There has been a lot written about Baselworld and how people will miss the camaraderie, the late-night boozing, the charming Swiss city. I wouldn’t know anything about that. I go there to work. I’ve been attending Baselworld since 2004, and the profound changes over the years have been remarkable. Will I miss it? Nope, not at all.
Early in my career, my first big business trips involved attending the semi-annual menswear fashion collections in Europe — visiting Pitti Uomo in Florence, then moving on to the Milan and Paris menswear shows. Traveling from the U.S. made the trip quite a production for a large team of editors, scheduling flights, transfers, cars, hotels, invitations, etc.
Moving around these fashion capitals to attend upwards of 10 shows a day could be tricky at times, but the days generally flowed with great efficiency. Booking flights and hotels in big cities during peak travel times? No problem. Mealtime? Endless options for a quick lunch and tables to be had in the cities best restaurants at dinnertime.
For print media at the time, it was an influential trade show with a lot riding on attendance, big advertising dollars at stake, and showing face was of utmost importance. There was too much money at stake to ever consider missing it, easily justifying the great expense of the entire trip. Baselworld was booming, which meant staying in the small city was virtually impossible. The scarcity of rooms drove up rates for miles around.
Even during the golden years of big Condé Nast expense accounts, staying within Basel proper was inconceivable. For three consecutive days, the hours-long daily commute back and forth from Zurich required getting up at six am to catch a train to Basel, visiting with as many watch brands as possible during the day, followed by long return trip back late at night. Sleep? Very little. For a show exhibiting some of the most exquisite luxury goods in the world, there was nothing luxurious about it.
From my very first visit, after experiencing the ease and glamour (!) of attending the fashion collections, I could never understand the appeal of Baselworld. I certainly appreciate the significance of the location, especially for an industry with deep regard for history. Still, even in those years, it felt like the show had outgrown the tiny city of Basel. For decades, loyalty to the town clearly trumped any common sense.
My first few years were productive. Both SIHH and Baselworld fairs were held back to back, you could visit both shows, and see the new releases for the entire year (!) all within one week. The print magazine schedule at the time enabled you to choose the best products, coordinate the release dates, and plan your editorial calendar accordingly.
Then the most significant shift in both business and media came along. The internet.
An industry trade show that was never meant to be consumer-facing suddenly had to transform overnight, and we all know how fast our industry adapts to change. For a trade show that already felt like it had both feet in the past, adapting to a bold new future hit it like a ton of bricks.
Similar industries were able to adapt to this new breakneck speed, where fashion weeks turned into fashion months, providing (perhaps unsustainably) endless content to fill the voracious daily churn to capture clicks and eyeballs. Early e-commerce websites capitalizing on this new media were certainly not complaining. An upended media landscape and a new age of online consumerism were undoubtedly here to stay.
So what does this have to do with the death of Baselworld? Everything.
Visiting the fair now, the inconvenience and expense of Basel remain, but the wealth of information provided is sparse. The rationing of new releases allows for novelties to be released slowly over the year, hardly justifying the expense of this single lengthy trip. The Swatch Group departure was the first nail in the coffin, and with each additional withdrawal, the importance of attending becoming less and less vital.
Take the Breitling Summit presented online yesterday morning, where Georges Kern presented three novelties on Breitling’s website via streaming video. Did it work? By all means, yes. Would it have been worth it to take an expensive flight to Zurich, a train ride to Basel, check into an overpriced hotel for three nights just to see these three watches? While impressive (that reverse panda Chronomat!), I’m not so sure.