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Baselworld: the battle for redemption

INTERVIEW

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March 2020


Baselworld: the battle for redemption

A wall of disenchantment nearly cost the world’s largest watch industry gathering its future. New manager Michel Loris-Melikoff has the twofold task of stopping the wave of departing brands while laying the groundwork for a new concept, in order to persuade the “deserters” to come back. This interview was conducted before the postponement of the event but remains relevant for next January’s edition of the show.

O

mega, Bulgari, Longines, Tissot, Breitling, Gucci, Grand Seiko, Movado, Casio: with just the brands that have left Baselworld in recent years, there would be enough to make a worldclass watch show. These companies have not, however, chosen to form a rival exhibition; most have decided to take control of their own schedule by organising their own global summits and regional gatherings.

And yet, if a global watch fair like Baselworld did not already exist, there would undoubtedly be some bright spark keen to invent it. The concept can still make sense, but the pieces to make it happen have never been harder to assemble, and at the same time, brands have the advantage of an unprecedented diversity of options for communicating their latest releases.

Michel Loris-Melikoff, the man in charge of transforming Baselworld
Michel Loris-Melikoff, the man in charge of transforming Baselworld

What will come out of the ongoing process of “creative destruction” that is transforming Baselworld? Michel Loris-Melikoff, a veteran of event organisation (although not previously in the watch industry), has embarked on a global tour to convince exhibitors, media and visitors that the reform of the MCH Group’s flagship event (the group is also responsible for Art Basel) is well under way. However, the “bad buzz” around the previous management has proved hard to shift, and the withdrawal of some brands tends to convince other brands to exit too, setting up a chain reaction.

An important exhibitor, TAG Heuer celebrates its 160th anniversary this year. The brand kicked off the celebration by introducing this Carrera 160 Years Silver Limited Edition.
An important exhibitor, TAG Heuer celebrates its 160th anniversary this year. The brand kicked off the celebration by introducing this Carrera 160 Years Silver Limited Edition.

The Baselworld story has become a matter of public concern in the industry; everyone has their own recipe to make things better. Loris-Melikoff’s shoulders bear the weight of plenty of hope and discreet support, as well as louder resentments. There’s another well-worn saying that also rings true: better late than never. Let’s talk with the new “messiah of the Messe”, who wants to win back the hearts and minds of the watch industry.

LOVE & HATE

Europa Star: Is your renewal strategy paying off? Some exhibitors are back, but we feel that even more have left since the last edition. And a CEO as influential as Breitling’s Georges Kern (read our interview here) believes that the very concept of a universal watch fair is dead!

Michel Loris-Melikoff: In the short term, it is difficult to convince an exhibitor who has left because of accumulated frustration, and not just for financial reasons. Bringing back such a partner is much harder than attracting a new exhibitor. There are many brands that I would like to bring back, but it’s a long process. What I can’t stress enough, however, is that Baselworld needs to keep reflecting all segments of contemporary watchmaking to stay loyal to its roots. Our largest exhibitors themselves insist that we take care of this entire ecosystem, including the smaller brands.

There have been many announcements surrounding the “2020+ strategy”, but what are the real new foundations for the relaunch of Baselworld?

The “macro” philosophy is that we will improve the quality of the experience for all categories of visitors. In the past, for example, we didn’t offer anything special for collectors and visitors, who paid 60 francs to see very little. This will change, as we have convinced many brands that a more open approach is better suited to the reality of our times. I am very curious, for example, to discover the new Tudor stand. The same philosophy applies to the new Community District, which will host brands such as Maurice Lacroix, which makes its comeback in 2020. Last year, everyone was pleasantly surprised by the new, more open and welcoming Hall 1.0. We are also building an auditorium that will host a programme of worldclass conferences, while avoiding the typical PR jargon. And we want to make sure our community lives throughout the year, with the “LinkedIn of the watch industry” that we are setting up.

The decision to move the dates to later in the year has been a topic of much controversy.

I was surprised by the controversy, because we consulted with the major brands, and I heard nothing but compliments between December 2018 and March 2019. Nobody said anything about the dates, and everybody was happy with the agreement we reached with SIHH. During Baselworld, it all changed…

What is the level of dialogue with the FHH?

The synchronisation of our calendars was already a huge step. However, the issue remains: how do you explain to a retailer in Shanghai that there are two trade fairs in a country as small as Switzerland? For the time being, you have to accept a situation that doesn’t really make sense.

“How do you explain to a retailer in Shanghai that there are two trade fairs in a country as small as Switzerland? For the time being, you have to accept a situation that doesn’t really make sense.”

Several important foreign brands, such as Casio and Seiko, have announced their withdrawal from Baselworld. What message do you have for them?

