Each year Lane Schiffman – who lives in Greensboro, NC, and co-owns a handful of high-end watch and jewelry stores, including Shreve & Co. – typically spends a few weeks in Switzerland at shows. professionals who have been the mainstay of the watch industry for decades.
But for Watches and Wonders Geneva, the virtual trade show that welcomes 38 brands and kicks off on April 7, it will be sitting in a friend’s house, watching each company unveil its latest watches on a computer screen.
Mr Schiffman said he would miss having new watches in his hands and socializing with his colleagues in person. He is however realistic about the current limits of physical gatherings. “It’s not something we can do, so plan B is the best thing to do, and plan B is to do things virtually,” he said.
Granted, this year’s online presentations met a pandemic-inspired need, but what happens to fairs when restrictions on large gatherings and travel are lifted?
And, perhaps even more important for the majority of watch fans, will brands revert to their traditional models, largely bypassing widely accessible online channels in favor of in-person exchanges with a few?
Many insiders of the watch industry see the merits of physical fairs, historically organized each year in Basel and Geneva. “It gives a lot more strength that all the brands speak at the same time,” said Frédéric Arnault, Managing Director of TAG Heuer. “It helps us all to create this mystique around not only this or that brand, but all watch brands.”
But virtual fairs also have their supporters. “There is something about being able to, I hate to say it, to sit in your underwear and not leave the house to watch the show,” said Adam Craniotes, editor of the watch magazine. Revolution and co-founder of the RedBar Group, an organization of collectors.
Watch fairs, like so many companies, have been forced to recalibrate by the pandemic. And in this case, experts say, this restructuring was overdue.
“This Covid year has probably been useful for them in trying to disrupt something that was difficult to disrupt without such an event,” said Claudia D’Arpizio, Partner and Head of Luxury Goods for Bain & Company Management Consultants. “Everyone questioned the value of these fairs.”
Swiss events have been presented primarily to retailers and journalists with vibrant presentation booths that can cost several million dollars and events hosted by the brand every evening. At the Geneva Fair, for example, the public was not allowed to enter until 2017, and this access was limited to a single day.
For several years there had been a feeling that expense and exclusivity, especially in the climate of unrestricted access to social media and websites, was overwhelmed.
As Ms. D’Arpizio said, “It’s absurd that all of this content only lived for a week, like a butterfly.”
In the past, watch companies have unveiled their main annual releases at two shows. One was the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, commonly known as SIHH – held in Geneva in January and focused on luxury brands, mainly those owned by Richemont, like Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre.
The other was Baselworld, the world’s largest watch and jewelry fair in almost every respect, with roots stretching back over 100 years. It took place in the spring and included both high profile and more affordable watches, jewelry and gemstones.
Things started to change a few years ago, with some brands pulling out of fairs altogether and others deciding to create their own events. Brands owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, like Bulgari and Zenith, presented new watches at a group event in Dubai in 2020 and again earlier this year – although many are also unveiling models this week at Watches. and Wonders.
Then came the pandemic. Watches-and Wonders 2020 was digital – free to view, with consumer access to some of the content – with small physical versions last fall in Shanghai and the Chinese island of Hainan. Baselworld 2020 has been canceled entirely.
The organizers of Watches and Wonders Geneva are promising content this year that goes beyond the simple snapshot of new watch brands. And next week, a physical version of the show is planned in Shanghai, with panels, conferences and workshops as well as booths from 19 brands.
“We tried to take it from an old-fashioned trade show to something I would say more of a forum – a mix of Fashion Week meets Davos meets Watches and Wonders,” said Emmanuel Perrin, president of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, the non-profit organization that organizes the fair. (He is also responsible for specialist watch distribution in Richemont, which accounts for around a third of the online show attendees.)
Baselworld said it is returning as well, albeit in a different setup. Renamed Hour Universe, the show is slated to be a live event in June. It also intends to host a digital show later this year, although that will be a promised, but not kept, addition in 2019 (some Baselworld mainstays, like Patek Philippe and Rolex, are scheduled at Watches and Wonders) .
Many brands have also looked to and invested in video equipment for use at fairs and beyond. Chopard, for example, has set up a film studio in its Geneva headquarters which it intends to present at the show this week.
H. Moser & Cie has moved into a similar studio, with professional lighting and three cameras, which it says has been used almost every day since its inception last fall. He plans to host a virtual presentation this week, with a holiday-themed backdrop that the brand says should ease the potentially boring exercise of showing off watches.
“We have heard many journalists say that in general, these presentations are quite rigid, so we try to create a slightly different atmosphere,” said Edouard Meylan, its managing director.
Watch fans have probably had the same reaction as those who have followed fashion since the pandemic, but have all but eliminated the catwalks: some videos are brilliant, some are just plain boring.
In addition to its showcase of new watches, Montblanc’s watch division will include a live conversation with Reinhold Messner, the mountaineer and a brand ambassador, speaking of an expedition that helped inspire elements of a keeper. time limited edition.
Other brands have pre-recorded images in dynamic locations. Hermès, for example, traveled to the Historic Building of the Forces Motrices in Geneva, taking away a sculpture and a digital artwork that he had commissioned. And Ulysse Nardin filmed at the Bassins de Lumière, a WWII submarine base in the Bordeaux region of France, to highlight its maritime tradition.
“There could be Zoom fatigue,” said Patrick Pruniaux, managing director of Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux. “We have to make sure we get the message across in the most exciting way.”
From a brand perspective, digital presentations contribute to profitability. Several said production costs were up to 90% lower than a physical show – a real consideration, as 2020 sales were down 30% year over year, according to Bain. And the content “can live beyond the fair period itself,” to be used in other ways, Ms. D’Arpizio said.
That didn’t stop a reviewer from creating their own digital event.
“Zoom presentations as a way to run the watch industry, or as a way of doing business, have been a dismal failure,” said Ariel Adams, founder of the monitoring website aBlogtoWatch. “That’s because these brands haven’t made any effort into anything beyond ‘Hey, we’ve heard that Zoom Meetings are a thing.’
As another option, next month Mr. Adams will present his own online fair, called New Watch Week. It aims to create more engaging videos than typical brand launches. The fair will include content at intervals throughout the year, instead of just during its first week.
His target audience, he said, are consumers, who will be able to watch for free, no invitation needed.
This type of program will likely continue after the pandemic subsides. Physical fairs, he said, might well resume then too.
“The luxury industry requires real relationships, social opportunities, travel and celebration, and consumers who want to express themselves and have the money to do so,” Adams said.
“If these things don’t happen, you don’t really have a functioning watch industry.”