Watch Fairs Still Attract Interest

Even before the coronavirus pandemic stopped the clock on the annual watch fairs in Switzerland, many industry insiders thought that time was up for expensive, exclusive trade shows. And then last year, after three years without a major watch fair, the Swiss watch industry logged record exports. With digitally savvy brands creating their own buzz, the writing seemed to be on the wall.

But after the first Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva earlier this year, the mood is changing. Organizers said the hybrid event, which had 38 exhibitors including Rolex and Cartier, attracted more than 22,000 in-person visitors and generated a global digital reach of more than 350 million.

“It was the right decision to be there,” said Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe, which was at the Geneva fair. “It’s the only time of the year I can see everyone in a week, and digital allows you to promote your brand worldwide.”

Exhibitors said they would confirm in the coming weeks whether they would attend Watches and Wonders in Geneva in 2023. Mr. Stern said he would be there. “By ourselves, we can do something very nice, but when we are together, it shows the world mechanical watches are very strong,” he said.

Some major brands stayed away this year, though. Omega and Audemars Piguet passed, while others said they wouldn’t invest in shows like Watches and Wonders that were open to industry professionals but not the public.

“There is clearly an appetite for a physical gathering, but I did not understand why it was closed to the public,” said Antoine Pin, managing director of Bulgari’s watch division. “For that reason, I’m glad we were not there.”

But exhibitors said the show reached consumers in other ways. “Watches and Wonders is an incredible platform for digital resonance,” said Jean-Marc Pontroué, chief executive of Panerai. “It’s the most expensive marketing initiative of the year, but it’s also the moment in the year where everybody has special attention, like Fashion Week in Paris. It creates a snowball effect.”

Mr. Pontroué said Panerai’s digital reach during the show was 27 million and that it had generated 2.4 million interactions, 17 percent more than at last year’s fair, which was reduced to an online-only event.

In-person, multibrand watch shows have a rocky recent history. In 2019, before Covid closed borders, Switzerland hosted two major watch fairs. The Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, or S.I.H.H., was held in Geneva in January, organized by the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (F.H.H.), and was mainly attended by Richemont Group brands. It was small, high-end and open to the public for only one afternoon.

Baselworld, held in Basel that March, was the larger fair with around 500 exhibitors from across the watch and jewelry sector, including Rolex, Patek Philippe and Chanel. It dated back more than a century but was already in decline. It once had more than 2,000 exhibitors and 120,000 visitors. For the price of entry, it was also open to the public.

But disputes around rates and refunds after the cancellation of the 2020 event led to an exodus of brands. In April that year, a consortium led by Rolex and Patek Philippe announced it would leave Baselworld for Watches and Wonders. Baselworld, owned by the Swiss company MCH Group that also organizes Art Basel, has since fallen off the calendar. It canceled its 2022 event without announcing future dates and appears lost to time.

“I won’t go back to Basel,” said Mr. Stern of Patek Philippe, which has its headquarters in Geneva. “If I had to leave Geneva [Watches and Wonders], I would handle [exhibiting] myself. But the target is to stick together in Geneva.” Mr. Stern also said he would like the public to be able to attend the show.

Mr. Pin of Bulgari wasn’t against returning to a large-scale fair. “We believe in physical events,” he said. “Our fight has been to make sure our staff would never [discourage] people from coming into our store. Yet here we have a fair that doesn’t let people in.”

The F.H.H., which is a nonprofit foundation set up in 2005, said it was discussing with exhibitors the idea of opening the show to the public next year. “The concept is not yet decided,” said Matthieu Humair, its chief executive. “The idea could be to keep the B2B [business-to-business] format for the first days, and then why not open it to the public for the last days?”

But even retailers, once the target of trade shows, conceded that there was little point in a fair that is only for industry professionals. Brian Duffy, chief executive of the Watches of Switzerland Group, which has showrooms across the United States and Britain and recent annual revenue exceeding 1.2 billion pounds, or $1.5 billion, said few buying decisions were made at the show.

