From today onward, visitors will flood through the turnstiles of Messe Basel to experience the biggest watch show the world can offer, as for the next eight days, 145,000 watch aficionados and 1,500 brands share the halls for Baselworld, historically a key highlight of the watch industry’s annual calendar.
The main halls are transformed into temples of luxury; edifices of glass and metal are created, by dint of several million pounds invested, into temporary homes for brands like Rolex, Omega and Chanel. Each brand aiming to outdo the competition with the brightest and best display, these behemoth-like structures are multi-floor offices, meeting rooms, party venues, media hubs and last (and in some cases, very much least) watch showrooms. These are private zones; unlike the luxury shopping destinations they resemble, they’re by appointment only and if your name isn’t down, you aren’t coming in.
At times, money outweighs sense. Breitling’s lavish fishtank, stocked in 2015 and 2016 with 650 live jellyfish, lost charm because everyone presumed it was a screen. Didn’t stop them bringing it back for years running. Maybe they were looking to get their full value for money?!
For the most part, brands attend Basel to woo their retail partners. Orders worth millions are signed in global deals – and contracts won or lost at Basel can affect the fortunes of the business through the rest of the year as stock flows through from brands manufacturing arms to their selling networks (and sometimes back again). Vital press relations are secured with media conferences, briefings and gifts.
For Christopher Ward, our direct, online-only business model means no expensive retail network and no need for costly exhibits in which to court them. We don’t exhibit at Baselworld because the function is irrelevant to our ecosystem – delivering watches directly from our Swiss atelier to our customers we have no need for middlemen retailers, or the shiny edifices and marketing dollars they require to support them. For us, our customers always come first and the fact we retail exclusively online means we have a close, direct relationship with them in stark contrast to the traditional big-brand model.
So what of the customer at Basel? Is there a place for an interested bystander at Baselworld? Not much. Newness and novelty – the big brands keep their new releases for Basel – are protected behind glass, and the closest you’d get to touching, feeling or trying on is with your nose pressed against the display pane. Access to stands is strictly regulated to invited guests for the most part and it’s not unexpected for visitors to be refused.
2016’s 12% decline in the Swiss watch industry [Forbes.com] left no brand untouched – even the gigantic Swatch Group reportedly suffered a 52% first-half profit loss. The traditional industry could be wise to start planning new, less costly ways to interact with the retail and media networks they rely on. A blow-out like Baselworld looks increasingly less relevant for brands as they begin to lose traction in a world where global security, currency turbulence and political sentiment all contribute to lack of consumer confidence. Some smaller, newer and more agile brands have stepped away from presenting at Baselworld entirely, quite vocally citing a renewed focus on domestic markets and the desire to control their presentation environment.
What does the future hold for brands as they seek new ways to connect with media, retailers and VIPs? As brand experience is key and new, more visceral and meaningful ways to communicate are being sought, how long does an event like Baselworld have to run before the last brand pulls out and the halls are empty? It may take some time, but in 2017, the countdown clock has started ticking.