The spread of the coronavirus has yanked the rug out of a lucrative selling channel at the high end of luxury consumption — splashy brand events.
While the seemingly endless stream of disappointments from cancelled dinners, parties, museum visits, cultural happenings and jewelry presentations may figure low on the tally of devastation linked to the pandemic, scuppered events are prompting watch and jewelry houses to rethink strategies as they devise new ways of connecting with VIP clients.
Cultivating closer, more personal ties has emerged as a key element to plans for the future. So, too, has an emphasis on reaching out to clients locally — with restrictions on travel, brands will have to go to them.
“Facing a new reality, you have to readjust — it’s an opportunity to try new things and to learn,” said Jean-Marc Mansvelt, chief executive officer of the historic French jewelry house Chaumet, which belongs to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
“We haven’t decided to just postpone everything and wait for better days. The situation is what it is, we don’t even know how long this will last,” said Mansvelt, noting the label is reconsidering how it approaches events.
Marking Chaumet’s 240th anniversary this year, the executive in February inaugurated the label’s refurbished flagship store on the Place Vendôme, the epicenter of French luxury, filling the historic mansion with guests from around the world, including Japan and the U.S., such as Coco Rocha, who flew in from Los Angeles for the occasion.
Like neighboring brands on the famed square, which include Kering-owned Boucheron, Compagnie Financière Richemont-owned Van Cleef & Arpels, Chanel and Louis Vuitton, Chaumet’s flagship refitting included sprucing up salons with an eye to hosting VIP clients.
But the gilded Chaumet salons, along with those of its neighbors, fell silent in March, as did the rest of Paris, as efforts to slow the spread of the virus halted activity around the world.
“We won’t hold these high jewelry events in Paris as we had planned to, and as we traditionally did — neither with the press nor with high-end clients,” Mansvelt continued.
Cartier did the same, calling off planned festivities for the launch of a high jewelry collection in Paris in July.
“We weren’t able to produce the event given the current conditions — it seemed inopportune to maintain an event in France, in Paris with clients from the world, questions of security and health, so we took a pragmatic approach, the reasonable approach of canceling it,” said Arnaud Carrez, marketing and communications director of Cartier International, which belongs to Richemont.
Instead, Cartier teams have been focused on maintaining contact with clients as they draw up new ideas.
“We have to work in a different manner, come up with new ideas,” he added, noting that the brand’s employees have remained “very engaged.”
“We have teams that feel a strong sense of belonging [to the brand] very engaged, with a desire to offer nice surprises to our various clients despite the current context,” Carrez said.
“We never cut contact with our clients, all of our subsidiaries have been engaged in a considerable amount of work on this front,” he added, emphasizing the importance of “clienteling,” a term that refers to establishing long-term relations with important clients.
“One-to-one clienteling is truly essential in these periods of confinement — all markets are mobilized on this,” he said.
At Chaumet, Mansvelt explained the label will continue to reach its various audiences through screens and by sending its high jewelry pieces to markets around the world.
“We have a two-pronged approach: On the one hand, continue through video means, with live-streams and chats, one-to-one through video and screen, and we will set up a traveling tour for our high jewelry collection starting in July and making stops in our principle markets,” he said.
Planned stops include Taiwain, Beijing and Hong Kong, he added, where clients will be invited to see the pieces, and the press would be brought in for viewing as well.
“I’m sure we will learn a lot about how we can create links through these types of communication,” he said.
While jewelry presentation meetings in Paris have always been very personal, he added, there were often a lot of people to see in a concentrated period of time.
“Now we’ll meet a lot of people but over a much longer period, perhaps even more one-to-one, will this lead to a form of deeper personalization — it will be interesting,” he said.
Even if it will be some time before high-end clients will be able to swoop into the store for private visits of its tiara-lined walls, the boutique will serve as a backdrop for brand communication based around interviews of gem specialists or the head of the workshops on the upper floors, Benoît Verhulle.
Across the square, Boucheron ceo Hélène Poulit-Duquesne is planning a series of intimate, post-lockdown gatherings, offering a meal or a tea to clients in the space.
“Obviously we had to cancel dinners, but we will be able to start that up again. We have a place we created for that — Vendôme,” she said, referring to the flagship store, which was refurbished a year and half ago. “We will make the most of being able to reconnect in small groups at Place Vendôme — respecting all security measures,” including maintaining distances and not embracing one another.
“We are focusing on reconquering our local clientele with a number of events — small dinners at the Place Vendôme. We have space enough to respect ‘courteous’ distances — that’s the term we use at Boucheron. The place is absolutely magic for offering our clients a moment to resume socializing, through a tea, a dinner, a lunch,” she said, noting that sanitary rules would be strictly followed.
“We’re not a restaurant, but we can offer an experience in an incredible place outside the home — while all the restaurants in Paris remain closed,” she said.
Bars and restaurants will gradually begin to reopen in Paris this week but only in outside terraces.
In the meantime, the executive has been keeping in contact with high-end clients through personal messages via WhatsApp and e-mail.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so connected with our VIP clients. I connected with most of our high-level clients, not out of commercial interest, but I wanted to know how they were doing, also their families, their children — where they were staying during the lockdown, if they managed to join their families,” she said.
As for clients abroad who are unable to visit the flagship, the house maintains links locally.
“The idea is that if they can’t come to us, we go to them,” she said of the localized strategy, noting it has been the subject of extensive conversations with subsidiaries, as many events cannot take place abroad given restrictions on travel.
“I hope we will go to a new normal, when it will be easier to travel and socialize, and but in the meantime, brands have to develop alternative ways to market their products,” said Mario Ortelli, managing partner for Ortelli & Co., a strategic and M&A adviser for luxury goods companies.
The industry faces tumult in the quarters ahead, with projections of more than 20 percent sales declines in jewelry and watches this year from Bain & Co.
Noting that brands and retailers have grown accustomed to hosting events around very high-end luxury products like jewelry and watches, but also classic cars and art, bringing together like-minded people to create occasions to purchase, they can now train their focus on select clients and offer private showings, Ortelli said.
“The sky is the limit when it comes to tailoring marketing initiatives for the clients of high jewelry who can spend millions in a day; it’s up to the brands to create the magic to lead these clients to buy their products,” he said.
“You could have a chef make up two tables in a palace garden — the jewelry brand invites you for a romantic dinner, asks you to wear your evening gown and they provide you with different jewels to try — this could be done for clients who spend in the millions,” Ortelli suggested.
The more exclusive an event is, the less likely it will generate brand content that can be used online — another priority for labels seeking to connect with clients in an environment where physical meetings are restricted.
“If I’m a billionaire and I go with my wife to the special night that the brand is creating for me, in the castle, outside Paris, with a chef and whatever — I don’t want my image on instagram,” he said. The influencer, on the other hand, may be happy to take part in an event that could generate content, but won’t be likely to spend millions.
“So this is the subtle balance,” Ortelli added.
Taking a longer view, Ortelli noted the industry will likely be helped by having a better geographic balance than in the past.
“Luxury has survived world wars, and it will survive this pandemic,” predicted Ortelli, who pointed out that the sector stands to gain from its global reach, now that it is no longer concentrated on one continent.