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Are ‘Piggybackers’ Smart Marketers — Or Just Trade Show Moochers?

Promoting yourself at a show without paying for a booth just isn’t cool, says Barbara Palumbo.

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BASELWORLD JUST WASN’T in the cards for me this year. As a freelance writer, trips to attend trade shows like these are almost always paid out of pocket for me unless those shows offers hotel rooms, or in some cases, airfare. So when it comes to spending enormous amounts to be present at a trade show, I get the struggle, and I’m not even an exhibitor. But even with my absence from Baselworld this year, I was still there in social media spirit through posts made by my colleagues and friends, and in some cases, by brands I didn’t even realize I was following, including one watch brand that was giving away free watches at the fair.

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Let me explain that last line a bit further. A new watch brand whose name I won’t mention (and I will go into why shortly) decided it was going to dress a couple of its employees in T-shirts emblazoned with the company logo and have those employees hand out a number of its low-priced watches to attendees of the Baselworld fair. In other words, the brand didn’t spend any money to rent a booth or to buy materials for said booth, nor did it pay cleaning fees or booth lighting costs or pay for any of the other things for which every exhibitor pays when exhibiting at a trade show. And while that might seem like smart marketing to some, the reality is, the company piggybacked on the brands that did pay those costs. But this watch brand decided it was going to go one step further by not only taking advantage of Baselworld’s popularity, but by also slamming the fair on its public Facebook page, which, frankly, is when my blood began to boil.

“Why are we giving away our watches?” was the line that initially caught my eye. “Baselworld has become a perfect example of everything wrong in the Swiss watch industry: price gouging, forced exclusivity, and being totally out of touch with how the world is changing. We’re tired of paying through our nose to be part of a special club. We don’t need Rolex or Patek Phillipe to spend $20mm on a fancy booth to make us feel better about ourselves. We’re smarter than that. We looked at our sponsorship options and said screw this: we’re not lining the pockets of these guys anymore. Instead of spending money on a booth or advertising, we’re spending money on you. You’re coming to BaselWorld and you want Swiss watches? We got you.”

Now, as many of you know or have guessed, I’m someone who has no problem stating my public opinion about a person, a brand or an act, especially when I feel like manipulation, lawbreaking or wrongdoing is taking place. And on this particular day, I decided to reply to this brand’s post in my usual delightful way.

“Then you shouldn’t be walking around on the show floor to hand out your watches. If you don’t want anything to do with Basel, don’t have anything to do with it. But don’t piggyback on its popularity to build your brand’s awareness. People will notice, and their memories aren’t short.”

My response received far more likes than did the brand’s initial post about its watch giveaway, which made me think a little more about what I’ve witnessed in my over two decades walking trade show floors. These guys weren’t doing anything new. They didn’t come up with some earth-shattering marketing plan because they played the system. They mooched (which is why I won’t name them, because I refuse to give free press to moochers) and then boasted about their mooching, which in the end, got them kicked out of the fair by the Swiss police. But where is the line between mooching and simply cutting costs? What do we as an industry consider to be acceptable, and is that acceptability up for debate?

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We all know those brands that set up shop somewhere close to some big trade show, year after year. Even in Basel during Baselworld, there are separate mini-shows that are happening at the same time. For example, there are several independent watch brands that pay a fair amount to take up shop at the Hyperion hotel, and this year, a new event called “Jewels Basel” sent cars to retrieve registered buyers and members of the press in order for them to attend. This, in my opinion, is piggybacking of the acceptable kind. Or rather, maybe because it isn’t blatant, or, dare I say, rude, we’ve grown accustomed to it. I mean, Las Vegas now has a plethora of shows, but some show had to come first, right? And look at all of the shows that happen in Tucson. You can throw a phallic-shaped geode and hit a number of them. But what separates these mini-shows from an act the likes of which the watch-brand-that-shall-not-be-named set out to accomplish is common decency, or as we in the industry refer to it, a code of ethics, because this brand did its dirty deeds on Baselworld’s show floor, and for me, that was a no-no.

Registering at a trade show – any trade show – as a guest of that show does not give you the right to do business there unless you’re a retailer or a buyer. If you’re a melee dealer and you’re looking to sell your diamonds to the exhibitors at the show you’re attending, pay the money and get a booth. If you’re an influencer and your main purpose is to have exhibiting designers or attending retailers pay you to post on social media about them, then you’re a business, so pay the money and get a booth. Don’t walk the show floor giving out your business card to every brand or store that spent its hard-earned cash getting there, because they’re trying to make a living just like you are, and they have expenses just like you do, and as I said above, people’s memories aren’t short, particularly in this business. We all need to remember that the more we use our code of ethics, the longer this business will be around.

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