This blog, written in 2013, did not make it to the digital screen at the time, but with the Swatch company announcing it is withdrawing from BaselWorld 2019. I’m happy to share it, five years later….
I love going to Basel. I mean BaselWorld, that unique fair that has been held steadfastly, uninterruptedly – even during WWII… – since 1917 and ultimately evolved, over time, into Europe’s leading watch and jewelry fair, and into a must-attend event for European, North American and Asian buyers.
I love going to Basel because of the quality and variety of the gem and jewelry exhibitors and the stories they generate, because of the excellent networking, and, naturally, because of the unparalleled level of services offered to accredited journalists.
I’ve been ‘doing’ Basel since the late 1980s and can testify that colleagues in the trade press used to joke that the fair should lower the level of comfort a few notches (rest assured, they have done since….) so as to guarantee that journalists would leave the press room and go and do what they are supposed to do … roam the halls and get their stories posted.
Yesterday, the first reminder for press accreditation arrived in my email box. Time flies! How was Basel 2013? Just recently, I read – months after it was published – Roberta Naas’ piece “Another One Down – BaselWorld 2013 in Review.” Roberta was glad it was over, and who wouldn’t be, after covering and interviewing 100 watch companies. I know I was knackered after a week of waking very early, driving 120 kilometers a day, commuting from our designated ‘press parking’ to the fairgrounds, walking miles and miles, munching through baguettes for breakfast and lunch, accompanied by coffee, and more coffee and cold drinks, all courtesy of BaselWorld.
BaselWorld values its press corps. The fair reported that in 2013 some 3,600 journalists registered for this year’s fair. Thank heavens, not all of them showed up at the same time in the press center. Somehow – and this demonstrates the level of professionalism of BaselWorld’s press and media department – I always found a place at a table to work at, the wireless internet connections were great – they do a great job. The food in the press center was basic but sufficient, and they know a journalist’s drug: coffee. One wonders how many thousands of cups of brew have been filled by those three coffee machines lined up in the press ‘recovery room…’
What I cared for less was the commute. My client had allocated me a €150 a day for lodging and food. This meant that I was effectively not only banished from Basel, but forced to look and far and wide for a hotel. Luckily, I had jumped through these hoops before, so a car was rented, the hotel room booked, at a lovely place 15 miles south of Colmar in France’s Alsace, and that left me with about €40 for dinner.
“Eh, banished from Basel, can you explain that?” you ask. Let me illustrate that with the comments of an American buyer, as reported to me by an exhibitor who absorbed his buyer’s laments:
It took us more than an hour at the Basel/Mulhouse airport to get through customs. Then, we were taken for a $300 taxi ride to Basel, only to arrive at a $750/night hotel room – a room I would not pay $50 if it were a motel room in the USA. The buyer assured us this is the last time they would see me in Basel.
Talking about exhibitors, Roberta Naas wrote: “BaselWorld brands did not disappoint in creativity, boldness, newness and complexity.” But then, she wrote exclusively about watches. She did not have any real controversial news to report, and wrote that, probably one of the most talked-about issues at the fair was that it had demolished two bathrooms in the foyer entry [of Hall 1] and that “folks had to leave a 15-minute gap in their day just to visit second and third-floor facilities.”
However, the story of the exhibiting diamond, gem and jewelry companies had a somewhat less joyful ring to it. I spoke to a number of exhibitors in hall 3 and 3.1, and didn’t have to do much to get them complaining.
Let’s hear from a few diamond sellers first. (A caveat is necessary: diamantaires love to complain…) “The costs of participating in this fair are exorbitant, and the return on investment does not justify my participation, but we have to be here…. until the fair decides they do not need us anymore!” one diamantaire said. In that one sentence, he summarized effectively the mood I met among the various diamond and gem traders to whom I talked.
Does it make sense to pay more, and often far more, than CHF100,000 for a modest booth in hall 3 or 3.1? It would, another diamond trader said, “If I’d be able to recoup my investment and expenses on the first day, and would be able to concentrate on doing healthy business the next seven! I am not sure I want to come back [to Basel]. I rather spend my efforts – and means – at the leading Asian shows. There, I do get a proper ROI [return on investment].”
Admittedly, in the PR blasts distributed after the fair’s conclusion, some exhibitors in Hall 3 quoted sounded quite positive. But even in those carefully phrased, reserved quotes, one could see the uneasiness oozing from between the lines.
A colored gemstone trader said that in Hall 1, where the watch brands had their stands or their own corporate pavilions, there was no indication that further on in the building, on the same levels but labeled Hall 3 and 3.1, there were booths of companies in the diamonds, gemstones and finished jewelry trade.
“Did you notice the signposts and directions pointing people to Hall 3? No? That’s right, because there weren’t any!” the gem trader laughed, adding that he and many of his colleagues feel that while the fair management makes sure the basics are covered, the cost of these basics are enormous, and that it is only a matter of time before the fair will oust them and turn the whole hall into a watch show.
“I paid €10,000 for the catalogue and diamonds and gem book alone!” Nowhere in the world does one pay that kind of price!” A recurring comment touched upon the ‘finish’ of Hall 3. Various commentators said the hall’s finish was poor, the walkways too narrow, with too many booths cramped into the space, especially on the 3.1 level. “The hall feels like it is a temporary one – the ceilings were left unfinished, leaving us to muse if this part of the building will soon be turned into space for the watch brands, too,” another trader said.
Naturally, none of these comments made it into the Basel daily newspapers and releases. But these sentiments were all part of the undertow of the fair, which flowed counterclockwise to the official reports generated by the fair.