From late March to early April 2022, Geneva, Switzerland welcomed visitors to the first in-person Watches & Wonders Geneva event at the Palexpo convention center. The aBlogtoWatch team was there for the full duration of the experience. Hosting nearly 40 major watchmakers from mostly European luxury brands, the large event heralded a welcome return to timepiece industry trade shows, once a common semi-annual sojourn for a diverse set of international professionals working in the timepiece space.
Switzerland has not held such a trade show since 2019, the year that the legacy shows SIHH and Baselworld became extinct. In a sense, Watches & Wonders is a combination of those two events, with exhibitors coming from both. In fact, the Watches & Wonders floor layout comprises two major wings — one that is more or less the leftovers of SIHH and one that is an assortment of many of the larger brands that populated Baselworld’s Hall 1. People are already probably starting to forget that it was not the COVID-19 pandemic that ended SIHH & Baselworld, but rather a changing outlook on the commercial nature and ROI of attending such lavish, resource-intensive events, both human and monetary. Doom upon collective trade shows was foretold, and it was believed that most brands wishing to interface with the public and their colleagues would go at it alone. Nevertheless, in 2022, after what was a successful Watches & Wonders show, it certainly feels like the big European watch trade show is back.
Prior to offering our list of the top watches of Watches & Wonders Geneva 2022, which will be published tomorrow, I’d like to follow our tradition of offering an analysis of the trends and sentiments of the show, as aBlogtoWatch has been front and center at similar events for more than a decade now. I will begin by suggesting that the “Watches & Wonders” name is actually a rather good title for the program. Indeed, the several-day-long event is populated by timepieces… and questions that need answers. Is the watch industry healthy? Will there be more Watches & Wonders events like this in the future? Is that other brand doing better than my brand? When will the pandemic finally abate in all places across the globe? Is this SIHH? No, Is this Baselworld? No. Wait, what city am I in? These are just some of the many things people in Geneva have been wondering about as an industry fatigued with Zoom calls and business-by-distance came together once again.
While the pandemic affected various parts of the watch industry differently, in some truly epic ways, the luxury watch industry is doing far better than anyone expected after a global pandemic. Watch sales in major markets are exceptionally healthy due to a complex latticework of causes, including authentic (versus manufactured) product exclusivity, luxury watches category consumer popularity, and digital retail availability. Products like Rolex watches are notoriously hard to find at retail, and many brands are experiencing a seller’s market in which they can enjoy more demand than they can supply and, accordingly, are able to more readily dictate terms to their retailers. In many ways, it is a great time to be a company selling in-demand luxury watches. This larger, optimistic market outlook is probably the most positive defining factor of Watches & Wonders 2022. Even with numerous uncertainties in the market and frustrations, such as ongoing supply-chain issues, most of the luxury watch industry believes the future is bright. That strong sentiment carried pandemic-exhausted people through the show, and also maintained their excitement for next year (even if 12 months from now seems like a long time in today’s rapidly evolving geo-political landscape).
Despite nearly three years of being out of trade show shape, most people at Watches & Wonders Geneva 2022 were in excellent spirits. With COVID-19 restrictions in Switzerland having recently ended, being at the event felt as though the pandemic never happened, though there was a conspicuous lack of visitors from many countries, including notable places such as China and other watch-hot destinations in Asia. Watches & Wonders does have a sister event in Shanghai, but this smaller corollary of the main Geneva event will not likely include the full complement of exhibiting brands. It will take a few more years before Watches & Wonders feels like the truly international event that Baselworld and SIHH are remembered as. Still organized by the FHH, Watches & Wonders will more than likely continue to evolve and refine its offering over the next few years, especially given the elevated expectations of participating brands that can spend millions of dollars just to exhibit. “Return on investment” is on everyone’s minds as the appetite for large expenditures is still highly tempered by expected outcomes. Risk and creativity are, in large part, sacrificed, as 2022 is still very much about playing it safe.
One of the more interesting questions when it comes to next year’s Watches & Wonders event is what brands will exhibit at the 2023 installment. At least a few dozen watch brands not part of the Watches & Wonders show informally exhibited around town in Geneva, and still many more brands still don’t have a new trade show home, including the entirety of the Swatch Group. One option is that Watches & Wonders Geneva 2023 will actually grow in size to include more exhibitors, becoming the mega-show that Baselworld once was. (About 10 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for nearly 1,000 exhibitors to participate across brands, suppliers, and industry players.) Alternatively, Swiss trade shows might go in the opposite direction, with groups branching off and forming new shows with their friends. There are a number of reasons to believe that the future holds more watch shows, not fewer, though most will be relatively compact in their size and more ambitious in their scope.
The very structure of Watches & Wonders demonstrates that the event is for now comprised of companies that do not necessarily see eye to eye. Richemont Group and friends broke off from Baselworld years ago to form the more exclusive SIHH event in Geneva. Now the major players from these two camps are working together out of convenience, and perhaps necessity, but not because of fresh understandings or cooperative agreements. Watches & Wonders 2022 was full of rumors between inter-group fights and rivalries as it was suggested Richemont and competitor LVMH’s managers bickered a bit, and also that the old SIHH side and the newer Baselworld-brand side disagreed on a variety of things such as policies about invite guests and members of the media. That said, being at Watches & Wonders 2022 was a rather peaceful and composed experience. More so, most of these major watch industry tradeshows end with at least some form of squabbling among members and/or the organization.
