Baselworld is still beating to its own drum, but for how much longer?

April 2017

Arguably the most important show for the watch industry, this year’s edition marked its 100th anniversary. But changes are already afoot for next year.

Baselworld is still beating to its own drum, but for how much longer?

This year Baselworld celebrated its centenary. What started out as a small trade event with just 29 brands back in 1917 has grown and transformed to today’s premier event for the watch industry.

Optimists and/or traditionalists see the event as the unrivaled leader in the industry, as the show continues to attract the crème de la crème of the industry. It has even showed some signs that it is willing to adapt, albeit at the margins. Examples include mimicking the SIHH with the new “Design Lab” and the “Les Ateliers” set up for independent watchmakers.

Baselworld is still beating to its own drum, but for how much longer?

Eric Bertrand, President of the Baselworld Exhibitors’ Committee, underlined the show’s significance:

“In the last week, we have experienced the value of this show for the entire industry especially in difficult times, which makes the show’s role as the global platform even more compelling at a time when all players are looking for secure values and stability.”

François Thiébaud, President of the Swiss Exhibitors’ Committee was a bit more tempered but still conveyed a similar positive message:

“Although it has been a challenging year, Baselworld 2017 dispelled any concerns about the market as the event has fueled a renewed spirit of creativity and innovation. The show confirmed that the innovation and passion that epitomize our industry, continue to hold centre stage.”

Reading the official press release that wrapped up the show, it was praise after praise coming from retailers, brands, and the press a like. I will spare you from more positive quotes – just take my word for it.

But the reality might be quite different.

Baselworld is still beating to its own drum, but for how much longer?

This year, attendance was again down, officially with 4% less buyers making the trip to Basel compared to 2016. Even more concerning are the many dozens of brands that have not returned to Baselworld this year. Part of the reason is simply the cost, which makes it more difficult for small and independent brands. Problematically, it is usually those brands that produce something novel and push the industry in a different direction.

These are the early symptoms of the deep issues facing the industry, issues that can only be resolved with time and a change in thinking, both by brands and consumers.

The watch industry is firmly built on heritage and tradition. An overwhelming part of it is quite conservative, especially here in Switzerland. That makes change – if it happens at all – very incremental and slow. This conservatism, for example, can be seen in how watches are sold, still very much dominated by the traditional brick and mortar model.

Baselworld is still beating to its own drum, but for how much longer?

With online retail growing, it’s very easy to buy a timepiece from across the world and at a cut price from what you might find in a downtown store. My most recent watch purchase is case in point. With Internet sales growing as the proportion of overall sales, it makes justifying a pricey trip to Basel more difficult for online-savvy retailers. After all, the whole point of the show is to connect brands, distributors and retailers to do business in the traditional way.

And while there are many talented watchmakers out there, I find we are constantly reporting on the same old watch models – or some slight variations thereof. Oversaturation is real a problem. Every time I discover a new brand trying to enter the industry claiming to have found a way to “turn the industry upside-down” the first thing I pessimistically wonder to myself is just how long they will actually last.

So the overwhelmingly positive message coming from the organizers of Baselworld is a little bit concerning. It reminds me of the kind of speculating we see in other financial markets. If there is a perceived rising demand and value, despite the fact that it doesn’t exist in reality, buyers will nevertheless enter the market and the final product value will increase. I have the feeling the organizers are trying to convey a similar message to the press, and eventually consumers, in order to keep the momentum going. This, despite the need for change.

Baselworld is still beating to its own drum, but for how much longer?

I’m sure that the industry is aware of the problems facing it, but it seems that it’s not sure how to actually manage them. At least, not yet. Ms. Ritter, the Baselworld Managing Director, cannot ignore that the industry is still going through a challenging phase and she and other industry brass have a tough job to try to adapt a conservative industry that is not premised on change.

We can already report that next year’s show will be shortened by a few days, scheduled to take place from Thursday 22 to Tuesday 27 March 2018. Thankfully, participation prices are also to be lowered for next year, which should alleviate the burden for the smaller brands.

That’s a good start. But to take Baselworld deep into its second century, more will be needed.