Article : Was BaselWorld 2019 Really Any Different?

I’m penning this while cruising 36,000 feet over France, returning home from my fifth BaselWorld. Next to me is my now traditional Gin & Tonic and KitKat pairing, which over the past five years has become my mandatory indulgence on flights home from Switzerland. This point, 30 mins after taking-off from “EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg” (three airports in one), is the perfect moment to reflect on whether BaselWorld 2019 was actually any different from 2018, 2017, 2016…

If you’re already bored and want me to cut to the chase: the short answer is a resounding “Yes!”. Now, let me explain why.

First a little context. I attend BaselWorld each year as the owner of one of Britain’s oldest family-run watch companies. It’s my family’s business that I restarted in 2016, which sees me attending the show each year but not to actually look at any watches.

Forme BaselWorld means meetings with suppliers, introductions to the international watch press and catching up with fellow watch company owners. This is key as those who own and run watch brands tend to speak to each other surprisingly regularly. The show offers the perfect opportunity to have frank face-to-face discussions about things and to have a cheeky look on a phone screen at the prototypes in the pipeline.

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing and I’m certainly not a fortune teller or futurologist but it’s been the small things over the years that have signaled the change to me.

With this in mind, to explain how this BaselWorld is different we need to go back to 2015, when I arrived wide-eyed at the Messeplatz for the first time.

2015

What a show! In 2015, I was working for Rolex in their central London workshop at No. 16 St. James’s Square. Being an employee of “The Crown” meant my first ever day at BaselWorld was spent seeing the new releases over lunch at the Rolex stand.

Yes. I was lucky enough to go past the smiling ladies on the stand’s front desk and ascend the glass stairs, first to have lunch at one of the (many) Rolex restaurants, before then heading to a private room to gawk at (and occasionally molest) the watches which were released the day before.

Understandably this incredible experience set my expectations of BaselWorld somewhat high.

My visit to the show, however, wasn’t just to ogle the new Day-Date 40 (I’d been lucky enough to purchase a Day-Date 36 only months before…). This show was a research trip into how I could resurrect my family’s watch business after it had lain dormant for two generations. The following three days were spent mooching around the fives halls and “The Palace” (for smaller brands such as Bremont, this being their pre-townhouse days). Through chance meetings and introductions, I left BaselWorld that year with a Filofax full of new contacts (yes, I am the last person alive who still carries a Filofax) and bursting with excitement.

2016
A murmur of change. Like before, I attended the show for four days, having barely scratched the surface in my first year. The biggest difference was that I was no longer working for “The Crown”.
I had left one month earlier to focus on restarting Fears. This meant I couldn’t expect the same full day of hospitality on the stand–and at twelve francs a beer in Baselworld, I really felt a pang of Rolex nostalgia that trip. Fortunately, I did still manage to wrangle an invite to see the new releases, over a decent cup of tea, in one of the private rooms. I’ll certainly never have a bad word to say about my former employer with them still kindly inviting me in 2019.
The show felt the same. Overwhelmingly so.
The Palace had closed but all of the halls were full. When I say all of the halls it’s important to consider that each hall is often 3 stories with a labyrinth of escalators, hidden staircases, and bridges to move between them. Each floor of each hall was occupied. And yet while I was “accidentally” eavesdropping, I did pick up a few mentions of an industry slowdown but these were usually met with scoffs and laughter and the occasional smug putdown. Business and the show still appeared to be booming. Minus the Palace closing of course.
2017
Change is afoot.BaselWorld celebrated its centenary in 2017–for which almost no mention was made by the show itself.
Initially, it felt like it was BaselWorld as normal, but with some small changes-the introduction of the “Les Ateliers” section brought together the small independent brands in one space and this was largely welcomed. 2017 was the year I decreased my number of days at the show from four down to two. Having successfully relaunched my company in November 2016, I needed to do less research and instead focused on meeting with suppliers and watch press.
All my suppliers are based in the UK and across Western Europe, a fact I’m proud of. Though I make numerous flights to visit them throughout the year, it’s always good to meet them all under one roof and catch-up on the new developments. Often businesses need a show like BaselWorld to help put a stake in the ground for creating/releasing new products and innovations.
However, as the show went on it was becoming clear that things had changed.
Firstly, this trip I felt the wooing was being done by the suppliers and not me for a change, with noticeable drops in minimum orders and a whiff of desperation around the famously stand-offish Swiss.
Secondly, the Chinese left two days early!
Now, the Chinese retailer’s area big part of why the show actually exists–Baselworld is a trade show first and foremost. The Chinese market represents a huge proportion of the Swiss brand’s annual sales, so the fact that these retailers were leaving after five days (not the full seven) was big, worrying news.
2018
A lot more seating. At first glance (through squinted eyes), the 2018 show still looked and felt like the usual BaselWorld, however, once properly inside it was clearly not. Again, it’s the small things. This was the first year that the traditional daily BaselWorld newspaper ceased being given out each morning on arrival. Hall 2 was open but not all of it.
In Hall 1 several key stands were missing; new coffee bars and seating areas were introduced in their place. On reflection, it really is amazing what can be covered up with large potted plants.
The fact that over half of the exhibitors were gone was carefully concealed with stand spread out. While all the main halls remained open, there was a feeling of more space. 2018 saw “Les Ateliers” moving down a floor to Hall 1.1 which was, on reflection, a sign that things were literally going downhill.
2019
No cloakroom charges.
Before I entered any of the Halls this year I knew this year’s show was different. No cloakroom charges, it bears repeating. The Swiss charge for everything and they charge a lot. For example, the taxi from the airport was 85 Francs for the 15 min, 8 km journey.
Each day of each previous years I would scramble to find the change for the exorbitant cash-only cloakroom charge when handing in my coat, hat and scarf (each charged for separately of course). In comparison, this year it was free!
Like the year before,2019 was again shortened and this year was noticeably smaller. Last year’s occasional coffee bars and seating areas, strategically placed where stands use to be, were used in abundance this year. It was not just in Hall 1.0 (where SwatchGroup used to reside) but throughout all three remaining halls where you’d find more seating or a new place to buy a 12 Franc beer.

 

When speaking to the brand owners the mood of the show was not positive. Some felt angry to have wasted money being there, others were speaking hopefully of the big “BaselWorld 2020+” revamp.

One thing that was noticeable this year was just how busy the new enlarged press area was.

 

This is a clear reflection of the growing importance of not just print and online watch media but also Instagram, blogs, and YouTube. The number of people walking around while talking into their phones or cameras made this apparent.

Though I own and run a heritage watch brand with a 173-year history, I don’t believe in keeping something going just because that’s how it’s always been done. BaselWorld, along with large swathes of the industry, needs to adapt and change.

Rapidly.

Of course, I’ll attend BaselWorld 2020 and of course, I’ll be sad at how it has continued to change compared to those ‘rose-tinted’ days of 2015. At the same time, I’m a born optimist so I am genuinely excited by what it could become–could a revamp help the show regain some of its magic and relevance?