One seeming vestige of legacy trade shows at Watches & Wonders was the invitation-only concept, the idea being that the general public is not invited and that included guests are hand-selected and often voted on. While there are useful practical purposes ranging from security to crowding to merit an invitation-only event, in circa 2022, the concept is starting to show age. Alternatively, watch trade shows should probably move toward mixed-audience models that include members of the watch industry as well the general public. Dubai Watch Week is famous for being an example of a successful mixed-audience event, and it is further true that watch trade shows today are more about media and publicity versus product wholesaling to retailers and distribution partners. I do get that Watches & Wonders 2022, being a more exclusive event, acts in the benefit of aBlogtoWatch given that, otherwise, it would be more challenging to get time with brands and see products, but it is also hard not to concede that much of the investment of exhibiting at the show is lost if not everyone who wants to come visit and experience new products is able to.
Watches & Wonders 2023 should evolve into a mixed industry and general public event. Brands should strive to maximize visitors to their booths while concurrently giving media plenty of opportunities to capture original media. Unfortunately, very few exhibitors are ready for such an event. One of the most interesting outcomes of the pandemic on the watch industry is to notice which brands have spent the last three years improving and which have been more or less sitting on their hands. Both types of brands were present at Watches & Wonders 2022 — and a depressing number of companies seemed to be struggling just to make sense of how to make the most out of the show. Over the last few years, it seems as though too many watch brands have been idle and are only now figuring out a post-pandemic plan. The good news is that at least some have been much more active.
From a product perspective, it would be challenging to identify too many new trends to emerge from Watches & Wonders 2022. A lot of the new products were originally intended to be released a while back, or represent what brands are able to accomplish given today’s supply chain issues. But many brands spent the pandemic trying to make their existing products even better. The bad news is that serious art and creativity are still uncommon, as brands seek to produce “familiar-style” products that hit into current areas of consumer interest. Personally, we like it when watch brands show us something that we’ve never seen before and inspire our imagination. Alas, such products tend to require a few years to penetrate the market. Familiar and trendy designs may fare less well in the long run, but when done right, they can be good sources of immediate cash — something most managers seem to be eager about securing these days.
While brand strategies didn’t shift too much during the pandemic, people clearly did. Veterans of the wristwatch industry rarely leave permanently, but the game of “musical chairs” (as we call it) goes on in full force. This is the practice of people moving from one company to another, often doing the same or similar things. Familiar faces were a welcome appearance at Watches & Wonders 2022, but not necessarily at the same brands or even groups. Professionals who do not own their own businesses, from all positions in the watch industry, have moved around liberally during the last few years. Employees formerly at big groups beam at the relative comfort and freedom they enjoy now working at smaller companies, and employees from smaller brands now working at big groups coo about job security and benefits. It is very much a case of “the grass is greener on the other side.” What is true, however, is that in an industry where personality cults are more popular than pragmatic business models, employees are always in search of fair work conditions and managers who treat them with respect. As top management changes, so often do the support staff around them.
One reason so many people changed jobs within the watch industry, as opposed to exiting it altogether, is probably related to a current lack of replicable successful business models. Thus, human resources tend to flow away from brands that don’t have good operating plans, and toward brands that appear to be in a growth phase. Watch brands that are successful tend to enjoy that position for reasons external to the daily management of their organizations, meaning that having a good manager is not what typically creates watch brand success. It is more accurate to say that a good manager orients a brand to handle demand and welcome consumer popularity but is usually not the locus of such brand assets. A good manager gives a brand the ability to grow as a result of success but isn’t often the force that leads a brand there in the first place. Why is this relevant?
This topic is relevant because it points to the fact that, in 2022, there aren’t watch brand business plans to follow that can lead to big corporate gains. Rather, there are individual people with ideas and charisma who may get backing to implement their plans and see how it goes. Investors who believe (often arbitrarily so) that a brand’s current manager isn’t doing a good job often oust them and their team and recruit someone with a different idea to try. Those discarded human resources often find other brands within which to experiment with their ideas, hoping for eventual success. This is a really important concept to consider because it goes straight to how many watch brands operate and exposes some of the dysfunction that can arise with personality-run brands in an industry with few baselines or business rubrics to follow. Three watch brand business areas in which the concept of “there are no good business models to follow” are: product design and development, retail distribution and sales strategy, and the form and size of advertising or marketing campaigns. Each of these areas requires brands to “figure it out” for themselves, with no clear success by merely copying the presumed strategy of others. Thus, originality and risk continue to be inseparable elements of the formula for having a successful luxury watch brand, these days.
Watches & Wonders 2022 new products included mostly high-end goods, but there was certainly a range of price points. That said, outside of a few rare examples, the vast majority of new watches were priced starting at $3,000 USD and went up to over a million dollars. Many of the new watches enjoyed by the aBlogtoWatch team had prices around $10,000 – $40,000 USD, while scores of attractive new products priced over $100,000 were available aplenty.
With so many watch brands, including all of the Japanese companies and none of the Swatch Group members having settled into any major watch tradeshow to debut new products, it would be incorrect to suggest that Watches & Wonders is a complete solution to the industry’s need to exhibit and show off new products. Nonetheless, Watches & Wonders probably has what it takes to stick and continue in 2023 and beyond. My guess is that, between large and small brands, Watches & Wonders could probably host up to 80 exhibitors — but that would require further evolution and refinement away from the legacy Baselworld and SIHH formats that favor secluded booth spaces and paranoia between competitive neighbors.
Watches & Wonders 2022 happened, and the timepiece industry able to attend it has collectively rejoiced. While there is much to be done in the coming years, everyone seems to firmly agree that in-person events and social experiences are an inalienable facet of the luxury watch industry. The aBlogtoWatch team thoroughly agrees and is now resting up in wait for our next opportunity. We hope wristwatch enthusiasts continue to enjoy our ongoing Watches & Wonders Geneva 2022 coverage. Stay tuned for our article tomorrow about our favorite watches among the many we saw at the show.