Watch Opinion: Are The Towers Of BaselWorld Increasingly “Fawlty” As Grand Seiko Depart?

On Seiko and the Future of Baselworld Seiko’s departure from Basel 2020 is a sad but unsurprising development in the show’s struggle for survival.

On November 7th, Seiko and Grand Seiko announced their intention to withdraw from Baselworld 2020, after over 30 years with the long-running watches and jewelry trade show. They joined Breitling, who bailed out earlier this year, in deeming the 2020 show’s new SIHH-coordinated start date logistically nonviable. As with all such things, though, I’d wager that the truth is more complex and much has been left unsaid.

On the whole, the decision honestly didn’t shock me too much, as someone who has not only been quite firmly on the “Basel is on its way out” side of the fence for at least the past year or two, but who has also been keeping an eye on the Japanese manufacturer’s ongoing drive to assert and re-model its own identity- I feel like both aspects are at play here. A widely-iterated take is that Baselworld is simply pricing itself out of existence on all levels, and has been slow to address the outdated components of its business model.

This was, in part, corroborated by none other than Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek Jr, who pulled no punches whatsoever in withdrawing his company from Basel 2019 and labeling the show management as “arrogant”, “snobby” and “not able to do something new”. Pretty savage. High profile exhibitor withdrawals, especially ones as acrimonious as this, can be trade fair cyanide. If one big name starts to intimate that your show is, in fact, a dinosaur, and a particularly expensive one at that, you can bet that your other big names will start to get nervous if you can’t prove them wrong, and quickly.

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Furthermore, if one big-name withdraws from your alleged dinosaur of a show, and announces its intention to launch its own show? Well, people may just start to get ideas. Sure enough, just as Swatch announced its own watch fair after its departure, Grand Seiko has announced a Tokyo “summit” on 15-20 March 2020.

At the turn of the century, once-unstoppable computer expo Comdex saw several big-name exhibitors announce their decision to withdraw. Most notable was Apple Inc, who cited their intention to eschew the old model in favour of direct-to-customer retail, announcing the launch of the first Apple Store in 2001- this should sound ominously familiar to anyone paying attention to Basel’s current predicament, not least because COMDEX was very, very dead 4 years later. The cancellation of COMDEX 2004 was initially spun as a hiatus of sorts, that by then-bankrupt showrunners Key3Media would use to establish a new and sustainable format for the show’s return in 2005. Really though, in amongst the sheer regime-changing chaos of the dot-com crash, they hadn’t a hope in hell.

 

That Basel has been so conspicuously late to its own funeral party isn’t going to help things, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this has contributed to Seiko’s decision to pull out. From an outsider’s standpoint, the image conveyed by the MGH Group in 2019 was one of panic and confusion, and “the story” was unanimous that Basel was fighting for its very survival. Arguably not a good look, and I can’t imagine that prospective returning brands for 2020 were thrilled with the idea that they’d be paying big bucks just to be guinea pigs in a desperate experiment- sure, it’s potentially an opportunity to capitalise on, and I’m sure we’ll see few public complaints from reigning Swiss giants like Rolex and Patek who have the most scope to maneuver, but for brands who are already trying to cut through the noise this could be a hard sell.

People have been proclaiming the death of trade shows for years, but it still hasn’t happened, and there is no indication that the format itself is truly obsolete in 2019. The watch world, it seems, is just going through some growing pains- let us not forget that, despite it not being “the story” on the same level as Baselworld, SIHH has its own problems going on too. The thing about the watch industry, in particular, is that it’s…weird. It’s one thing when you have an event like the aforementioned Comdex, which dealt in cutting-edge IT and, amongst many other factors, couldn’t survive its industry’s logical progression into increasingly faster turnaround times and the rise of e-commerce.

Watches, on the other hand, are already technically obsolete products that exist in their own temporal bubble, tethered to the broader luxury product market and historically operating with little regard for strict turnaround times anyway. The rules can’t necessarily be expected to apply in a logical way when the central product is so rife with internal contradiction, actively pushing back (in many ways) against prevailing technological trends. We know from Basel’s current plight that watch trade shows risk ignoring changes in tide at their own peril, that’s for sure, but exactly what level of response is truly necessary? If you think that nobody seems to know the answer, that’s because they, eh, definitely don’t.

Recent high-profile debacles like Audemars Piguet’s Code 11:59 launch don’t happen in a vacuum: the way I see it, we’re still very much in a “throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks” period, with a market that can be hard to read, and it’ll be interesting to see what the outcome actually is. For what it’s worth, I see the enthusiast community as a key factor for Basel’s future, and I suspect MGH is coming round to this themselves. The watch industry cannot be expected to completely succumb to advances in e-commerce, given the fundamentally “physical” nature of the product itself. There is no replacement for seeing tactile, finely crafted mechanical art “in the metal” to truly evaluate appreciate it. In this respect, there is only so much Basel can be expected to do to keep with the social media era. One thing they can latch onto, however, is the Instagram and YouTube-led “democratisation” of watches that has opened up the enthusiast world like never before, and Baselworld management seem to be acknowledging this by announcing its intention to emphasise end consumers and collectors in its 2020 experience for the first time in the show’s history.

We don’t actually know what this will look like in practice, however, and the finer details of the execution will surely be a make-or-break factor. New digital platforms and event shake-ups are really just cosmetic changes- as far as I’m concerned, the core of Basel’s recovery effort needs to be figuring out its audience. Stay tuned for more developments, and potentially more Basel/SIHH withdrawals. For one thing, I’ll be surprised if we actually see a Baselworld 2021, and I do genuinely want there to be one. I think a conventional trade show format can still find relevance in a field revolving around physical, finely-detailed objects, particularly when the community around them is the international, culturally-diverse melting pot the watch world is today. Plus, on a more personal and whimsical note, Basel has always given off a Disneyland-esque allure to me (as it has many others), and it would be a shame if it died before I got the opportunity to experience it myself. The optimist in me likes to think that, if Baselworld truly makes good on their stated goals of maximising customer experience and accessibility, this could be a whole new beginning for all of us outsiders. Only time will tell, as it were.
Edwin McLachlan