Baselworld 2017 – an OpEd on What Went Down in Switzerland
Now that Baselworld 2017 has come to a close, it’s a good time to reflect on what happened, what didn’t happen and to, once again, give you a peek behind the life, even if it’s only my temporary life, of a watch journalist. Here at Fratellowatches, we value the interaction we have with our readers, so, as always, feel free to fire away with questions in the comments area. We’re happy to share more about our experiences at the show and realize that something we forget to mention may be interesting to you.
On an early Wednesday morning, I rolled out of Frankfurt in my car down the A5 and made my way to Karlsruhe to pick up Blaise. We promptly hopped over to the nearby supermarket and grabbed the essentials – beer, yogurt, some apples, breakfast bars, and more beer (Blaise loves the Hefe). Then it was more A5 until we reached our AirBnB just over the border from Basel, but still in Germany. With that, let’s erase one misnomer. Despite the fact that we cover luxury goods, we’re not holing up at the Ritz. An AirBnB, as many of you know is like a crapshoot (just ask Robert-Jan about his cat-hair filled accommodations in Bienne…yuck), but this time we came up all sevens. It was a nice place and well stocked with coffee, fruit, and more yogurts. From there, and from every morning following until our Sunday departure, it was a short drive to the local train station and a 15-minute tram into Basel. Not bad, but certainly not as nice as a quick walk from a nearby hotel. Still, at least it enabled us to stay out until midnight in order to attend various Baselworld 2017 events without worrying about driving over the limit.
Upon entering Baselworld 2017 this year, we noticed a couple things. First off, the badge pick up area has become extremely efficient and the Press Centre (think of a mezzanine overlooking the lobby of one large hall) has stepped up their game as far as food and drink. When you’re rushing from appointment to appointment, you simply cannot imagine the importance of this last piece. Honestly, if they handed out marathon gel packs, most people would “jam them” as there’s that little time to actually eat like a human.
Similarly, the coffee goes all day and it’s amazing to see how many espressos one can devour in the Centre and at each appointment.
Regarding the appointments at watch companies, here’s another thing that most readers won’t have guessed – the person you meet is often the lead for a given country. For example, Fratello doesn’t necessarily meet with the same PR person as another online publisher unless we happen to be from the same country (The Netherlands is our home base). Then, sometimes, you meet with a 3rd party PR Rep. That’s right, there are times when we meet with someone who doesn’t even work for the brand, but handles a brand’s publicity for that market. It’s these folks, by the way, who often know far less about a brand than we do – scary!
Appointments, by the way, last between 30 and 60 minutes and, depending on the number of new releases by a company; it’s an absolute flurry of activity to take photographs and notes before time expires. Normally, once the time is over, that’s it – there’s no chance to return! So, what were some of the trends (good and bad) that we saw at Baselworld 2017?
The Bad at Baselworld 2017
Look, there’s no getting around this, but the watch industry had a tough year in 2016. The effects were visibly obvious at Baselworld 2017 because there were roughly 200(!!) less exhibitors. I’ll qualify that, though as there are miscellaneous companies such as jewelers, booksellers, etc. The Pavillion, once home to many Haute Horlogerie brands, was gone, as those brands have left, moved to SIHH or to a new hall called “Les Ateliers”. Also, the halls were smaller with curtains blocking off unused portions. It did feel smaller, but the ability of the halls to contract appropriately at least made them feel crowded on public days. Interestingly, in speaking to some brands, the word was that the fair organizers seemingly revealed little signs of a slowdown during negotiations for booth costs. As a result, we saw an increase in brands using nearby hotel conference rooms instead.
Another theme we noticed this year at Baselworld 2017 was a continued ignorance toward online publishers by so many brands. Look, I get it that many wristwatch companies like exclusivity and are run by aristocratic gentry, but an attitude by some brands that clearly gives off a “we don’t take you seriously unless you’re working with print” elitism is passé. It’s also wrong and, sorry to say, stupid. Digital is here – it’s been here – and if you don’t believe me, you should have seen (and registered the complaints) about the massive Samsung Galaxy booth that honestly garnered a lot more traffic than some stately brands. Let me tell you, they were anything but unwelcoming.
Staying on my rant, online publishers do some great work. Plus, they have the advantage of being more real time than print and, surprise surprise, we’re actually not a bunch of basement bloggers writing forum commentaries. We create content that’s as good as print – and we are the future of advertising (yes, I know…that future is already here, but I have to be pedantic). So, yes, as someone who moonlights in this game, I take offense when a brand is 20-30 minutes late, forgets an appointment, magically can’t find a free conference room, or, worse yet, doesn’t know whom the hell we are (and we drop our competitor’s names to give them some sort of comparison – often with the same result).
