n the right bank of the Rhine, past the old Mittlere Brücke, the Klein Basel district deserves its name. This small working class district, which in 1392 was bought by the prosperous and enlightened bourgeoisie on the left bank, has always represented the more down-to-earth side of the opulent city that had grown up across the river.
- Klein Basel
It was on the outskirts of this ancient place, which has since become one of the most cosmopolitan and dynamic districts of the town, that Baselworld decided to land its futuristic mothership, designed by superstar architects Herzog and de Meuron.
The sleek, gleaming vessel, with a hole through the middle of its bridge, provides the perfect metaphor in metal and light of the power-hungry ambitions of MCH, the parent company of Baselworld, Art Basel, Art Basel Miami and a further 90 major fairs.
It is ballasted by a century of experience, and anchored in a prosperous and cultivated city, whose wealth and museums owe so much to the pharmaceutical dynasties whose office towers jostle for position on the horizon.
At the helm of this ship, which now plies international waters, arrogance has gradually asserted its dominance, contaminating every last member of the crew. The way in which the booths are allocated and prices are set has become a byzantine negotiation exercise with the powers that be. Decisions are handed down from on high with the implacable finality of a royal decree. Prices have exploded at every level (in fact, they have been climbing for many years), from the square metre of exhibition space and carpeting to your morning croissant. The entire city seems to be in on the racket. Even the barbershop on the corner no longer throws in a shave for free. For anyone flying in from some distance away (after all – not everyone here is mega-rich), Baselworld has become prohibitively expensive.
This year, Baselworld has shrunk ineluctably into a Klein Baselworld. According to reports, around 600 exhibitors have fallen by the wayside. Following on the heels of last year’s bloodbath, does this mean we are slipping inexorably towards «Baseldorf»?
- The Basel Carnival in Klein Basel
It would seem that the ongoing series of market corrections, the Swiss franc, and the worldwide geopolitical climate have all played a huge role. Nor should we forget, as the fair’s CEO Sylvie Ritter pointed out at the opening press conference, “the undeniable fact that the sector is in a phase of evolution and concentration, leading to a strengthening in the position of the more powerful.”
Is that really all there was to say? Does Baselworld not bear any responsibility at all for the current situation?
A whitewash punctuated by awkward silences
The press conference held the day before Baselworld’s opening day is a well-rehearsed ritual. It’s generally dull and non-confrontational, although sometimes spiced up with a few (im)pertinent questions from (often foreign) media. This year, however, the format had been conveniently changed, no doubt on the advice of some PR agency with little local knowledge. Conveniently?
Although the surface impression was of urbane types enjoying a relaxed conversation in their designer armchairs, at times the event had a distinctly Soviet feel. It was a whitewash, punctuated by awkward silences.
Before even a single question could be asked by the international press, in accordance with the time-honoured ritual, a photographer was rushed in to immortalise the dignitaries; the drums rolled, and it was over.
- Basel Carnival in the Marktplatz
The raison d’être for this changed procedure was clearly to avoid questions at all costs. And yet it is precisely now that there are lots of urgent questions to be asked: how are we to explain such a massive loss of exhibitors in just two years? The answer is – we don’t know. Or rather, we don’t know very much. And what’s worse, someone is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
In the face of the “evolutions” she so blithely skipped over, Sylvie Ritter announced that Baselworld had two possible solutions: “Expansion or concentration. We have chosen concentration!”
She added that, from now on, “Baselworld wants to unite the sector’s elite in its diversity”, a new slogan no doubt generated after hours of frenzied brainstorming. But it’s a slogan without meaning. And it’s also more than a little condescending to all those, both large and small, who have already abandoned ship. They should go and ask what Hermès thinks about it all.
Mass desertion as strategy
But is “concentration” actually a choice? In 2016, MCH posted a net profit of 34.3 million francs. In 2017, it recorded exceptional depreciations of 102.3 million due to “a value adjustment for the exhibition buildings in Basel... necessary on account of the downscaling of Baselworld 2018.”
René Kamm, CEO of MCH and usually a dynamic presence at the traditional press conference, was conspicuously absent this year. It was he who had announced a loss of revenue of 40 million francs, as a result of the reduced number of exhibitors. But an open discussion of this was not on the agenda.
We were expected simply to swallow the pill, and accept that this “qualitative concentration” was a deliberate strategy. Rome is burning, or at least growing uncomfortably warm, and Nero continues to play strategic concertos.
Meanwhile, Geneva is girding its loins: the SIHH is going from strength to strength, and the city authorities are campaigning for their event to become the most important event in the watch industry calendar. In Basel, on the other hand, further losses have already been announced for next year, and we are expected to believe that the reduced number of exhibitors – and consequently of visitors and journalists – is a sign of robust good health.
And yet. The soul of Baselworld, and its extraordinary value to the entire watch industry, lies precisely in its diversity, the fact that large, small and medium alike were all housed under the same roof. Fierce independents and vast industrial machines all came together for a week of exchanges, in every sense of the word. But rather than this robust and democratic melting pot, Baselworld prefers – or finds itself with no choice but to prefer – gentrification. And everyone will come out worse off.
But there is not one iota of self-criticism, not the merest whiff of self-doubt. Rather than engaging in transparency, even just a little bit, Baselworld chooses to cloak itself in its wounded pride. And in the meantime, behind the scenes, it’s business as usual.
One anecdote sums up the situation. A member of our team wanted to change some 100-franc notes into 50-franc notes. At the official Baselworld office, they were happy to oblige, but they wanted 2 francs for each note they changed. That’s Swiss francs to Swiss francs. It’s a small detail, a petty penny-pinching example that, in the current context, just serves to illustrate how Baselworld will stoop to anything to make a few francs. Klein Baselworld!
It’s Carnival time.