“Some people would argue a trade fair is an anachronism,” he said. “Historically, they were to bring retailers and suppliers together in an efficient space so you could place orders. But those days are gone. Could we do without it? Yes, but we’d lose some efficiency.”

Mr. Duffy said his customers eagerly anticipated Watches and Wonders because the lag between spring fair product announcements and their arrival in showrooms much later in the year had all but disappeared, fueling customer interest in a show. “We get customer orders immediately for new product,” he said. “It created huge excitement.”

Others said most consumers had no interest in a fair. “The world doesn’t need these events at all,” said Andrew McUtchen of the Australian website Time & Tide. “And the figures suggest that the trajectory of brands such as Audemars Piguet has been unchecked by stepping out of the watch fair matrix. Brands can do it on their own.”

Some brands criticized the F.H.H. for not doing enough to draw in big-name brands. “You must have the leading brands if you want to be a leading fair,” said Benoît Mintiens, founder of the independent Belgian company Ressence and a Watches and Wonders exhibitor. The F.H.H. “did nothing to keep them,” he said. “It was a mistake to say goodbye to them.”

He said it cost his company 180,000 Swiss francs, about $184,000, to exhibit at Watches and Wonders. He said that by being there, he was like “a small ant feeding on prey these larger corporations have caught,” but that the brands that stayed away were “egocentric.”

“We need to keep people wearing mechanical watches,” he said. “And we need to work together to do that. We cannot do it individually.”

Breitling, another former Baselworld exhibitor, is among those that thinks it can go it alone. It now hosts its own private “summits” in-person and online to announce new products. The day before Watches and Wonders began in March, Breitling gathered 600 retailers, members of the news media and customers in Zurich for its Navitimer summit, an event it said had also reached a combined digital audience of 5.6 million.

“Summits cost us a fraction of a fair,” said the company’s chief executive, Georges Kern, in an email. “During the pandemic, we took the summit format online, which enabled people around the world to participate in our biggest and most exciting brand moments.”

Breitling’s approach highlighted the continuing divide between watch brands prepared to invest in a fair and those that aren’t. Many Watches and Wonders exhibitors agreed they could generate buzz by using digital channels such as Instagram and YouTube, but felt they had a responsibility to the industry.

“I still believe it is of additional value to do it together and give the Swiss watch industry that stage and that time in the year,” said Rolf Studer, co-chief executive of Oris, which also moved from Baselworld to this year’s Geneva event. “Watches and Wonders was a moment of celebration that our industry needs.”

Some have suggested they will join again in 2023. “We were not affected by not being present at Watches and Wonders this year,” said Carlos Rosillo of Bell & Ross, which was once at Baselworld but has not crossed over to Watches and Wonders. “But a fair is very efficient. At Basel, we had over 5,000 people in our booth, and we saw the industry in one week. It gave us momentum. We’re definitely considering it.”

Plans for expanding the Watches and Wonders format beyond Switzerland appeared to be on hold. Mr. Humair of the F.H.H. said that he was still intending to run a smaller Watches and Wonders event in Shanghai in September, but that a new event in the Middle East or a return to the former host city of Miami were not being discussed.

Still, other microfairs have sprung up. In August, Geneva Watch Days is scheduled to take place for the third time. Bulgari, the event co-founder, said it would be among the brands exhibiting.

Bulgari also exhibits at the invite-only LVMH Watch Week in January and at the fast-growing Dubai Watch Week in November, which has free public entry.

Even those questioning the need for a fair conceded that it could not be entirely replaced by digital activities.

“After two years of online releases, I found my passion for the watches themselves and the job itself draining away,” said Time & Tide’s Mr. McUtchen. “Watches are an absurd product, and they require all of the sorcery of marketing at its most grandiose and bellicose. I missed that for three years.”

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