Baselworld 2019: After the StormBy Ken Kessler
Columns that start with a disclaimer usually portend of something stupid, possibly libellous or simply deniable – as in the “plausible deniability” used by governments just about to sanction black ops. In this case, the disclaimer is a favour and duty to my bosses and colleagues at Revolution, who may or may not disagree with my Baselworld post-mortem. That’s because I absolutely loved it. Most didn’t.
Thus I am speaking not so much as this publication’s Editor-at-Large but as a 40-year veteran of the watch biz with a debilitatingly low threshold for bullshit. The first half of my horological career consisted of buying and selling vintage watches and the second as a watch writer, which included the attending of SIHH and Baselworld. This spans the tail-end of the Great Quartz Debacle, the bleak years of the 1980s, the revival of the 1990s and the entirety of the 21st century’s elevation of high-end watches to must-own accessories, rich boys’ toys and – crucially of late – blue-chip investments.
Those who saw the latest print edition of Revolution might have read my back page editorial about the need for an industry show. It was based on the experiences in my parallel career of hi-fi journalist, which saw high-end audio (the music playback hardware equivalent of mechanical watches, not the plastic, mass-market, Bluetooth swill most people acquire) vanish up its own fundament. My belief is that, if we’re not careful, the watch industry could go the same way, even though it has much further to fall than hi-fi … and it is infinitely wealthier.
Moreover, it is dominated by the Swiss. This is both the industry’s strength and its weakness, and I realise that I am skating perilously close to what some might call “racism” because I am tarring the Swiss with a collective personality. However, if calling the Swiss “industrious and painstaking” is racial profiling, so be it. But they are also arrogant to a degree that might even impress the Germans, and that’s saying something. If proof is needed of the Swiss’ chronic, fingers-in-their-ears, “Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-we’re-not-listening” stance, Baselworld 2019 is proof positive.
After a campaign that embraced everything from the Swatch Group’s withdrawal (along with dozens of other brands) to Wei Koh’s impassioned editorials about how both Baselworld and Basel-the-City have been ripping off the people they should treat with decency, little has changed. Sausages still cost CHF8.50. Hotels still double or treble their room rates for the week of the fair. Taxis charge more for the ride from the airport than the hookers do for a quickie. Because of this disregard for the pleas of the industry, I truly appreciate the cries of “Plus ça change” and the frustration of those who expected major improvements.
Then there’s the flip-side, which I fear too many are prepared to ignore because of the remaining iniquities. First and foremost, the reduction in size, with whole halls closed off, made the show more manageable, especially for the public and press who – unlike retailers or distributors who need only visit their brands – do their best to cover as many makes as possible. Yes, most journalists still had the same number of appointments, but there was an air of less pressure. Better still: I cannot count the number of exhibitors, from majors to boutique brands, who commented that they had more time to spend with visitors.
That may sound like rationalising, but trust me: when your smart phone tells you that you’ve completed 15,000 steps in a day while schlepping a satchel full of brochures and behaving in a reasonably professional manner, the relative calm and the open spaces and the lack of crowds through which to manoeuvre are welcomed indeed.
For the first time in years, I left Baselworld feeling both a sense of accomplishment and without a sense of utter exhaustion. I actually enjoyed it, which for me is saying something as I am a misanthrope of epic proportion. But I also left with a nagging fear that the idiot pundits who find fault when there is none, simply because they 1) have nothing better to do, 2) think it makes them seem “edgy’ and 3) know bugger-all about the realities of business, might find a way to kill off Baselworld.
This would be a tragedy for all who love watches, let alone make a living from them. Instead of a one-stop solution (two, when you count SIHH) for dealing with all of the season’s new models, it would mean myriad small, regional shows. This would be a costly imposition on the goodwill of all – public, trade, press – as we grow time-poor. Instead of one handy visit to Baselworld, it would fragment onto one event each per brand, but only for those that can afford to host their own shows.
While this editorial might sound like a plea for the Swatch Group to re-join Baselworld, I know that such a climb-down is unlikely. Dealers and journalists are already paying the price for this, with oft-heard complaints at Baselworld, and all seem to dread the idea of constant one-off showings from brands too important to ignore.
So, to all of those who wish to damage Baselworld even further, think again. Persist in heralding its demise and the industry you work in or simply love because it feeds your passion will one day end up like the high-end audio business – with no global, world-class trade show whatsoever. As William Bell sang, “You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry.” At the very least, we still have a puddle.