Watches and Wonders Geneva

Op-Ed: Adam Craniotes Discusses Whether Watch Trade Shows Are Still Relevant

Adam Craniotes is a watch collector with deep expertise in the watch industry. He is the founder of RedBar Group, the largest watch collectors meetup group, with chapters around the world. He regularly hosts and interviews some of the most important figures in the watch industry. You can learn more about RedBar Group at their website.

It’s that time of year when the invites to Watches & Wonders (née SIHH) start rolling out, which inevitably stirs up the echos of queries from years past: Do we still need trade shows?  As careworn as this question is, it remains a valid one, particularly as we see continued consolidation in this area, as well as ever forward progress in the technology that can bring these shows directly into our homes and offices via our computers.

But before we tackle this issue, perhaps a step in the wayback machine is warranted. Baselworld, the OG of watch trade shows, may it rest in peace, had its beginnings in 1917, when a section of the Schweizer Mustermesse Basel – a sort of general-purpose showcase of all things Swiss – was set aside for watches and jewelry. Fast forward to 1931, and the Schweizer Uhrenmesse (“Swiss Watch Show”, simply enough) was established with its very own pavilion. Things would carry on in this fashion until 1972, when brands from Europe and the UK were invited to participate. One last jump to 1986 brings us to the formal branding of Basel and the show as we all knew and loved (loathed) it until its eventual demise in 2019.

Schweizer Mustermesse Basel

Okay, so, did we actually need Baselworld? For a time, most definitely yes. For media and retailers alike, Baselworld, and later SIHH – Richemont’s answer to Baseworld – were one-stop shopping destinations that set the tone for the rest of the year. Editors could gorge themselves on interviews with brand executives, while their photographers loaded up on shots of all the latest and greatest the industry had to offer, all for time-lapse distribution on the pages of their magazines in the months to come.  For retailers, it was a chance to take the temperature of the industry and determine what’s hot and what’s not before they opened the checkbooks and decided which brands would grace the counters and vitrines of their rarified boutiques. 

Of course, this state of affairs wouldn’t last forever. Thanks to the relentless march of technology, PR arms of the various brands could beam electronic press kits directly into email inboxes the world over. These kits contained glamour shots from every possible angle, press releases in every possible language, and all the technical details one could possibly hope for. Fast forward a bit more, and now live video chats brought the brand executives and technical directors straight to your computer. What once required plane tickets, hotel accommodations, labyrinthine scheduling, and an Olympian’s stamina could now be taken in stride in the comfort one’s office or home. Given the immense savings in time and money, how much longer could the venerable trade show last?  Quite a while, as it would turn out, but, at least in Baseworld’s case, time was running out.

Courtesy of Baselworld

Towards the end it was no secret that Baselworld was a slog and half. Not only was the show chiseling its vendors with increasingly unreasonable rates, but so was the town of Basel itself. Rooms that ordinarily went for CHF150 per night could go as high as CHF700, while local restaurants would swap out their menus for ones with prices up to three times higher. And on top of all of this, you had a massive space to navigate with spotty at best WiFi. 

This was all in stark contrast to SIHH, which, unlike Baselworld was a strictly business-to-business affair with no public access. It was also invite-only, which meant that it was far less crowded and altogether more civilized in its approach. And accommodating. To wit, hotel rooms for attending media were partially subsidized, which made a huge difference for eternally cash strapped magazines, and later, websites. And thanks to brand dinners, along with free lunch service on the show floor (along with beer, wine, and champagne), a fortune in room service was thusly avoided. As much as Baselworld came to be reviled by press and retailers alike, SIHH was beloved. Even so, it did require a hefty time commitment, and those plane tickets weren’t free.

Courtesy of First Classe

And then Covid hit.

For Baselworld, at least, this was a death blow. Weakened as it was already with the departure of Swatch Group, and then Patek Philippe, and Rolex, what remaining goodwill and momentum it had left would be snuffed out by the pandemic. And indeed, thanks to the aforementioned leaps in technology we got to see firsthand just what a world without in-person trade shows looked like with media taking part in live video presentations from the various brands, while their inboxes filled up with press kits and the like. 

And yet, something was missing. 

This is a hands-on biz, if you will. A tactile one. No matter how much you can learn from a video and an image, there really is no substitute for handling the genuine article. Watches more than most objects, beg to be interacted with. Whether it’s the silky feeling of screwing down a Rolex Trip-Lock crown, or the crisp click of an Patek Philippe chronograph pusher, we need to get hands-on in order to truly understand them.

And so it was that when the smoke cleared from the pandemic and show season was once again upon us, it was with great joy that those of us in the media and retail space once again overpaid for economy seats on Swiss (well, the retailers were in Business) and struck out once more for the land of watches and chocolate to run ragged on the show floors of the PalExpo and reacquaint ourselves with old friends and new watches. That SIHH was now Watches & Wonders made little difference. The goodwill engendered by the minds behind the show made it the Main Event of the horological calendar. 

Watches and Wonders
Courtesy of WWGF/KEYSTONE/Pierre Albouy

Ah, but do we need it?

In my opinion, yes, emphatically so. As the last major trade show standing, it has outsize importance, absorbing as it has many of the brands left homeless from Baselworld. And while it remains true that we can still receive all the relevant information and images regarding the release of a new watch or collection via email, etc, there is still no substitute for actually strapping a watch on one’s wrist. It’s as simple as that. And it would seem that the industry as a whole would agree, what with the ever popular Dubai Watch Week holding forth in the Middle East, to say nothing of the growing popularity of the Wind-Up Watch Fair and WatchTime NYC.

Things may have seemed touch-and-go for a hot minute there, but at the end of the day trade shows are here to stay, and what’s more they deserve to. Baselworld may have flown too close to the sun thanks to the hubris of its management, but SIHH/Watches & Wonders never lost its focus, thus paving the way to the present. And, now with the advent of new shows in tow, it is pointing the way to the future.

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