What Happened to the Basel Fair?
UPDATE 2019: Breitling officially pulled out of Baselworld for the foreseeable future, further validating the impact of the microbrand movement. Who will be next?
The first time I went to the Basel Watch Fair (aka Baselworld) was in 1995; I had been in the watch business for a few years, working for a small Swiss watch brand and had slowly moved from packing watches to sales, and then production.
"Baselworld is must-see for a watch lover, the mecca of watches."
People told me that Baselworld is must-see for a watch lover, the mecca of watches, a yearly pilgrimage for all those that are in the high-end watch business, and it did not disappoint. As I entered Hall 1, I was just in awe; I had never seen anything like it. Brands had booths the size of small houses. Tiffany's ran through the escalator opening and stood three stories tall; its grandeur is something I had never imagined. The brands were there to showcase their new offerings to their distributors and retailers, as well as to cozy up to the press to get something written up about their watches.Basel Fair in 2007
When I left for home I was still trying to take in what I had just witnessed, a show in Switzerland that exudes wealth, class and craftsmanship.
I returned the following year to be amazed yet again, brand after brand was stepping up its game with booths, parties, and products.
"Did the end consumer benefit from all this?"
But by Year 4, the amazement was beginning to wear off, and I started thinking practically. The cost for a brand to showcase at the fair was high. Aside from Rolex, Patek, and some of the other big boy's, could the smaller brands afford this? Did the sales and exposure justify the cost? And furthermore, did the end consumer benefit from all this?
At that point, I was just a trader and thinking less about the brand's Basel fair strategy and more on how to buy and sell watches. But what I did notice was that each year people seemed less and less enthusiastic about going to the fair.
Fed up with what I saw by the so-called big boys of the Swiss watch industry, and their overpriced, non-innovative watches, I decided in 2012 to build my own brand and to do everything differently.
We would create a brand that would focus solely on product and direct relationships with our fans, and we wouldn't need a pretentious Basel fair.
"These guys are digging a huge hole for themselves."
And so it came as a massive shock to me when the fair announced that it was redoing the halls for 2013 and that all the brands would need to build even bigger booths and commit to a multi-year lease that costs three times what it had in previous years.
I said to myself: "These guys are digging a huge hole for themselves." It reaffirmed the conclusion I had made two years before, that the direction the Swiss watch industry was heading towards was unsustainable. At the same time, the consumer was getting smarter and had access to find small creative brands that would give them a sense of individualism.
Everyone Builds New Massive Booths
After launching two successful Kickstarter campaigns in 2014-15, raising a total of 1.4 million and shipping over 4000 Swiss watches, we launched a third campaign for a unique watch called the LIV Rebel in 2016.
Two days before the Rebel campaign ended, I got a call from Samuel Hufschmid, a reporter from bz BASEL, congratulating me on the 1.7 million dollar campaign and asked if I had purposely launched our campaign during the Basel fair. I explained that we had not had the fair in mind in planning the campaign dates and that I felt it had no bearing on what we were trying to accomplish.
"In short, the Basel Watch Fair is DEAD."
I kindly explained to Mr. Hufschmid that I believed that the Baselworld was a complete waste of time money and that we are focusing on the product and people that actually buy and wear our watches. In short, the Basel Watch Fair is DEAD. He reported on our campaign in bz BASEL and noted my observations there.
Fast forward to 2018
Six hundred and fifty (650) brands and vendors cancel their participation in the Fair and Baselworld is forced to close two of its upper floors in Hall 1. Now I am not sure if all 650 vendors that canceled had read the bz BASEL article, but somehow they all got the message.
This week, Swatch group and all of its 18 watch brands pulled out of the Basel; the Fair will now die a slow death. It seems like the big boys are at a loss with the new smarter watch lovers. The LIV model is the future, and as a LIV fan, you already knew that. :-)
Now for my radical idea
What if Baselworld would tell Rolex and Patek that they are no longer welcome and that the fair was only for small creative brands? Say any brand that does less than 10 Million in sales a year? And, then invited all the watch lovers of the world to come to browse, interact with the creators, and actually BUY watches right then and there?
Will Baselworld have the courage to do this? Probably not, they will probably hold onto what they have and watch it wither away, as all the big brands leave.
In conclusion: If your gut says it doesn't look right, then it's not right. Follow your dreams and never follow others.
Some historical images of Baselworld, circa 1941 - 1967