In my other work life, this type of behavior would get you thrown out of my office and you’d lose business – but molasses often is a good descriptor of the rate of change in the watch game. Trust me, within the watch landscape, the worm will turn and within 3-5 years, online will all of the sudden become interesting. So, this was disappointing at Baselworld 2017, but there are always bright spots.
The Good at Baselworld 2017
Despite having some real loser appointments at Baselworld 2017, we also had a lot of winners. Even though 2016 was a very difficult watch year (2017 will likely be tough too), we saw some great novelties. In fact, I’d say that many companies introduced watches more aligned with the times. They were smaller, more content focused, and less complicated for complication’s sake.
We also heard brands talking about value and features being added to watches that were never available at price points $5,000 and under. This was really good. Some examples that come to mind are the new Omega Railmaster series, Monta’s lineup, Eterna’s new KonTiki’s, the ever-present Seiko, Nomos and so many others. There were real watches shown this year and aside from some brands refusing to believe that people really don’t want 46mm timepieces, we saw a long awaited return to 40mm as a diameter. Power to the small wristed!
On the conversation front, we heard more honest talk from brands at Baselworld 2017 versus any other year. Brands spoke openly and honestly about movement costs, where parts are sourced from (it seems that China has all but taken over the bracelet and ceramic game), and why choices were made from a design perspective. Despite my bitching above, the brands that get it are listening to online opinion, social media and the like.
This, plus faster turnaround times from design to production are allowing them to make far more relevant and timely watches. And, best of all, they are communicating on social media platforms like Instagram. For those brands that embrace digital, they likely don’t realize how fantastic it is for a buyer or fan to get a “like” from the CEO of a brand – trust me, it’s seriously powerful and builds loyalty (nicely done, Omega!).
We’re also seeing the rise of the micro brands like never before. Whether it’s a Kickstarter brand like Straton or a homegrown like Oak & Oscar, these brands are present and out there talking to people. It’s “old school traveling salesman” in some ways with these guys carrying a briefcase of samples around Baselworld 2017 or an iPad with renderings, but it’s also very modern because they’re seeking input and making quick changes to please their fans. These guys throw a get together at a bar or café and they’re well attended. Plus, the movement makers are starting to take them seriously now and are listening when they say they want 200 – 1,000 movements. It’s great stuff and while not all will survive, we could see some of these usurp the lazier, more established brands. Again, the importance of communication with one’s buyers is so crucial and, with their online sales platforms, it’s also proof positive that the current and future generations of watch buyers have little desire to buy watches solely at brick and mortar boutiques.
Trends at Baselworld 2017
If 2016 was the year of PVD (Tudor, Heuer, and others), Baselworld 2017 was the year of the blue dial. We saw loads of blue dials from brands such as Omega, Rolex, Monta, Eterna, Zenith, Nomos and so many others.
I asked one brand about this and they said, matter of factly, we don’t know why it took everyone so long but people just started to realize that it wears well with everything. As an admirer of the color in general and vintage classics such as the old Tudor Subs, this is one trend that I like!
Vintage or retro continues to play a large role in the “new” releases from brands. Omega led the way with its trio of 1957 of reissues, Tissot launched a heritage chronograph (finally), Rolex kinda played the game with its red font Sea Dweller, Longines continued its Heritage line, Hamilton reissued its 1960’s chronograph, and even Rado got into the game with a Captain Cook reissue. Curmudgeons see it as proof that the industry is dead and out of ideas, but I see it as just one more ingredient in the soup we call the watch world. For me, if retro or vintage inspired is done well, it’s a welcome addition and may serve to draw a buyer into looking at other pieces from the marque. Also, and there is no mistaking this, the majority of us online publishers were wearing vintage to Baselworld 2017. Yes, we love them and vintage watches are hot, but it’s also because they’re not as offensive to a competing brand and they’re fun to pass around during evening events.
Overall Impressions of Baselworld 2017
I’ve attended the show for 5 years (the first 2 were as a public visitor) and for me, Baselworld 2017 was my favorite. It was a bit stripped down and the watches just resonated more with my preferences. Unlike so many who are sounding the death knell for the industry, I actually think the current environment of adversity will lead to cleansing and reinvention. After all, creativity often comes into play alongside desperation and this is great for watch lovers.
For those who refuse to acknowledge the changing market and the media outlets that now serve it, both big and small brands, the future won’t be pretty. Even for those who feel invincible, I can recount numerous examples in other industries of once mighty brands that fell from atop Olympus shortly after the onset of complacency. Overall, well done to so many brands and I cannot wait for 2018 – it should be fantastic!