Watches & Wonders – More of the Same?

Baselworld not Watches & Wonders

Earlier this week, Rolex, Chopard, Patek Philippe, Chanel and Tudor bailed on Baselworld, condemning the convention to the dustbin of history. In case anyone thought otherwise, TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith joined the exodus the next day. They’re all throwing in their lot with Watches & Wonders. Assuming a vaccine by spring 2021, same as it ever was? . . .

Watches & Wonders began life as the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH). Last October, the trade show rebranded itself as Watches and Wonders, ditching its stuffy image to differentiate itself from Baselworld. To that end, W&W organizers opened their arms to well-heeled consumers and launched a programme called “In The City.”

Exhibitions, walking tours, initiations to watchmaking, and visits to manufactures, along with boutique presentations, museum open houses, conferences, conversations with industry players, and more will make up a rich and varied program that is open to everyone.

W&W marketed itself as a kindler, gentler Baselworld. Both retail-friendly and less costly for manufacturers (especially watchmakers based in Geneva and surrounds). Yes well . . .

Geneva Palexpo - home of Watches & Wonders 2021

W&W is still centered at Geneva’s soulless Palexpo convention center. Seven halls and 102k square meters of exhibition space isn’t Baselworld’s 160k square meters, but it’s more than enough room for Rolex and friends to deploy the monolithic stands that made Baselworld so exciting. Intimidating? Expensive? That too.

Hang on. When Rolex and Patek pulled the plug on Baselworld, they announced that they’re going to do their own thing at the same time as Watches & Wonders. Whatever it is, it’ll happen away from W&W’s Palexpo playas.

With all that going on, Watches and Wonders 2021 is set to be bigger than Baselworld: over 100k watch industry types and well-heeled buyers descending on Geneva to compete for the attention of some one hundred watch brands busy competing for distribution deals and Instafame.

Watches & Wonders social distancingBaselworld 2.0. How great is that? It’s insane – a sure-fire recipe for the same old cash conflagration and gi-normous time suck. This at the very moment traditional watchmakers need to hunker down, to pare down to survive the Smartwatch crisis.

The sad thing: it doesn’t have to be that way. Launching new products on the Internet and meeting stakeholders away from the throngs – free from competing distractions – is a hundred times cheaper and at least as effective as anything that’ll go down in Geneva.

Breitling webcast

Dubai Watch Week and Breitling’s 2020 online new product launch proved the point.

Dubai was kindler and gentler. Limited to just 30 watch brands, press and participants got a lot more done with a lot less stress. Breitling’s virtual product launch saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars and captured the media’s undivided attention. But don’t tell that to the WatchPro pundit Rob Corder:

Editors and bloggers across the world were sent news and images of the new watches while Mr Kern was speaking so, within minutes of him starting, stories were appearing across social media. Comments from the first people to see the watches online were almost universally positive and the stories were being widely shared.

In every objective and subjective way, this was a success, and Breitling has every reason to be delighted and congratulated. Given the challenges of launching watches during the current Covid-19 pandemic, it was a triumph.

Baselworld RIP - Watches & Wonders same deal?

However, I am convinced that when this crisis abates, webcast launches will whither. You simply cannot replicate the excitement that a physical crowd generates or the intimacy that touching a brand new watch for the first time evokes.

Webcasts are precisely the same as the videos that Breitling shows on big screens at their physical summits. During these video interludes, most people in a crowd will start checking their e-mails because they are just fillers for the main event, which is listening to what Mr Kern and other speakers have to say, putting questions to them in the Q&A sessions, and getting up close and personal with the watches.

Apple Watch Series 5 (courtesy fortune.com)

Mr. Corder’s social isolation kvetching reflects the wider watch industry culture. Unfortunately, culture eats strategy for lunch, and the Apple Watch has eaten the traditional watch’s breakfast, lunch and dinner. The trad watch industry can’t see that it’s time to ditch the old profligate ways. Adapt or die.

Dubai Watch Week was a success. Breitling’s new product launch was a bold step into a brave new world. A year from now, the Watches & Wonders bun fight and bacchanalia will restore the spirits of the Rolex, Pateks and Corders of the world. But it will be the horological equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns. A big fire and an expensive fiddle.

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