Parmigiani Fleurier's Capitole model at SIHH 2019

The watch sector begins its first event of the year, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, or SIHH, near the quiet shores of Lake Geneva as the industry’s landscape continues to rumble.

The Jan. 14 to 17 event, which moves to April in 2020, is known for setting the tone of the upcoming year. Following months of tumultuous change across the sector, this year’s edition will be closely eyed for signs of what’s ahead for traditional, high-end watchmakers as they struggle to secure appeal with younger consumers in a digital era.

The upscale fair is dominated by labels belonging to Compagnie Financière Richemont, including Cartier, Piaget and Vacheron Constantin, but also includes Kering houses Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux as well as Hermès and Parmigiani Fleurier. Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille, meanwhile, will be showing at SIHH for the last time this year. In September, the two labels revealed plans to quit the fair in order to focus on adapting their relationships with clients.

Richard Mille said it wants to concentrate on developing its own store network while Audemars Piguet indicated it seeks to build stronger relationships with end consumers.

Rival trade fair Baselworld is also in flux, adjusting to the impact of the departure of Swatch Group, which owns labels including Longines, Breguet and Omega in addition to its namesake label, a move revealed over the summer that prompted change in the highest ranks of the show’s organizers. Among measures from the new fair director, Michel Loris-Melikoff, the former director of Zurich’s Street Parade techno festival, are getting coordinated with SIHH president Fabienne Lupo to hold the rival fairs back-to-back in April starting next year. SIHH is scheduled for April 26 to 29, immediately followed by Baselworld on April 30 to May 5. Event organizers said the move would make it easier for people traveling to Switzerland to tap into both events through one trip and have synchronized their agendas until 2024.

The plans are “an extremely good thing for all of us — it’s good for SIHH and it’s good for us and it’s good for the industry,” said Loris-Melikoff in a recent interview with WWD. Noting the evolving nature of the trade fair business, he characterized the change as an ongoing transformation from classical, traditional trade fairs to experiential platforms.

Shifts in consumption habits are forcing watchmakers to rethink their distribution networks as well as communication channels, with the rise of the Internet offering new ways to interact with clients but also making it harder to be noticed in the crowd. Competition from the Apple Watch and other smartwatches has added a further layer of complexity, affecting lower-priced timepieces in particular.

High-end labels are set to outperform their less expensive counterparts, according to analysts, who point to data like Swiss watch exports. In a recent example of this trend, the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry reported November growth was fueled by pricier timepieces, with watches worth more than 3,000 Swiss francs, or around $3,000, up 8.4 percent, outpacing a rate of 3.9 percent overall for the month.

Luxury appetite in China remains key to the sector, which is wary of rising trade tensions that could disrupt business. Indicators show luxury consumption in China is headed for a soft landing, analysts say, with HSBC predicting a slowing of global growth in high end goods to 6 percent over the next two years from 9 percent last year. The pace of Chinese luxury consumption will likely ease into a rate of high-single-digit growth following around six years of low-double-digit increases, according to Morgan Stanley, which sees future business fueled by younger generations, and, increasingly, women.

The first major luxury group to post end-of-year figures, Richemont on Friday said sales of its specialist watchmakers were flat over the last three months of the year.

In a bid to show it is adapting to fast-changing times, SIHH organizers have put an interactive space called LAB in the center of the fair this year, its 29th edition, featuring displays of new technology like virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Digital communications students from a local higher education institution will be on hand to guide visitors, as well as Pepper the robot, and workshops on social media and digital content will take place there. The show has also bulked up the amount of speeches, panels and interviews on site, streaming content live, like last year.

Among recent changes in the top brass attending this edition of SIHH, Jaeger-LeCoultre has a new executive, Catherine Rénier, while Ulysse Nardin chief executive officer Patrick Pruniaux has also taken the reins of Kering’s other main watchmaking label, Girard-Perregaux. Jean-Marc Pontroué, who attended last year’s edition as ceo of Roger Dubuis, will return this year, but as ceo of Panerai.

The show is counting on visitors numbering around 20,000, last year’s number, the highest amount for SIHH.