I’m not a protectionist! Brands from Japan, Germany, France, the USA and all over the world are welcome. For example, I recently visited Sinn in Germany. Their products are very attractive, but too few people know about them. Innovation is also very strong in France. It is the role of our exhibition to promote the diversity of the industry.

What about prices, which are a major topic of concern?

Our offer was too oriented towards the biggest brands. Last year’s introduction of the Watch Incubator was a radical example of our new approach: one table and one chair, very simple and affordable at less than 5,000 francs. The demand was immediate. Another important topic is that of accommodation: we have been able to reach an agreement on price limitations with 75% of the hoteliers. I’m confident that the market will bring prices down. However, the three hotels that are right next to the Messe – the Swissotel, the Pullman and the Hyperion – are not cooperating at all. They benefit the most from our activity but they’re not playing fair. We are going to keep on putting pressure on them.

A number of retailers and media say they can no longer afford to attend.

Some are used to being invited everywhere for free, but I do not believe that this is a healthy practice. If everything is free, nothing is worth anything anymore. Obviously, there are financial considerations: inviting an American retailer would cost 5,000 francs per person. But there are also ethical considerations. Is it reasonable to invite the media? I want the press to write freely on Baselworld. I haven’t closed the door to the journalists who have criticised us the most in recent years. An invitation system means a distorted relationship.

“BASELWORLD GOES INTERNATIONAL”

The show has “world” in its name, yet the event has never left Switzerland. At the end of the last edition, you said that Baselworld “goes international”. What is the idea behind this?

The main platform will remain in Basel, but we must start considering our proximity to certain key markets. In the next few years, there will be 40% growth in the watch and jewellery sector in China. When I announced that Baselworld was going to become an international concept, many global cities contacted me in the days that followed. I travelled a lot to see what the ideal destination would be.

Which one appealed to you the most?

There are several projects in the pipeline. Our advantage is that we cover different segments: watchmaking, jewellery, pearls, etc. This gives us a lot of flexibility, as a “B to Community” platform. For example, we could imagine an exhibition devoted to jewellery in Jaipur, a very exclusive watchmaking event in Beijing, a partnership with a local fair in Latin America... I want to work on a case-by-case basis and through time-limited events, seizing the best opportunities that arise.

For this endeavour you can rely on the experience of Art Basel, which is part of the same group, and organises successful shows in Miami and Hong Kong. Today, Art Basel seems even more attractive to certain watch brands than Baselworld!

When I made my announcement, I mentioned the case of Art Basel. It will come as no surprise that I am also evaluating these two destinations. Of course, I know that I’m not the only one (Editor’s note: the FHH has organised a Watches & Wonders show in Miami for the past two years).

MCH Group share price since 2001
MCH Group share price since 2001
Source: SIX Swiss Exchange
Baselworld: the battle for redemption

NEW SEGMENTS

The very essence of the watch industry is being transformed by the new digital age, for instance with the rising success of smartwatches. Do they have a place at Baselworld?

Yes, these new players are now part of our ecosystem and we are working on a new concept for them. However, my challenge is that some of these companies that participated in the past were somewhat disappointed. I understand it, and we want to make up for it. I don’t think Apple will be among the exhibitors, but brands like Garmin, Samsung, Fitbit or Huawei will probably be interested. We are also in contact with the Fossil Group.

Another fast-growing – and radically different – segment in the new digital age is that of vintage and pre-owned watches. Until now, watch fairs have been wary of including companies that many consider “grey market”.

You can’t ignore that part of the industry, but you have to work with trusted players. Baselworld’s priority will remain the new watch, however a first important initiative is that we’re welcoming the most reputable auction house in the watch market: Phillips, in association with Bacs & Russo. They will exhibit a selection of the most prestigious watches from their spring auctions, as well as extraordinary timepieces lent by private collectors.

In the past, the diversity of the fair was also reflected in the presence of the technical sector in Basel. Almost all have left.

Without the technical branches, there are no watch brands. I’ve hired someone who only deals with this segment. They need to be brought back to Basel. They left because we couldn’t find the right discourse for them, in the climate of arrogance that prevailed. I can already announce the return of nearly 30 companies, including Witschi Electronic, Le Temps Manufactures, Centagora, and ALCO.

In your career, have you ever had to turn around an event from A to Z like this?

I’ve had the opportunity to carry out profound transformations, for example at Beaulieu in Lausanne. But with Baselworld, it’s another dimension. You always have to keep a goal in mind, and I have the Baselworld of the future in my head, sector by sector. You draw up a two-year strategy today, and you adapt it every year. You mustn’t be afraid to turn everything upside-down, all the time.

Baselworld: the battle for redemption
A selection of archive pieces from Europa Star about the Basel fair (our publication has been an exhibitor for over 80 years)
A selection of archive pieces from Europa Star about the Basel fair (our publication has been an exhibitor for over 80 years)
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