The watch industry constantly reinvents itself.
At its core, the industry relies on the simple process of suppliers interacting with buyers, and for centuries, watch suppliers have developed long-lasting relationships with watch buyers, collectors, and affectionadoes, transforming this business into a multi-billion dollar industry.
Throughout the 1900s, these watch suppliers used to travel the world looking for new clients while rekindling old relationships. This inefficient, high-cost, low-impact and non-scalable method created space for trade-shows to play an important role in the overall ecosystem of the watch industry.
Baselworld, the most celebrated and respected watch-fair in the world which hosts industry giants such as Rolex, Hublot, and Patek Philippe, has played a vital role in the industry as a whole. It has created a space for suppliers and collectors from all over the world to meet, share ideas, discuss future trends, and talk about the challenges and opportunities in the watch industry. All while doing business together.
Over the past decade, however, Baselworld has lost 75 percent of its exhibitors, dropping to 520 this year from its 2008 high of 2,087. The gradual drop is attributed to the high-cost associated with attending the show, the major watch companies pulling out for financial reasons, and more importantly, the digitalization of buying and selling watches.
Companies such as Swatch Group or Breitling have embraced the pace of change, and have effectively adapted technology into their digital marketing efforts. As Nick Hayek, CEO of Swatch Group explained, "Today everything has become more transparent, fast-moving, and instantaneous. [...] In this new context, annual watch fairs, as they exist today, no longer make much sense.” Accordingly, this could be the beginning of a domino effect, in which companies realize they it no longer makes sense to attend the fair.
In an effort to combat the drop in attendance, Baselworld joined forces with S.I.H.H. (Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie), which usually takes place in January, to create back-to-back events in late April. Starting in 2020, this initiative will incentivize attendees from around the world to avoid two trips to Switzerland. Furthermore, in an almost desperate move, Baselworld has opened the show to the general public, trying to capitalize on collectors having direct interaction with industry leaders.
As companies are constantly looking for cost-cutting solutions, effective and creative ways to interact with resellers and private clients, it will not be long before Rolex and Patek Philippe, two of the show’s most important clients, pull out of the show.
The future of this iconic 102 years old trade show remains uncertain. The low attendance, combined with the exclusivity, the high cost associated with the fair, and the digitalization of business channels, have perhaps accelerated an already irreversible outcome.
As Joe Thompson from Hodinkee questions, “Baselworld has survived World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, and the Quartz Watch Crisis. Can it survive the digital revolution?”