By now, it’s likely that you and everyone you know has heard about the big news coming out of the Baselworld trade fair — namely, that Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek pulled all of his company’s 18 brands, including Longines, Breguet, Omega, and Harry Winston, out of Baselworld for 2019, leaving an already downsized show looking more like the cast of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In response to Hayek’s move, René Kamm – then-CEO of MCH Group (the parent company of Baselworld and ArtBasel) – made it sound as if Hayek’s decision was unexpected. In a statement released shortly after the news of Swatch Group’s decision reached all the corners of the earth, Kamm expressed the following: “The cancellation is all the more surprising for us because this news reaches us at a point in time when new management has arrived with a new team, new esprit and many new ideas.” And yet just days after Kamm released his seemingly defensive retort, he resigned, leaving those of us who write about the watch industry buying as many packages of microwave popcorn as we could find.
But the news coming out of Switzerland has led many to question not just the future of the Baselworld show, but also the future of Goliath-like trade fairs in general.
“The news coming out of Switzerland has led many to question not just the future of the Baselworld show, but also the future of Goliath-like trade fairs in general.”
Basel was once centered on high-end jewelry brands and gemstones, with the watch section being an afterthought. Now it is known as the only show where Rolex and Patek Philippe currently exhibit. I use the term “currently” because at the rate news is occurring in the watch industry, we really don’t know what to expect or what will come next, but we know that everyone is talking about it, and at the end of the day, that point isn’t a negative one.
Over the past several years, I’ve heard folks from various corners of the jewelry industry express a similar opinion on trade fairs: “There are just too many shows.” Retailers, wholesalers, buyers and exhibitors alike feel that the costs associated with sending themselves and/or a team to many of these trade shows gets to be too much, and as a journalist, I can’t disagree. While I sometimes have the privilege of being hosted by some of the shows if I’m a speaker, fairs like Baselworld are 100 percent out-of-pocket for me as a freelance journalist. So when one attends the show only to find out that the town has decided to raise its hotel and restaurant prices for the duration of the show, it can be enough to make one question whether it’s worth the trip.
Then there’s the case of the new, smaller “anti-shows” that are popping up almost daily. These more intimate events are making somewhat of an impact on our industry by offering more personalized experiences with independent jewelry and watch brands. Jewelry-centric shows like Metal & Smith, The Hamptons Jewelry Show and Melee the Show are all on the new side but have managed to gain traction and even pull in well-known retailers and buyers. Often, the designers who’ve committed to exhibiting at these boutique-style shows are one-person operations that may not be able to afford a big booth at an enormous Vegas trade fair. By showcasing among those who are in the same financial situation as they are, they have a greater chance for exposure while being able to get one-on-one time with press and retailers.
Case in point, when I asked jewelry designer Julie Lamb – who recently exhibited at the Hamptons Jewelry Show – what she thought about the boutique-style buying events at which she’s been exhibiting, she said: "For one, they are more affordable. This is appealing for emerging designers who cannot write off the event as a marketing expense. Secondly, the space is usually smaller and therefore easier to manage a single case or tabletop. A new brand doesn’t want to get lost at a big show; you want to be seen, not be a needle in a haystack. And last, you have a more community-type of feel at these smaller shows, which includes better access to the show staff if you have questions. Plus, there is great camaraderie amongst the designers, with less pressure to perform because you view one another as peers, not competition. For the most part, designers are very supportive of each other and open to sharing info."
But some retailers still see larger trade shows as beneficial.
"I prefer larger shows,” says Brian Merkley of Merkley Kendrick Jewelers of Louisville, KY. "I find they give me an opportunity to actually walk the aisles, identifying trends and seeing what’s new without the need to have 100 of the same small-talk discussions. Those 'how’s business/how's the family/what are you selling well?' conversations seem to be a big part of those smaller shows. Additionally, I am attending on my own dime, and at larger shows, I don’t feel the pressure to buy that I might if I were to attend a boutique show, which is part of the reason I’ve actually never gone to any of the smaller, all-inclusive shows."
And then, of course, there are the somewhat larger shows that are giving both the buyer and the exhibitor more of a boutique-style feel. Shows like COUTURE and COUTUREtime are held in suites, cabanas and ballrooms at the Wynn and Encore hotels during Vegas Jewelry Week, allowing for a personalized experience while still offering buyers the ability to see a multitude of brands and designers.
The Centurion Show in Scottsdale has been doing the same for years, which I have to believe is why it is still one of the most well-attended jewelry trade shows in the U.S.
Whatever the outcome, there’s no denying that the idea of the traditional trade fair is changing. News the likes of what came out of Switzerland recently should be enough to make every management team for every major trade fair sit up, take notes and listen to the needs, wants and requests of those exhibiting as well as of those attending, because let’s face it, you can’t have a trade show without both, but there will still be a jewelry industry and a watch industry even if the trade fairs go away altogether.
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