BY MARK KEAST

Is the cancellation of Baselworld due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus (announced Friday) really that big a deal, in part because of the growth of sales in the industry via digital and social media channels, and the ever-evolving opportunities watch manufacturers have to launch new products and create buzz via those means?

Damn right it’s a big deal. Baselworld, based in Basel, Switzerland, remains the watch industry’s largest annual trade show, held every spring since 1917.

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“Last week was a sad one for me, being in the watch industry,” says Haigo Derian, President of L’Oro Jewellery, with several locations around the Toronto area. Derian has attended every Baselworld event going back to 1999 – except for one year, in 2003, during the SARS epidemic. “Truthfully, the industry is much more organized and advanced these days.  Many traditional operational tasks are now automated and/or digital.  As such, I expect little to no real impact on the business overall, at least within regional markets, such as Canada.”

Last year attendance at Baselworld dipped 22 per cent, and the number of exhibitors dropped to 520 in 2019, compared to 650 in 2018. The Swatch Group, with luxury brands under their umbrella like Breguet, Harry Winston, Blancpain, and Glashütte, decamped for their own trade show, and brands like Ulysse Nardin and Hermès left for Watches & Wonders Geneva (formerly Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, or SIHH), and Baselworld’s chief rival. It’s a mega-million dollar expense, after all, factoring in the fees to exhibit, the cost to construct booths, plus travel costs for clients and staff.

However stellar luxury brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, TAG Heuer, Zenith and Hublot were still on board.

This year, though, hopes were springing eternal that Baselworld would be stemming that decline, in large part because of the new partnership with Watches & Wonders Geneva (also cancelled this year). This was going to be a big transitional year, meant to counter a downturn in the Swiss luxury watch market going back to 2015 (the impact of the coronavirus on the market overall is a topic for another day – including the degree of decline of Chinese consumption of luxury watches, since they have been advised to stay at home, with offices and shops closed in that country). Watches & Wonders Geneva was scheduled to be held April 26-29, followed by Baselworld, April 30 to May 5.

Industry updates on your mobile phone are all well and good, but there is nothing like people-to-people contact, and the energy that comes out of that. It is important for Baselworld to show that brands need them, as opposed to them needing the luxury brands. People in the industry look forward to Baselworld, even with its challenges, and the challenges in the industry overall.

“These global meeting spots where ideas, policies and new creations are presented and exchanged are no longer happening, at least for 2020,” Derian adds.

Baselworld was to become more of a consumer show, for those passionate about watches, as well as for collectors, and less of a trade show, more about offering an experience for people, connecting them to new digital platforms where everyone in the industry could stay engaged year-round.

It was the Swiss government that banned large-scale public and private events because of the virus, so that was the genesis of Friday’s announcement, and the organizers of Baselworld said they would reconvene the event in January 2021. You have to wonder though how the event will look at that point, with an industry that’s constantly changing. Then again, what will pent-up demand for luxury watch purchases around the world look like after the storm clouds from the virus dissipate?

Said Michel Loris-Melikoff, Managing Director of Baselworld, in a statement: “By postponing the show to January 2021, we have found a solution that enables the industry and all our customers to avoid losing a full year and at the same time reset their calendars for the beginning of the year, a period that is conductive to the presentation of their new products, new trends and order taking. This postponing will also allow Baselworld to continue developing and bringing new formats and solutions as well as improvements to the new concept we propose.”

Michel Loris-Melikoff

Images from Baselworld