Had we been in Japan, we would have been greeted by great shows of etiquette. In Basel, however, we had excuses, reiterated at intervals by René Kamm, president of the MCH group and Baselworld director, Sylvie Ritter. “It was a mistake”, they conceded, “to have favoured ’interpersonal’, head-to-head talks over a questions-and-answers session open to all members of the press”.
However, the sneaky proposal to hold face-to-face meetings was slipped in at the last minute, catching just about everyone off their guard. And then the drums took to the stage.
Meanwhile, outside the hall, one slightly disappointed Indian journalist commented: “There is no coffee... no tea...”. Well, that was one way of avoiding any potentially awkward questions.
After the excuses...
It was a mistake, or, to put it mildly, a blunder, which the fair’s two executives urgently attempted to redress, as they stood, with grit and determination, in front of the dozens of journalists still present at 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday 27 March, firmly resolved to put their questions this time.
With this apologia, Sylvie Ritter stated with conviction that the alarmist rumours and rising criticism surrounding Baselworld “did not reflect the contradictorily buoyant mood noted among the exhibitors”. The latter, Ritter continued, were reported to be “satisfied for the most part, both with the reduced scope of the event this year and the progress of business deals generated”.
She took it as confirmation of the fact that “all the key players of the fair will be exhibiting in 2019”. Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chopard (i.e. the biggest three Geneva firms) LVMH, Carl F. Bucherer and the Swatch Group have all confirmed their attendance, as well as Chanel and Breitling, who were surrounded by the most persistent rumours.
“And after 2019?” we asked. “No comment!”, interjected René Kamm.
However, Sylvie Ritter confessed that “reducing prices in Baselworld is still not enough”. She then proceeded to list a number of decisions already resolved upon: Baselworld 2019 will last 6 whole days, from 21 to 26 March, excluding Press Day on Wednesday 20 March, which will begin not at noon, but in the morning.
Interestingly, there are plans to propose new, less expensive stand solutions, aimed at the more modest brands.
Basel and Geneva to regroup?
One of the recurring complaints is the fact that the two major meets of the year are held on two different dates, barely two months apart: Geneva in January with its SIHH and burgeoning satellite exhibitions and Baselworld in March!
“Yes”, René Kamm was already anticipating this remark. “I know, the idea has been tabled. Should both fairs be combined, is it indeed possible to do so?” The diplomatic answer is that “Opinions are divided, the topic is open for debate”. But although nothing has been made official yet, on either side, an eventual regrouping would have many stumbling blocks: could one carve up the pie, share the cake, but eat it at different dates? Might one absorb the other? And what about the rivalry that might arise between two cities who are otherwise politically close (Geneva and Basel systematically vote the same way in federal referendums), etc..
In short, it’s a hot potato, and so it’s quickly tossed back into the pan. “But who, in the business, could possibly have greater visibility than Baselworld, which accounts for 80% of Swiss watch exports?”, asked Sylvie Ritter, content with her efforts and proud of the attendance figures over 6 days this year matching those recorded over 8 days last year.
Back down to earth
That said, despite René Kamm’s confirmation that “650 exhibitors is an optimum figure”, notably due to the city’s hotel capacities, the downsizing ostensibly undermines the historic role played by Baselworld, whose vocation is to represent the entire watchmaking fabric in Switzerland and beyond.
Conflicting somewhat with René Kamm’s remark, Sylvie Ritter appeared to admit that the absence of related branches equates to a loss of substance. “All trades contribute to the watchmaking industry and each has its place in Baselworld, even if their investment cycles are not annual as in the case of brands.”And also“, she continued,”we are thinking of proposing cooperative projects with different players, new formats, not necessarily in the form of stands.“There’s no way of knowing more for the moment.”We are actively reflecting on the matter and special announcements will be made in the coming autumn", René Kamm concluded.
Furthermore, regarding prices and the economic necessities implied by the large-scale defection, and indeed by holding onto those players who might be tempted to go elsewhere, huge efforts are still required. “We’ve already reduced booth rental rates by 10%, we’ve done away with all contributions to the literature we produce (this year all paper had been dispensed with, but will return next year) and we are offering the big brands the chance to leave their stands in situ for the entire year.”
All this represents savings amounting to millions for the brands concerned, but is proving a real headache for the organisers at MCH (it’s a proposal that is solely feasible every other year depending on schedules).
Finally, in certain specific sectors, such as jewellery for example, “a lower rate may be granted to attract extra exhibitors”, we are told.
“Reflecting the market, raising the quality” is Baselworld’s new motto. But there’s no way of knowing for now whether this year’s 650 exhibitors will go up or down next year.
Check back in autumn to find out more!