Major watch brands assess the pleasure of virtual trade fairs


When the pandemic disrupted the annual spring watch shows in Switzerland last year, exhibitors were forced to move the party online. Thus, this week, 38 brands are presenting 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 as much of the pre-pandemic experience as possible.

Organizers say, under the circumstances, was the best one could hope for.

But not everyone thinks so. Several renowned brands were absent from the events. Audemars Piguet, Richard Mille, Breitling and the Swatch Group – which includes Omega and Longines – are not in Geneva. A Morgan Stanley report on the watch industry last month found that almost half of Switzerland’s 20 biggest watch brands had decided to go it alone this year instead.

Some questioned the cost and format of the event. Others wondered if it was still useful to organize a watch fair in a highly connected and open world.

“In a digital world, there is no need for a show,” argues Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling, who presented the latest offers from the watchmaker online the day before the launch of W&W. “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 viewed by 4 million people in October.

“If you host a digital summit extremely well, that adds up to a few hundred thousand Swiss francs and you reach millions of people in a way you can’t at a trade show,” says Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling.

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 claiming it would save $ 50 million.

“One thing we forget is the consumer,” explains Aeschlimann. “It’s important that we do it our way, because that’s how the consumer feels. Omega announced its new watches at the end of last month via its own online presentation.

The effectiveness of watch shows was further questioned by the Morgan Stanley report. This suggests that many brands are not participating in a fairly won market share last year, notably Breitling (from 1.8% to around 2.4%) and Audemars Piguet (from 3.4 to 4.3%) .

Breitling left Baselworld in 2019. Kern argues he can spend his money better. “A trade fair for a major watch brand is SFr4m-SFr5m [$4.2m-$5.3m], “he says.” If you host a digital summit extremely well, that adds up to a few hundred thousand Swiss francs and you reach millions of people in a way that you can’t at a trade show. “

“It’s important that we do it our way, because that’s how the consumer feels it,” says Raynald Aeschlimann, CEO of Omega © Richard Tucket

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 who operate their own retail networks.

“It got to a point where we no longer had retailers to meet with,” says 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 gets very expensive when it doesn’t increase our sales.

But some of these brands that are absent from the fairs seem to wish they were.

” I’ve been there many times. . . say what we should do differently, ”explains Audemars Piguet Managing Director François-Henri Bennahmias of the conversations he had with the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, which organizes W&W. “I was pretty 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.

“We need to reinvent the watchmaking show. It could be Art Basel meets fashion week meets Apple launch, ”said François-Henri Bennahmias, CEO of Audemars Piguet

Audemars Piguet exhibited until 2019 at the forerunner of W&W, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. “Swiss watchmaking is still very little known to the world,” he says. “We must therefore reinvent the watchmaking show. A watch fair could be Art Basel meets Fashion Week meets Apple launch meets Academy Awards. There is so much we could do to raise awareness of the watch industry. I still have hope. “

Matthieu Humair, Director General of the FHH, believes that this could still happen in the future. The FHH has already taken the W&W brand to cities such as Miami and Hong Kong, and is hosting 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 a fee of around 100,000 Swiss francs), others say being at the show is vital to their business. “This is a great time for the industry to come together, feel the vibe and get the interaction between brands, journalists and customers,” said Christoph Grainger-Herr, Managing Director of IWC , which participates in both online and physical events in Shanghai. “The digital format is not very efficient 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 fine watchmaking brands, Ulysse Nardin, participates in W&W, the other, Girard-Perregaux, no. “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 has 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 reach out to our end consumers and get them excited,” he says. “We need to strike a balance between a mothership event and events in other key locations.”

But for others, watch fairs are just not the right format. “Before, we had over 1,000 meetings in Basel and someone was always late and someone else was always early,” explains Matthias Breschan, Managing Director of Longines, which is part of the Swatch Group. . “Organize events in the country or invite people to [our headquarters in] Saint-Imier offers us a different quality of meeting. We have the time. We can do it in a more qualitative way than at a show.

For many outliers, this year is an anomaly. “The industry needs a moment of attention when the world is synchronized with the clockwork frequency,” explains Guido Terreni, Managing Director of Parmigiani, who is not present this year. “But doing it digitally and remotely is not the best way.”

Carlos Rosillo, CEO of Bell & Ross, says digital lounges offer no advantage “over what we could do on our own”.

W&W organizers say they are optimistic about the future of their event. “There was a strong demand for brands to be together and stay together,” Humair said of this year’s show. While decisions about 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.

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