Angry HK exhibitors withdraw from Basel show

Basel, Switzerland—Angry, frustrated, and threatening lawsuits, hundreds of Hong Kong exhibitors and their staffs pulled out of the 2003 Basel Watch and Jewelry Show on April 3, after the Swiss government offered what show managers called “impossible” conditions for participation by Southeast Asian exhibitors.

“We aren’t welcome here,” declared Frederick Lam, deputy director of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), following a brief press conference on Thursday in which show management described the new government conditions. The HKTDC is the organizer of the Hong Kong contingent, the largest single national group in the annual Basel trade fair, with 320 exhibitors.

Some exhibitors and possibly some Hong Kong associations are now expected to take legal action against the government’s health control department to recover their costs and lost business. According to one estimate, Hong Kong watch and jewelry firms could lose HK$2 billion in lost business (not including some HK$50 million already invested in a global marketing campaign, travel and lodging costs, planned special events, and construction and installation of new exhibition stands). The Basel show normally accounts for 30% to 40% of the Hong Kong industries’ annual volume.

The Swiss government on April 1—the eve of the show’s opening—unexpectedly issued an order that banned participation by exhibitors and their staffs from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Vietnam. The move was intended to “minimize risk” of contagion from the SARS disease, which has spread globally in recent weeks out of Southeast Asia. However, there are no restrictions on visitors to the show from those same areas.

The show managers and officials of the Asian delegations—who had said they would do anything “reasonable”—had tried since April 1 to get the government to rescind or modify its order. The government did issue new orders mid-day on April 3, the show’s opening day. They would have required all 5,000 Southeast Asians and European support staffs participating in the show to undergo daily medical examinations by “authorized” medical personnel before the fair began; wear a certificate on their clothing saying they had been certified that day by a medical authority; wear a face mask and change it every four hours; and disinfect every item they touched, immediately after using it, in the exhibition booths during each day’s course of business.

To implement such examinations each morning for 5,000 people would be “impossible,” said a visibly weary and grim René Kamm, chief executive officer of Swiss Exhibition Ltd., which runs the show and has worked closely with exhibitors to overturn or modify the order. Kamm addressed the press at a 6 p.m. conference that also featured members of the Swiss and Basel governments.

The loss of the Hong Kong group for the Basel show is significant. They were the centerpiece of the show’s two dozen country pavilions at the new-this-year Zurich location (the new “one show, two locations” concept), and represented 40% of the 783 vendors there. Without them, the number of buyers going to Basel’s Zurich show was expected to drop, and on the second day of the show (April 4), the halls of the Zurich exhibition facility had few visitors. Some firms, both suppliers and retailers, abruptly cancelled their trips to the Basel show when they learned earlier this week of the Hong Kong contingent’s exclusion. A few American exhibitors in Zurich (located next to the Hong Kong section) wondered aloud if they should leave, too, because of the prospect of little or no business.

At press time, the cost to the Basel fair from what some privately called “a catastrophe” and what the Basler Zeitung called “a decision leading to chaos,” was unknown. However, said Kamm, it would be “enormous.”