Baselworld — Time's at an End.By Wei Koh
Having prophesied Baselworld’s end of days (here), Revolution’s founding editor gives us his take on Swatch Group’s #BWexit and future watchfairs.
Swatch Group’s #BWexit
By the time you read this it will be known the world over that the world’s largest watch group, Swatch Group, has pulled out of the world’s biggest watch fair, Baselworld. And I would like to applaud and bow to the courage and conviction of Swatch Group’s CEO Nick Hayek for not allowing Baselworld to get away with the arrogance, ineptitude and greed it has perpetuated on all of us for decades. And what was Baselworld’s response? Said MCH (the fair’s organizer) chairman Rene Kamm, “I hope that a successful edition of Baselworld in 2019 will motivate Swatch Group to again participate,” he said. “I personally would be very pleased to hold constructive talks with Swatch Group.”
But beyond all the corporate niceties the message is clear, singular and seared indelibly into rock with Old Testament-like finality, Baselworld you f**ked up. In fighter pilot parlance, “You massively screwed the pooch,” and you have no one but yourselves to blame for driving this first, very massive nail into your own coffin.
And yet Baselworld in its own self-delusion is still unable to admit its own culpability in its steadily plummeting stock, like Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois still misguidedly convinced of her own irresistible beauty, even as the white coated asylum workers come to take her away. Says Rene Kamm, “The cancellation is all the more surprising because new management has arrived with a new team, new spirit and many new ideas.”
Clearly this new team’s primary function was to pat each other on the back amid their brainstorming, new idea generating circle jerk, rather than to actually put into place a coherent plan to radically improve the Baselworld experience.
Said Hayek in an interview with CNBC, “I invited (them) to see me. They never asked to see me, which is a bit of a wonder. We are the largest company exhibiting there.” So hang on Rene Kamm, your new team with their brilliant new ideas, never reached out to the CEO of the largest company exhibiting at your fair to share these wonderful new ideas? You need to immediately fire yourself and all your new management for incompetence so profound it is truly mind-boggling.
Earlier today, the Group has also published a press release confirming from their end, the Swatch Group’s departure from Baselworld, as of 2019.
Said Hayek, “The Swiss watch industry is booming. It is positive. Now you have to make the changes… We are there to help. You must open up. You must do something now.” Where is one way they could have made the change? Simple: broadband Wi-Fi. Considering the kazillions of Swiss Francs in revenue they generate from a single fair, you think the least they could do was install super fast, high bandwidth, broadband Wi-Fi, so that brands, retailers and journalists could more effectively do their jobs, right? But connect to the Baselworld Wi-Fi icon and you know what happens? Absolutely nothing. Sending a single WhatsApp message is like waiting for an old man to shit out a peach pit. You might as well be connected to a ’90s dial-up modem. And this is amid the time when the recovery of watch industry is on the upswing. Collectively, we must do all we can to compel this further.
Now imagine the tens of thousands of brand representatives trying to get their message out, retailers trying to communicate to clients and journalists trying to post the latest watches on Instagram (let alone Instagram live) and you can imagine the massive information cluster f**k as all this is trying to stream through a tiny pipe that is essentially the diameter of the stirrer in Rene Kamm’s Shirley Temple of delusion.
And amazingly, Baselworld charges the brands for this service. But wait a second you say, why don’t brands independently set up their own Wi-Fi at their booths? Sure, it will cost more to have hot points on deck and ready to rock, but at least they will be able to effectively communicate with the outside world. Right?
Says one head of communications for a respected German watch brand, “Well, you can do this. But then Baselworld will charge you even more money for creating your own Wi-Fi.” Wait! Hang on one motherf**king second. So Baselworld will actually charge you for setting up your own Wi-Fi, because their Wi-Fi is so bad? “Yes,” explains this same individual, “They will actually charge you a premium to find a solution to their incompetence.”
Hayek’s words now resonate with profound truth when he said, “You don’t have to act like you have in the past. A little bit arrogant. A little bit snobby. And not capable of something new.” He stated, “They promised me, and they said they will do this, and we’ll do that. And then, what happened? They just continue the same way. The management just released on the 7th of July the new program for 2019 that has not been discussed with the major players.”
No Cost Spared
And this attitude is not limited to behavior within Baselworld’s halls. Says a dear friend and the owner of one of Switzerland’s most prestigious watch brands regarding Basel’s one and only five-star hotel, let’s call it the Twelve Apostles. “We had organized a dinner for 30 guests at this hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant. Now please understand that every year we stay at this hotel and entertain there at very considerable expense.”
