When the pandemic disrupted the annual spring watch fairs in Switzerland last year, exhibitors were forced to move the party online. So this week, 38 brands are showcasing new collections via presentations and webinars hosted online at the Watches and Wonders show in Geneva – with Rolex, Patek Philippe and Cartier among the virtual exhibitors. On top of that, a five-day physical W&W watch fair will be held in Shanghai next week, where visitors and 19 exhibitors hope to replicate the pre-pandemic experience as much as possible.
The organizers say that, under the circumstances, it was the best that could be hoped for.
But not everyone thinks so. Several well-known brands have absented themselves from the events. Audemars Piguet, Richard Mille, Breitling and the Swatch Group – which includes Omega and Longines – are not in Geneva. A Morgan Stanley watch industry report last month identified that nearly half of the top 20 Swiss watch brands have decided to go it alone this year.
Some questioned the cost and format of the event. Others wondered if there was still any point in organizing a watch fair in a highly connected and globally oriented world.
“In a digital world, you don’t need a salon,” says Georges Kern, chief executive of Breitling, who showcased the watchmaker’s latest offerings online the day before W&W’s launch. “You can’t see all the journalists, retailers or customers at a fair. And, anyway, the customer doesn’t care. The world has changed. Kern says Breitling’s previous digital presentation was watched by 4 million people in October.
For others, the problem is control. “Today, 100% of what we do should be Omega and nothing else,” says Raynald Aeschlimann, CEO of Omega. Parent group Swatch left Baselworld, Switzerland’s other major watch fair, after the 2018 event, taking its Harry Winston and Breguet brands with it, and saying it would save $50 million.
“One thing we forget about is the consumer,” says Aeschlimann. “It’s important that we do it our way, because that’s how the consumer feels.” Omega announced its new watches late last month via its own online presentation.
The effectiveness of watch fairs is further questioned by the Morgan Stanley report. This suggests that many brands did not take part in a fair market share last year, including Breitling (falling from 1.8% to around 2.4%) and Audemars Piguet (falling from 3.4 to 4 .3%).
Breitling left Baselworld in 2019. Kern says he can spend his money better. “A salon for a major watch brand costs SFr4m-SFr5m [$4.2m-$5.3m],” he says. “If you do a digital summit extremely well, that’s a few hundred thousand Swiss francs and you reach millions of people in a way that you can’t during a fair.”
One of the threats to watch fairs brands become retailers. Trade shows that connect watch brands with international and local distributors are no longer essential for watchmakers that operate their own retail networks.
“It got to a point where we had no more retailers to meet with,” explains Tim Malachard, global marketing director at Richard Mille, which sells all of its watches through a global network of 42 stores. “Being at a fair doesn’t make sense to us. It becomes very expensive when it does not increase our sales.
But some of these brands that are not present at fairs seem to wish to be.
” I’ve been there many times. . . to say what we should do differently,” says Francois-Henri Bennahmias, CEO of Audemars Piguet, of conversations he had with the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, which organizes W&W. “I was quite angry at the time, but decided that we had to do what was right, which was to fly on our own. I’m sad that we couldn’t find a way for the whole watch industry, which is still a small business, to come together.
Audemars Piguet exhibited at W&W’s precursor, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, until 2019. Bennahmias says he would return if a series of smaller events were held around the world for a year. “Swiss watchmaking is still very little known in the world,” he says. “So we have to reinvent the watch fair. A watch fair might be Art Basel meets fashion week meets an Apple launch meets Academy Awards. There are so many things we could do to raise awareness in the watch industry. I still have hope.”
Matthieu Humair, director general of the FHH, says this could still happen in the future. The FHH has already taken the W&W brand to cities like Miami and Hong Kong, and will host the physical event in Shanghai next week. “What’s important for the industry is to have a common voice, to speak together,” he says.
Privately, some brands exhibiting at W&W have expressed concern about the cost (some report fees of around 100,000 Swiss francs), others say that attendance at the show is vital to their business. “It’s a huge moment for the industry to come together and feel the vibe and get the interaction between brands, journalists and customers,” said Christoph Grainger-Herr, chief executive of IWC. , which participates in both online and physical events in Shanghai. “The digital format is not very effective because there is no face-to-face,” he says. “That’s why we should have a physical fair.”
At the luxury group Kering, the position is more ambiguous. One of its haute horlogerie brands, Ulysse Nardin, participates in W&W, the other, Girard-Perregaux, does not. “The two brands have different needs,” explains Patrick Pruniaux, managing director of the two companies and member of the governing body of the FHH. He says he prioritized Girard-Perregaux’s partnership with Aston Martin, which was announced to coincide with the unveiling of the automaker’s new Formula 1 model in March.
He does not rule out a return from Girard-Perregaux. “We have to come together as an industry at some point and get to meet our end consumers and excite them,” he says. “We need to balance a mothership event with events in other key locations.”
But for others, watch fairs are just the wrong format. “Before, we had over 1,000 appointments in Basel and someone was always late and someone else always early,” says Matthias Breschan, chief executive of Longines, which is part of the Swatch Group. “Do events in the country or invite people to [our headquarters in] Saint-Imier offers us another quality encounter. We have the time. We can do this more qualitatively than at a fair.
For many outliers, this year is an anomaly. “The industry needs a moment of attention where the world synchronizes with the frequency of watchmaking,” says Guido Terreni, managing director of Parmigiani, who is not present at the event this year. “But doing it digitally and remotely is not the best way.”
Carlos Rosillo, chief executive of Bell & Ross, says digital living rooms offer no advantage “compared to what we could do ourselves”.
W&W organizers say they are optimistic about the future of their event. “There was a strong demand from brands to come together and stick together,” Humair says of this year’s show. While decisions on next year’s event have yet to be made, he says brands including Rolex and Patek Philippe are “more committed than ever” to the concept. “We are stronger together,” he says.