GENEVA — At the first organized gathering of watch brands since the pandemic brought the Swiss industry to a standstill early this year, a tanned, gray-suited Jean-Christophe Babin was waving an enthusiastic goodbye. “Good to see you, thank you!” he said in his rat-a-tat English, flashing a smile as wide as Lake Geneva.
But the Bulgari chief executive wasn’t bidding adieu to anyone actually in the Ritz-Carlton’s palatial Grace Kelly Suite, which the brand had reserved for Geneva Watch Days, a four-day event that began Aug. 26.
He was sitting in front of a jungle of cameras, lights, screens and wires, showing the company’s new watches, including the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Chronograph Skeleton Automatic, to some international journalists who couldn’t travel to the event.
Outside, however, retail buyers, media representatives and watch fans walked along the city’s famous Quai du Mont-Blanc lakefront boulevard, visiting some of the 17 participating brands’ presentations and the tent headquarters of the event.
“Covid or not, the future of fairs must be phygital,” Mr. Babin said in an interview a few minutes later, referring to a blend of physical and digital features. “Because even with no Covid, many people cannot come to the fairs.”
More Than a Calendar Change
The two major Swiss watch fairs, which had been scheduled in April, were canceled as a result of the government’s coronavirus restrictions. Baselworld, later renamed Hour Universe, and Watches & Wonders Geneva now are scheduled for April 2021.
(Not all events will wait for next year though: Watches & Wonders Shanghai, was scheduled to open by invitation only on Sept. 9, with Vacheron Constantin and Cartier among the exhibitors.)
For anyone with even a passing interest in watches, the major fairs have been important events. Until this year, most brands used these primarily business-to-business gatherings to present most of their new collections and partnerships, with the news passed through retailers and media representatives to fans around the world.
Geneva Watch Days seemed to be proof of long-anticipated change. The public, following mask-wearing and social-distancing guidelines, was invited to view brand displays at the lakeside headquarters, and entry was free.
As the event ended, organizers said about 100 retailers and 250 media representatives, mainly from Europe, had attended, along with about 950 members of the public. Those numbers were tiny in comparison with the 81,200 visitors and 3,300 media representatives at the 2019 Baselworld, which has been the world’s largest watch fair for decades.
But Watch Days organizers said they felt it was important for the industry to be seen now. “It’s good to be talked about,” said Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, Chopard’s co-president, who was in Geneva with his micro-brand Ferdinand Berthoud.
They hope talk will help: The Swiss watch industry has been hammered by the pandemic. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, the value of Swiss watch exports to the end of July this year were down by 33 percent year-over-year. China however, already has shown signs of recovery, down by only 4.2 percent in the same time period, a far cry from the 51 percent decline in Hong Kong and 27 percent in the United States.
Not far from the Ritz-Carlton, the Breitling chief executive Georges Kern was onstage at the Four Seasons with a trio of professional Ironman athletes, introducing the new Endurance Pro athleisure watch.
An audience of around 100 people — masked and socially distanced — watched, while an 11-minute Summit Webcast, as Breitling called it, was released across its online platforms at the same time.
And a cohort of independent watch brands, including H. Moser & Cie, De Bethune and Urwerk, had suites at the Beau Rivage.
Everybody — representatives of brands, retailers, media — kept saying they were just glad to be there. Showing watches. Looking at watches. Talking watches.
Patrick Pruniaux, chief executive of Kering’s luxury watch brands Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux, two of the event’s founding partners, said, “The genesis of the event was with brands and individuals that want to be active during a crisis that is probably going to last for some time.
“We need to show some resilience and optimism,” he added.
“We need newness,” Mr. Kern of Breitling said. “Why should I go into my cave and close the door? This is the first step to a new normal in the industry.”
The event’s operation was a sharp contrast to previous fairs, long criticized for the inflexible rules of their governing bodies, the rental costs at the venues and the expense of local lodging and board. For Geneva Watch Days, the exhibiting brands shared both the cost and organization of the event. And other than erecting the tent, ordering some catering and planning the digital marketing, there was little to coordinate.
Mr. Babin referred to it as “a decentralized, self-managed event,” noting that the 2019 Baselworld had cost Bulgari 5 million Swiss francs, or $5.5 million — while, he said, Geneva Watch Days cost the 17 participating brands a total of less than 1 million francs.
The future of the watch fair was the talk of the town, but it’s a conversation that had been accelerating in recent years with the growth of consumer-facing events and brands’ digital development. “The whole industry is in transformation mode when it comes to these events,” Mr. Scheufele said. “The ideal situation is to have one major event, which brings everybody together. But will this ever happen again? I’m not sure.”
Mr. Scheufele said Chopard — along with Rolex, Patek Philippe and Chanel — will exhibit at a new event in Geneva next April, at the same time as Watches & Wonders, although few other details have been settled. And, if MCH Group, the organizers of Hour Universe, offers a new concept for 2021, Mr. Scheufele said his brands still won’t return. “You could see this coming, because there was no real change coming about” at Baselworld, he said. “And when it came about, it was too late.”
Even if there is just one major spring watch fair in Europe, the consensus among brands was that small, low-cost events like Geneva Watch Days will continue.
“We always felt Watches & Wonders was worth it, but we didn’t try anything else,” said Edouard Meylan, chief executive of H. Moser & Cie. “This year we did. We had no choice. And now we have perspective. If we don’t do a show, what’s the effect? We don’t need those platforms to launch a product.”
Mr. Meylan offered numbers: He said the 2020 Watches & Wonders Geneva would have cost the brand 700,000 francs; its expense at Geneva Watch Days was 45,000 francs. He said the impact of such savings — and the shift in sales patterns that has accompanied the pandemic — have had a significant effect on his business, which sold 1,500 watches last year at an average price of 32,000 francs.
“Since April, we’ve sold 20 percent of our watches through our new e-commerce platform,” he said. “And our average price point has gone up to about 45,000 Swiss francs. Overall, we’ve increased our gross margin by 12 percent and reduced our operational costs because we didn’t do the big fairs. It’s the most profitable semester we’ve had by far.”
Retailers also appear to back the vision of a more digital future. Brian Duffy, chief executive of the Watches of Switzerland Group, which has 135 watch showrooms across the United States and Britain and reported annual revenues of 810 million pounds, or $1 billion, for its fiscal year 2020, said the formula of online introductions, supported by social media and digital advertising was clearly working.
“We’ve started to introduce an automated system for people to register interest,” he said. And, “we’ve found most of the registrations are converting to sales.
“But while we enjoy the virtual presentations, they aren’t a substitute for seeing and handling a watch with a brand,” he said. “That will never go.”