Last Sunday, the Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag published a story containing a short, but explosive revelation from Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek Jr. With a single curt line, Hayek confirmed what until then had circulated only as rumors and guesses. The Swatch Group, known by industry insiders as the parent entity to 18 different watch brands including Omega, Longines and Hamilton, would not participate in the biggest watch tradeshow of the year, a.k.a Baselworld.
On Monday, the tradeshow attempted to downplay the devastating revelation, touting news of innovations to come in 2019 (catwalks! LED screens!). But no amount of rhetoric could distract from the question on everyone’s mind. Baselworld has existed in some format since 1917. Now, 101 years later, does the Swatch Group’s move signal the beginning of the end?
At a minimum, this decision is a watershed moment, and it will take years if not decades to assess its full impact. And though plenty of respected experts have great takes on what the move could mean for the tradeshow, watchmakers and even watch journalists, most have ignored the biggest question of all: namely, how could the move affect watch buyers and enthusiasts?
Or in other words, dear readers: should we really give a shit about tradeshow politics?
The answer is an easy “yes” in at least one perfunctory way, because, let’s be real here – any earnest attempt at innovation by a Swiss watchmaker should receive a hero’s welcome from us, the watch buying public, if only to encourage further evolution. This announcement has the potential to be bigger, however, for reasons beyond just shaking up an iconic event. How big simply depends on what the group does next.
The obvious, but disappointing choice, is to launch a proprietary Swatch Group showcase. Afterall, SIHH, a private multi-day event organized by Richemont, a competing watchmaking goliath with its own dream team of brands including IWC, Panerai, and A. Lange & Söhne, is an extremely successful alternative to Baselworld by all accounts.
Ditching tradeshows in favor of brand-focused conferences feels almost obligatory these days anyway. Just look to other industries: Apple pioneered the exclusive event strategy with historic results, and now Microsoft, Google, and Facebook do the same. Telsa, likewise, has even successfully used the approach in the most tradeshow-heavy category of them all, the automotive category. However, just because holding an exclusive event may be the obvious answer now doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best choice for the future – especially for the casual watch fan.
Instead, the company could double down on recent innovative experiments. For example, rather than leaning on watch retailers for insights into what customers want, why not redirect the reported $50 million francs it spent on Baselworld each year towards projects that directly engage with consumers? Omega’s own #SpeedyTuesday project is already an encouraging step for the company. So is Swatch’s Sistem51 collab with Hodinkee. Yet both of these offerings were still based on the decisions (albeit, generally tasteful ones) from a privileged few.
Imagine if customer opinion could play an even bigger role in the products the Swatch Group released? Tag Heuer let online readers vote on 16 options for the design of the new Autavia and Bulova asked for input on archival watches worth reviving, both with brilliant results. In short, direct feedback on new products from fans seems to work well for all parties involved. So why not incorporate it more often?
Most importantly, Swatch could use the funds previously spent on Baselworld to get watches out of display cases and into the cities where enthusiasts actually live. Working with influencers like our friends at the Redbar Group a la Oris and many other smart brands is an encouraging place to start. But recent bigger moves by competitors, such as Breitling’s international tour and Patek Phillip’s Art of Watches Grand Exhibition should fuel inspiration too. Nothing, after all, helps you fall in love with a watch like seeing it in the flesh, and I for one find about as much comfort in stuffy watch shop as I do in a dentist’s chair.
That’s why I hope the Swatch Group’s decision to leave Baselworld is about more than just frustrations over tradeshow management. Any practice, of course, merits a rethink when maintaining that practice as a tradition becomes the primary justification for doing it, and Swiss watchmakers seem to struggle with this concept far more than other industries. Why this is is anyone’s guess, but my gut says it’s because watch companies overemphasize how much traditional (yet outdated) practices impact a brand’s reputation today.
Mr. Hayek is prescient to insist on reinvention, and thanks to his bold decision, he now has the opportunity to set a full-blown revolution in motion. But swapping one tradeshow event for another just isn’t going to get us there.