Baselworld - outside the show hall

PARIS — Is this the deathknell of Baselworld?

Industry observers asked the question Tuesday following the sudden exit of a clutch of luxury watch labels that had propped up the fair — Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chanel, Chopard and Tudor now plan to hold their own show in Geneva next April, alongside the Fondation de la Haute Horlorgerie’s rival event, Watches and Wonders.

“This looks like the end of Baselworld, unfortunately,” said Luca Solca, luxury analyst with Bernstein.

Rolex and Patek Philippe were the only remaining bastions, following the departure of Swatch Group, Kering brands Ulysse Nardin and Girard Perregaux, and countless others, he added.

Baselworld organizers MCH Group expressed shock at the news.

“It is with great surprise and equally great regret that the MCH Group takes note of the cancellation of major exhibitors at Baselworld,” the company said in a statement.

“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,” added the event’s organizer, indicating the show’s future is anything but certain.

Talk has swirled of tensions between exhibiting brands and organizers over show fees following the postponement of this year’s edition, originally scheduled for the spring, until January 2021.

The new date had been “defined jointly with leading exhibitors,” said MCH Group, adding it understood that companies now exiting the show had spoken in favor of the postponement date in past 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,” the group said.

At issue was the group’s offer to carry 85 percent of fees paid for the canceled 2020 edition to the January 2021 show, while keeping 15 percent to help contribute to charges, whereas the exhibiting brands were asking for a full refund.

In their statement, departing labels also alluded to disagreement with organizers.

“The decision to leave Baselworld was not easy, I myself am a fourth generation Stern family member to take part in this traditional, annual event,” said Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe.

The executive said his label’s vision was not “in sync” with that of Baselworld organizers.

“There were too many discussions and non-resolved problems, confidence was no longer there,” he added.

Rolex president Jean-Frédéric Dufour noted the label had shown at Baselworld since 1939 but initiated discussions for the new show.

The planned event will allow Chanel to show its new products in “an environment that meets our demanding criteria,” said Chanel watches and jewelry president Frédéric Grangié.

Watches and Wonders, formerly known as SIHH, is dominated by labels belonging to Compagnie Financière Richemont, and was traditionally held in January. Organizers had coordinated with Baselworld managers to schedule the events back-to-back, in April and May, to allow globetrotting showgoers to attend both events in one trip. But the spread of the coronavirus scuppered both events this year, with local authorities banning large gatherings in a bid to curb the epidemic.

Beyond disagreements between Baselworld organizers and exhibiting labels, however, the relevance of splashy trade shows with elaborate stands, often several stories high, has come under question as the rise of digital channels allows brands to communicate directly with consumers. Critics have said that Baselworld grew too costly and was ill-adapted to an era when brands are trying to forge closer ties with clients.

Baselworld organizers said they had been spurred on by “postitive and supportive feedback,” from small and medium-sized exhibitors in particular, to invest “substantial development” of the show, and establishing additional digital platforms.

The group had sought to redirect efforts toward establishing a connection with its community throughout the year, reconfiguring the show as a marketing and communications platform.

LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton has continued to throw its weight behind Baselworld, where its labels Zenith, Tag Heuer, Bulgari and Hublot have been well-positioned at the entrance of the sprawling exhibitor halls in Basel, Switzerland. But this year the group kicked off its annual product launch schedule with a new watch event in Dubai, holding intimate presentations in seaside villas to introduce its latest collections. And Bulgari opted out of the planned Baselworld edition this spring, saying it would make a decision on committing to further editions by the end of June. Meanwhile, the Italian label banded together with rivals including Ulysse Nardin to set up an alternative watch event in Geneva, called Geneva Days and scheduled for August.

Participation fees and dates are key elements to any decision, Bulgari’s chief executive officer Jean-Christophe Babin has said.

Reacting to the impending arrival of rival watch labels in Geneva, Jérôme Lambert, chief executive officer of Richemont, said on behalf of the Fondation de la haute Horlogerie, that he was pleased to see the creation of a new show associated with Watches and Wonders.

“One great Swiss tradition is over, a new one will need to be established,” Solca said.