By Gary Girdvainis
First of all I do want to say that I am an absolute fan of the Baselworld fair and have benefited from my attendance in one way or another since my first fair in 1991. During both boom and bust years I always found it an invaluable event to discover new ideas and designs as well as re-connect with industry contacts.
Having said that I will also point out that at my very first World Watch Clock & Jewelry Show in Basel (not distilled into “Baselworld” at that time) a friendly Canadian watch distributor named John Keeping gave me a piece of advice that rings truer today than ever. He said, “Gary this is your first Basel Fair, so what I’m about to say may not make sense right now, but you will come to understand it if you continue in the wristwatch industry.” He said; “no money, no Swiss”.
Although not quite perfect English, John’s salient bon mot has proven over the years to be more a truism than I could have ever imagined at that early stage of my watching career.
While accurate on a brand and manufacturing level, Baselworld’s recent offer to PAID exhibitors for the cancelled 2020 event reaffirms why so many industry veterans make reference to the unmitigated gall and Swiss arrogance within the watch industry. Read below an excerpt from the recent Baselworld press release and ponder how you might react with your own money on the line.
From Baselworld press release dated April 3rd 2020:
“In this challenging environment, Baselworld is very conscious of the stakes for all exhibitors and is absorbing a significant portion of costs due to postponing the show by offering to carry forward 85% of the fees for Baselworld 2020 to Baselworld 2021 (the remaining 15% will serve to partially offset out-of-pocket costs already accrued). If needed, exhibitors can alternatively request a cash refund which will be of up to 30% of the fees, with 40% carried forward to Baselworld 2021.”
Now if this was offered up on April 1st I would have immediately called April Fool’s, but in this case the only fools were those brands that thought that Baselworld was going to evolve into a more welcoming event. Basically stick with us and we’ll stick it to you, or don’t stick with us and we’ll stick it to you worse.
Understanding the caveats of force majeure (and who could have predicted 2020’s turn of events?) have to be considered, and to be fair, Baselworld does have a staff of year-round employees that need to be paid, but this offer is really a slap in the face to their clients – at a time when the image and future of the fair was already under duress.
At this stage it may have been better to take the lumps now and work with the local canton and Swiss government for some kind of relief. The above “offer” will certainly alienate the existing brands and may be cause for pause to others that were on the fence and thinking of coming back to the annual event.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that major hotels, including some of the most expensive in Basel, are denying refunds and generally treating their upscale clientele to a shit sandwich. That, after charging exorbitant fees 3-5 times the usual rate, insisting on seven-night commitments, and demanding dinners and events be held on premises to bulk up the payola for the one week of the Baselworld Fair.
As a thirty-year veteran of the evolving halls of Basel’s watch & jewelry fair I appreciate the density of product and personnel that Basel embodies. It creates a target-rich environment for both editorial and marketing like no other event. That said, it needs to evolve; director Melikof has announced new digital activations embracing and developing the potential and reach in the digital age, but without the brands there is no show.
What will Basel become if Rolex, Patek Philippe – or both – withdraw? Having already lost the Swatch Group, Breitling, Bulgari, Gucci, and others, the management is on thin ice. Treating their existing exhibitors like this does not help.
Maybe moving the show to January will give it the chill it needs to make it safe to skate…..