Why major watch fairs SIHH and Baselworld could be out of time

The giant fairs that drive the annual marketing of watches haven't been faring too well of late with seemingly countless brands opting out citing exorbitant costs and diminishing relevance. Increasingly brands have come to believe it's simpler to reach their clients – both trade and consumer – directly in this digital age.

This belief has seen departures from Geneva's prestigous Salon Internationale de Haute Horlogerie (aka SIHH) by stellar brands including Audemars Piguet, Van Cleef & Arpels, Richard Mille, and Greubel Forsey, and the withdrawal from Baselworld's bash of half its exhibitors including the entire Swatch Group (Breguet, Blancpain, Omega, Longines, Tissot, Jaquet Droz etc) along with Breitling, Seiko and Bulgari. To put things into perspective, the Swatch Group's withdrawal has reportedly saved it some €50 million, $85 million in Australian money.

As a consequence of the migration, shares in Baselworld's organisers, the MCH Group, have plummeted, its long-term management has been replaced, and questions about the very future of such fairs have multiplied. It's against this background that in recent weeks the coronavirus has struck – with such vengeance it's looking more like the chronovirus for this particular industry.

First up the Swatch Group abandoned its Baselworld replacement Time to Move planned for March, with Grand Seiko likewise cancelling their newly planned Tokyo Summit a week later. From Melbourne to Sydney and Singapore official boutique openings (Vacheron Constantin, IWC,) and launches were disrupted then came the shock news: cancellation of both the new SIHH, now titled Watches & Wonders Geneva, and the giant Baselworld.

The former, scheduled for the last week of May, normally attracts more than 20,000 visitors; the latter, planned for the following week, traditionally draws some 120,000 visitors – and has run uninterrupted by World Wars since 1917. Those numbers include brand and industry folk, distributors, retailers, the press (several thousand of them) and enthusiasts. They don't just come to look, although that's obviously part of the attraction. More importantly the fairs reveal the bulk of the year's new models. The retailers do their ordering, the press do their reporting, enthusiasts spread the word – meaning the major sell-in and marketing effort for the year is off with a bang.

Many observers of the situation agree that much can indeed be done – and is being done – by brands individually and digitally, but that continuing dispersal of effort diminishes a focus that has served the industry so well and kept Swiss watches firmly in the public eye. You've always been able to reach your client direct, they argue, even when it meant travelling to them or by phone or by fax. Or possibly pigeon. But the fairs have a reason beyond pure trade; they create a ground-swell of excitement and anticipation that no series of smaller or local events can hope to match – no matter their frequency.

My own take? Replacing the fairs altogether would be like having weekly football matches but no grand finals, tennis events but no slams, golf tournaments but no majors. Fortunately there are still those who take that view. Baselworld has announced it's rescheduled to January 28 to February 2, 2021 and the hope is Watches & Wonders will slot in the week before in Geneva.

This would be an ideal outcome. It won't solve the problem of how brands now reach out this year. But for next it would mean just one trip to Switzerland for all concerned, with a fortnight's focus on an industry that needs all the help it can get. Adding to the advantage, in terms of timing it means the bulk of the year's new watches would be announced early enough to ensure they actually arrive at retailers that year – so everyone benefits. Who knows – it might even entice some of the wandering brands to return to the fold.

Bani McSpedden is watch editor of the Australian Financial Review.