mark a turning point in the life of the watch fairs. The cancellation of Watches & Wonders Geneva, Baselworld, Time to Move, and Seiko’s event in Tokyo, for all the right reasons, is sending everyone back to the drawing board about how and when to present the new watches. Perhaps it will signal a whole new approach, as predicated by the chat I had with my contact at LVMH’s Watch Week in January, that will go beyond the usual trays of watches and ad-hoc photo studios built from translucent plastic and blu-tack, in the never-ending race to be the first to photograph and to publish images of the latest and greatest to a presumably avid clientele on social media. This could be an opportunity though to drive collectors back to brick and mortar, where they could be, possibly, better hosted, and surprised by the watches that will be unveiled before them, rather than blazed by the deluge of novelties that these watch fairs would have generated. There is little doubt though that the 2021 watch fairs will ultimately be put into question as a result.

It seems that this is a fitting juncture on which to pause this article, as it’s been growing on a weekly basis, fed by the twists and turns that we’ve seen – and that’s only the tip of the iceberg of watches having been unveiled so far. We will return to this topic in a few weeks, as there’s little doubt that it will continue to evolve.

Perhaps we are witnessing the twilight of the traditional watch fairs; the story is far from over