What he’s too polite to say is that during the Baselworld period, like all other hotels in town, the Twelve Apostles jacks up its rack rate 300 percent and then compels you to pay for all the days of the fair regardless of how many days you stay, but will then re-sell your room if you check out, in the most nefarious of double dipping. It means that its restaurants, along with every eatery in town from the sausage serving warteck upwards, will similarly increase their prices three-fold. (The one exception to this being the sublime restaurant Stucki)
But back to that brand owner’s story: “In the end when we came to the restaurant we had thirty-three people. When I asked for three more chairs to be added for the meal, with the clear understanding that I would pay in full for these three more guests, the restaurant manager said to me ‘The problem is that we don’t have three more chairs in the dining room for you to use. Now we have three chairs in the basement that we can move to your table. But we will have to charge you a transportation fee for each chair we touch.’ I mean I simply couldn’t believe the audacity. We are already paying a huge amount of money and they wanted to essentially play these childish tricks? To me this was indicative of the bad behavior that comes with Baselworld’s arrogance.”
A Precarious Position
The problem for you Baselworld, is this. And perhaps you are not aware of this. But there is an invention called the Internet. And this invention allows an image, a video and a detailed explanation of any watch to be transmitted globally to billions of eyes in a fraction of a second. And social media has become the single biggest game change related to this. I recognize that before the proliferation of the web and Instagram, you had us by the balls. That you essentially set up the one event, where media and retailers around the world had to make the holy pilgrimage to your hallowed halls. But the equation has flipped. No one needs you any more. Clearly, Swatch Group understands this. In their statement related to their #BWexit they said, “Today everything has become more transparent, fast-moving, and instantaneous. Accordingly, a different rhythm and a different approach is needed. It is necessary that [watch fairs] reinvent themselves, responding appropriately to the current situation and demonstrating more dynamism and creativity. [MCH] is clearly more concerned with optimizing and amortizing its new building – which, incidentally, is largely financed by the watch industry during the fairs – than it is in having the courage to make real progress and to bring about true and profound changes.”
So on behalf of my fellow journalists, why do we come to Basel? We come as a courtesy and to show respect to our beloved Swiss watch brands. But Baselworld, do not fail to recognize that it is the brands that now hold all the cards. The moment that Rolex, Patek and Chopard decide to bail, you’re done. You’re over. Basta. Finito. Adios. And the thing is, it would be so easy for them as all of three of them are based in Geneva while LVMH Group already presents all its brand’s watches in Geneva. Can you not see how incredibly precarious your position is?
I would even say this to any brand that doesn’t leave Baselworld: I’m sorry but as much I love you, you are only enabling Rene Kamm and his money-grubbing cronies’ appalling behavior. Because ensconced as you are in your presidential suites at the Twelve Apostles, or rich enough to send down your own personal flotilla of luxury cruise ships, you need to recognize something… the experience of Baselworld for those of us who don’t have access to such privileges is absolutely appalling. The first year of Revolution, before the advent of Airbnb, my photographer and I had to schlep our asses back and forth from Zurich, rising way before the crack of dawn, fighting for seats on an over-crowded train and then always keeping an eye on the clock at watch dinners in case we missed the last train, entailing a 500 Swiss franc taxi ride.
Each March, for the last dozen years and even as I approach the age of 50, I’ve been compelled to regress to college dormitory-like housing, scarfing down the world’s most expensive sausage, run in the freezing cold because I don’t have access to a hotel gym and paid hundreds of thousands of Francs for my team to return to Switzerland twice, once in January and once in March. And I’ve done this willingly. Why? Because I love you and I love the objects of magic you create.
What would be the alternative to Baselworld? Exactly what the ever dynamic Georges Kern did with his relaunch of Breitling, where he held three big events, one in the US, one in Europe and one in Asia and invited regional distributors, retailers and journalists to each. This was a massive statement that he wanted to enhance the experience of the unveiling of his new watches for each of us. And you know what? It cost him less money than going to Baselworld. He explained, “My booth costs me millions. On top of that I am compelled to use Baselworld’s construction company for all the set-up and tear-down of the booth. And in the end I can create a better experience for everyone, with better proximity to my team, a better experience of touching, feeling and understanding my watches by coming to my clients rather than them coming to us at Basel. The contract for Basel is for one more year (2019) and after that we are out.”
And yet the other alternative and the perhaps the most sensible interim one would be for Swatch Group, Rolex, Patek Philippe and Chopard to stage their own presentations in Geneva around the time of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. I understand that might create some first-time finagling for journalists sponsored by the Richemont Group. But let’s work it out. Let’s make it happen. I know that there was already a discussion to move Basel to January that was ultimately vetoed by the biggest luxury watch brand on earth – my understanding was that they felt “They should come to us, we should not come to them.” And I respect this and acknowledge you wear the crown. But I have a solution for you. Why not stage your presentation before SIHH? That way, you will irrefutably be first. Look at it this way from a perspective of community: it will be the greatest time of the year. Everyone will be there. We can get Aurel Bacs to stage his big auction at the end of it and make it one huge party. Hell, we can even invite Rene Kamm and I’ll buy him a sausage.