major public event in Europe dedicated to fine watches, SalonQP grew in significance and repute following its 2009 debut, staged in an upscale district in London and launched by a group of private investors. At its height, the spectacular British hosted just shy of 100 brands, in addition to the notable presence of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) and Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG). It would be the first public showcase for the GPHG prize winners after the awards ceremony.
The media-run watch exhibition attracted majorleague players to invest heavily in their presence, brand and industry key figures to attend, as well as a large cohort of press and influencers to fly in from all corners of the planet. SalonQP was indisputably among the most important exhibitions on the global horological calendar for both brands and aficionados, outside of Switzerland.
Behind the scenes of its phenomenal rise, the event has changed ownership twice. First it was bought by the Telegraph Media Group, an influential national publisher in Great Britain, which fuelled further growth. Then in 2017 it passed to consumer media giant Hearst Europe, which produces renowned titles such as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. With the backing of such a massive network, things could not have looked rosier for QP.
Fast forward to spring 2019, and Hearst announced that the annual November event would be postponed, citing venue issues as a reason. For the first time in its 10-year run, there was no SalonQP. Rumour and speculation ran riot.
Among the winning regional fairs…
Amidst the shakeup of market dynamics, casualties are inevitable. Baselworld and SIHH (now Watches & Wonders) are reinventing themselves as they attempt to avoid obsolescence. Interestingly, further afield, regional salon-style enthusiast events are gaining pace and relevance. Beginning to hit scale are the likes of Salón Internacional Alta Relojería (SIAR) in Mexico, Dubai Watch Week in the Middle East, and WatchTime New York in the USA.
Applying the same formula as SalonQP, these events draw in responsive and often knowledgeable visitors. Brands can engage with a pre-qualified captive audience, both private and business, for market feedback and sales. The secret of SalonQP’s success, as pinpointed by founder James Gurney early on, lay in the simple fact that they brought a panoply of watch brands into direct contact with an enthusiastic crowd, on a truly hands-on and personal level.
One could indulge in the finest, from “grandes maisons” Chopard and Harry Winston, to grandmasters F.P. Journe and Greubel Forsey. Alongside the household names, the show had a reputation for being inclusive, featuring a wealth of independents. MB&F and Urwerk were regulars. It also served as a launch pad for up-and-coming names such as Akrivia.
…but on a slippery slope
If the growth of the regional salons was anything to go by, SalonQP should have been here to stay. Taken over by Hearst Live, the events division of the media group, the last edition was staged in 2018 at the magnificent Saatchi Gallery, long-term home to the show. The programme remained faithful to QP’s horological standing. The proposition was grand and experiential.
If the growth of the regional salons was anything to go by, SalonQP should have been here to stay.
And yet, the show format was packaged with somewhat trendier tailoring. It was billed as the finest ‘watch and luxury lifestyle experience’, naturally to capitalise on a wider audience from Hearst’s network of 1.8 million consumers. It pulled in 6,500 visitors, according to the official figure.
Sadly, for fine watches, this might have been a harder crowd to convert. There are precedents; the demise of Belles Montres in Paris, perhaps gives an indication that a fine watch showcase does not fare well in a consumer lifestyle setting, at least not yet. Was SalonQP a victim of its own success?
The numbers don’t add up
Ultimately, the survival of a watch show is down to the economics. Revenue streams can come from exhibition fees, sponsorships, commission on takings, ticket sales, and government funding in some cases, among other sources. Unsurprisingly, watch exhibitions predominantly rely on brands’ participation.
It’s a catch-22. The brands are essential as the attractions to draw a crowd. The crowd represents the perceived value of a show, justifying brands’ investment. After the downturn, exhibitors expect retail-driven ROI. In the past five years, brands have increasingly developed their own market access. They are less willing to invest in a single annual show. As the market contracts and retail struggles, coupled with oversupply and the vintage boom, the value-adds of the show become less compelling. Fewer brands are convinced by the sales pitch. Hearst was in need of some soul-searching, which came in the form of their luxury consumer analytics and ‘Big Watch Survey 2019’. With insights from 7,500 respondents, the report points to a pool of wealthy spenders with a horology passion in their thousands, and ‘Luxury’ as the positioning to reinforce. If going wide is not the way, going up the scale may be. QP will be key to building up that connoisseur group with specialist interests, and helping maintain their position in the market. “There’s every opportunity for SalonQP to come back,” says James Buttery, QP Editor. Just not in 2019. Or in 2020.
“There’s every opportunity for SalonQP to come back,” says James Buttery, QP Editor.
To fill the void, a new proposition has emerged: ClubQP, based on an embryonic idea conceived by the QP team during their heyday. Under Hearst, a fully-fledged concept has been brought to life in response to the current market.
ClubQP is a distinct event product, as Buttery clarifies. It encompasses smaller or bespoke consumerfacing events throughout the year in intimate and luxurious settings, which aim to bring brands closer to their connoisseur ‘club members’ in retailfriendly environments.
As Buttery elaborates, between the two main annual showcase events, “there could be VIP dinners, private visits, tours, etc.” The goal is to offer “what the market wants, be more reactive, and get more involved [with brands] on a regular basis,” while upholding that level of luxury SalonQP is famed for. At the inaugural event, ClubQP presented sixteen brands for their winter showcase in November 2019, including Vacheron Constantin, Montblanc, Bell & Ross, Roger Dubuis, Czapek and Cyrus. Running alongside was an impressive programme, with the headline panel talk starring Evelyne Genta, who gave an exclusive and unprecedented retrospective into the life, work and legacy of her late husband Gerald Genta (read the article: Secret Gérald Genta designs soon to be revealed).
The one-day event and its VIP evening reception were held at Ten Trinity Club in the Four Seasons Hotel, one of London’s high-society private members’ clubs – the kind that has a dress code. Thanks to the hotel’s plush and sophisticated surroundings, and an unusual floor plan, the first ClubQP experience was unlike any other. Brands were separated into their individual rooms, each with its own décor, along both sides of a long, curving corridor on a single floor.
Without an open-plan arrangement in a hall, which is the standard format for watch events, it lacked the buzz and heaving crowds we have come to expect. But paradoxically, the separate rooms offered a “sense of discovery, and increased dwell time,” as Buttery points out. “You’d hang around and wait for your turn, without moving on too quickly, and feel more inclined to join in a conversation in the room. It’s more personable, more relaxed, while retaining the luxury feel.”
Does it work? “The support from the independents has been phenomenal. [The format] suits them down to the ground,” said Buttery. It’s the bigger brands that are hard to win over. Mind, this change of concept was presented very late and perhaps not well understood. The experience itself could not have been properly grasped without being there. Anything new is a risk and takes time to sink in. We gather that many brands are on the fence.
As the event pursued “authentic consumers”, the watch community and intermediaries were largely left out of the loop. It was not a goal to invite industry contacts, press or influencers for brands to meet. ClubQP may not be reinventing the wheel, it’s sprung up to “fill a gap in the market”. It reflects the balance of the game tilting towards B2C. As for SalonQP, it is “hibernating, in need of a venue.”
The British master watchmaker Roger W. Smith has been a frequent host at SalonQP in London, giving celebrated lectures and conferences. Pictured here is his “Great Britain” unique piece, on loan to the British government to celebrate the country’s innovation and technology around the world. “Based on my Series 2 watch, it is best known for having perhaps the most complex dial ever made by hand and a movement which is one-of-akind,” Roger W. Smith explained.