After the challenges and logistical disruptions posed by the pandemic, this year, the Watches and Wonders trade show appears to be planning a smooth seven-day run.
On March 27, the industry’s largest show, with 48 participating brands, is scheduled to welcome professionals at the Palexpo exhibition center in Geneva. And on April 1 and 2, it is to admit the general public.
The fair’s growth can be seen in a comparison to the 2022 show, which drew 38 brands and offered just a half-day of public admission.
Another change was the creation of the Watches and Wonders Geneva Foundation, founded in September by the fair’s original organizer, the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie. Organizers said the new foundation was intended to establish a broader governing base to run the trade show in Switzerland as well as abroad.
Since the demise of the Baselworld fair in late 2021, Watches and Wonders has increased in size and importance, welcoming heavy-hitting brands like Patek Philippe and Rolex, both of which joined with the Richemont Group to create the fair foundation.
Matthieu Humair, the former chief executive of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, was named chief executive of the fair foundation in January. He recently talked about the role of trade fairs in a digital world, Watches and Wonders’ efforts to become greener and its ambition to become the fashion week of watchmaking.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
What are your responsibilities at the Watches and Wonders Geneva Foundation?
As its chief executive, my job is to promote watchmaking excellence by organizing events around the world. This is our master event. We work all year with the exhibitors’ committee, composed of every participating exhibitor, to take all the operational decisions. This year, we have 48 participating brands and a great program of new product launches and keynote speakers.
Who attends the event?
The first five days are dedicated to the international press, clients, special guests of the brands, and watch retailers. Everyone is here by invitation. We are very excited to see the Chinese press, retailers and a number of Chinese clients back in Geneva this year.
And the general public?
For the first time, the fair will welcome the public for two full days next weekend. In the past, we had tried half-days for the public. The objective is to make Geneva a watchmaking destination. We want this event to be the fashion week of the watch industry.
How will the fair accommodate the public?
We have increased the size of the common areas, to be more welcoming. In terms of programming, the public will be able to see the new releases by the maisons, meet the people behind the brands, attend talks with watch experts to learn about new watch trends or how to start a watch collection. A new lab offers information about schools to young visitors. We are also hosting a photography exhibition by Karine Bauzin, who traveled around the world and asked people, “What time is it?” Her photos capture their responsive gestures.
What can visitors expect to see this year?
Building the space inside the Palexpo center is a massive operation. Last night [March 2], 6,000 persons were working inside on the general installation. The space is about 66,000 square meters [16.3 acres], with a new hall built to accommodate our 10 new exhibitors. It takes 2,000 steps to cover the entire salon. Our concept for the space is that no brand can have a more prominent spot than another and everyone has the same visibility. We follow the same decorative style throughout so visitors feel that they are immersed in a city of time.
Who is responsible for the interior design?
Each maison is responsible for its own décor. Some use the same décor year after year. They keep the decorative elements in storage facilities all year and rebuild here every year. The décor of the common areas has also been unchanged for years. We must do touch-ups, but many of the pieces are 15 years old. They have lived through time. It is important that we don’t throw things away.
Does the fair consider sustainability?
This venue runs on 100 percent renewable energy, as explained on the Palexpo website. In the salon, we are always thinking of ways to reduce our environmental impact. This year, we have banned single-use plastics; our food and beverage services must source their products from sustainable suppliers. Geneva’s public buses provide transportation to and from Palexpo for visitors. Let’s not forget our positive economic impact on the city of Geneva and our significant contribution to the industry on a local and international level, which is part of a sustainability evaluation.
What about the city?
This year for the first time, our event will spill over into Geneva. All week, we have events planned around town, from in-store activations to cocktail parties and in-boutique events. Tours will take visitors to significant watchmaking points in the city. We have talks about the watchmaking history of Geneva. A special evening is planned for March 30, from 5 to 9 p.m., with street entertainment in Geneva and a musical program with the Avener, a star of the French electro scene.
And there are other Watches and Wonders editions, like the one on the duty-free island of Hainan, in China?
When Switzerland was in lockdown in 2020, we hosted our first edition of Watches and Wonders in Shanghai.
In 2022, when China went into lockdown, we could not return to Shanghai. But Hainan island was open, so we held two events in late 2021 and 2022 there, in a shopping mall. They were commercial events organized as in-store activations. This year, no plans have been confirmed for China. But we have become very nimble since Covid. If the brands ask us to go, we will return to Shanghai.
Speaking of Covid, the pandemic seems to have accelerated the trend of brands presenting their new releases throughout the year. What role does a trade fair have in such a world?
Watch fairs are no longer a platform just for product releases. For us, the goal is to bring people together, to meet in person and to bring people to touch the watches and try them on. This is a place where the watch industry comes to present a united front. We wish to set a positive example for the industry, by speaking in one voice in furtherance of a common project. Everyone benefits from our common communications platform. We do not consider other industry initiatives or fairs as competition. The more we talk about watches, the more we succeed in furthering our mission of watchmaking excellence.