BY HARLAN CHAPMAN-GREEN
So you’ve probarly seen the hot news already, well now it’s my turn to join the fray, but I hope to add at least a small amount of reason to my discussion. The big news is that the MCH Group, the company behind the Baselworld shows, suffered a massive hit today in the form of an unprecedented withdrawal by four of the largest exhibitors at the show. Rolex (and its subsidiary Tudor), Patek Philippe, Chopard & Chanel have all agreed that the time is right to call it quits with the big show. Their move favours the Geneva-based Watches & Wonders event which was put on hold recently due to the threat posed by COVID-19.
Although the brands haven’t explicitly announced that they will be displaying at Watches & Wonders, which was due to be taking place within two weeks, they have said that they aim to create their own event that ties in more closely with it.
The CEO of Rolex, Jean-Frédéric Dufour, said “We have taken part in Baselworld since 1939. Unfortunately, given the way the event has evolved and the recent decisions made by MCH Group, and in spite of the great attachment we had to this watch show, we have decided to withdraw […]”
This statement was more or less mirrored by the other three brands, who spoke of the difficulty in making this decision. Most of them had been annual attendees of the show for over 50 years, with Rolex’ first attendance in 1939 and every year after that. Given that all these companies assured us that they would continue to be faithful to Baselworld when the Swatch Group announced its departure, we found it to be quite a surprising turn of events.
Although, it must be said that the MCH Group probably found it a bit more surprising than we did. Yesterday they sent out a slightly panicky not-really-reassuring email that said the announcement by the four brands came as a complete surprise to them. Rather than try to describe the contents of the email, here it is in its entirety:
Basel, Switzerland, 14 April 2020 – It is with great surprise and equally great regret that the MCH Group takes note of the cancellation of major exhibitors at Baselworld. The new date for the unavoidable postponement of Baselworld 2020 was defined jointly with leading exhibitors. The objective was to find the earliest and best possible date for the industry following the Covid-19 related measures. The companies now “migrating” – including Rolex – spoke out in favour of a postponement to January 2021. They are also represented on the Exhibitors’ Committee, where the future vision of Baselworld has been discussed on several occasions and has met with a positive response, as was also evidenced by countless individual discussions. The intention to move to Geneva has never been mentioned. The MCH Group must therefore conclude that the relevant plans have been in preparation for some time and that the discussions concerning the financial arrangements for the cancellation of Baselworld 2020 are now being put forward as an argument.
On the basis of the positive and supportive feedback received from exhibitors, especially the small and medium-sized exhibitors from the watch, jewellery, gemstone and supplier industries, the MCH Group decided last year to invest substantial sums in the further development of Baselworld and in the establishment of additional digital platforms. The MCH Group is convinced that, in addition to a physical platform, a connection with the community must be maintained throughout the year. More than ever before, it sees an opportunity to develop a modern platform in the watch and jewellery industry for brands that do not rely primarily on tradition, but above all on innovation. In the next few weeks, the MCH Group will be making a decision on the continuation of Baselworld and on investments in its further development, which is geared to the long-term.
If you had spent a load of money on developing a new product and then all the people who had said they were going to use it suddenly disappeared in a group, I bet you’d be pretty pissed off too. But is it right to point the blame gun at the MCH Group so soon? Let’s take a look at how they’ve handled recent events.
Back in July of 2018, the Swatch Group told us that it was leaving Baselworld once and for all. When it did that, it took with it eighteen individual watch brands and all of the component suppliers that it owns (companies such as ETA and Nivarox) and set the wheels in motion for a small revolution in trade shows. Brand after brand announced their departure from the biggest horology event of the year in what I’ve previously described as the latest fashion trend among brands. Was I wrong?
It’s important to remember what Baselworld is for. It’s a trade show, and it’s designed to be a place for all the brands to come together to put the spotlight on their new products. It wasn’t just for the press, such as us, to go over and have a nose around the glinty new watches. Retailers came here to catch up with brands, to get a first-hand experience and find out when they would be receiving their first shipment. Baselworld is open to the public, and the people of the city of Basel enact a ritual every year, a ritual which sees them welcome people from across the globe into their city to share memories and photos and meetings and so forth. The point of a trade show should never be that the show itself is the centre of attention. It should be the backbone, working hard in the background, only noticeable when you take a closer look.
Lately, increasing pressure has been mounting on the MCH Group and the team behind Baselworld, and the contents of the statements by the heads of the brands that are leaving corroborate each other, it seems that not all is well behind closed doors. Interestingly, the email from the Baselworld team notes that the four brands that are calling it quits all had a say in the timing of next year’s show. Weirdly, all of the brands said that timing was one of the reasons that they were indeed leaving in the first place. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 meant that the initial plans to co-ordinate the dates of Watches & Wonders and Baselworld were put on-hold, with Baselworld vowing to return in January of 2021 while Watches & Wonders did not comment whether it would move its show forward to reconcile for the losses from this year.
If the MCH Group ignored the brands entirely and kept Baselworld in March, then there would be definite grounds for a mutiny on this scale. But Baselworld was moved, it was moved to start the day after Watches & Wonders finished.
Admittedly, the distance between them would be a logistical nightmare. The drive to Basel is nearly three hours before traffic is included. When it was announced that the shows were to be moved together on the calendar, we at WristReview responded quickly by drawing up a game plan of who we wanted to see the most and decided that we could only really do one show, which we would cover in detail.
Location was another point mentioned by the brands. This has some weight to it; generally, the rules of competition between businesses mean that the closer they are together, the better they perform as they inspire each other to work hard. This is why financial districts such as the City of London appear with every bank and financial institution having an office there. Splitting between Basel & Geneva meant a long-haul for people doing both shows, and a massive pain for retailers who sell brands that represent at both shows. The MCH Group, however, claims that no discussion had taken place about the geographical locations of the shows. I would even go as far as to suggest that they both exhibit in a neutral ground like Berne of they are unable to resolve these differences.
So, is there enough information here to draw a conclusive inference? Unfortunately, no. The reply from the MCH Group shed more light on the situation, and with that came more questions which we doubt will get answered publicly. The MCH Group has a point, however, when it says that these problems weren’t discussed with them before the brands announced their departure.
All we know for sure at this time is that we’re not being told everything.