Basel reconsiders “one show, two locations” concept

“A very large question mark” hangs over the fate of the Basel World Watch and Jewelry Show’s heavily-promoted “one show, two locations” concept, says Rene Kamm, the chief executive officer for the international watch and jewelry trade fair. That question mark was created by the “disastrous” impact of the Swiss government’s April 1 edict banning hundreds of South Asian exhibitors and their staffs—but not Asian visitors and buyers—from the show’s new Zurich adjunct.

“We are considering all alternatives,” including moving Basel’s 26 national pavilions out of Zurich, Kamm said during an end-of-show press conference on an unseasonably snowy April 10. He didn’t give specifics, but possibilities include a move to another Swiss city or one in nearby Germany or France (each only a mile from Basel), or even redefining the “one show, two locations” idea. “We will make a creative solution,” he said, “but we won’t break up the 26 national delegations, with one here and another there. That wouldn’t be manageable.”

Attendance at the 2003 Basel World Watch and Jewelry Show was down 22% (to 64,350), said Kamm. The major reasons were the Iraqi war (many were afraid to fly to Europe); worries about the risk of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a pneumonia-like disease spreading around the world), which prompted Switzerland to ban Asian exhibitors just before the show opened; and the sluggish European economies and consumer spending.

However, Basel officials quickly noted, there was a significant increase in “professional” visitors—i.e., members of the trade, since BaselWorld is also open to the public—from 67% of total attendance in 2002 to 76% this year.

The most significant loss was in visitors and buyers from North America and the Far East. Among those missing were a number of independent U.S. jewelers and chain stores including Penney’s and Federated, but top officials from Zale Corp. and Sterling Inc.—the country’s largest retail chain jewelers—were at the show as usual. “With everything that happened, we felt we had to be here to show our support for the industry,” Mary Forte, president and CEO of Zale Corp., told JCK.

In terms of business at the show, there was a “shortfall of purchases” by largely-absent Americans and Asians; satisfactory business with the European market; and surprisingly—in view of the Iraqi war and turmoil in that region—“excellent” business results with buyers from the Near and Middle East. Kamm noted that, although situations varied, most exhibitors said that the show’s business results were “better than expected.”

The Zurich facility was virtually empty of buyers and visitors thanks to the ouster of the Asian exhibitors, including the massive Hong Kong contingent, though there were still some 400 vendors there from various national groups. The situation there was “very sad,” said Kamm. Nevertheless, the Thai and Indian delegation reported doing “quite good business,” possibly because their main competitors—the Hong Kong exhibitors—had been excluded.

Noting the “nightmarish” impact of war, pestilence, and economic news on the newly reorganized and redefined show—a massive three-year effort—Kamm said one benefit has been to show that the Basel Watch and Jewelry Show is “very robust. It takes a lot to weaken it. Conditions couldn’t have been worse and [the problems] all came at the same time,” he said, “but the fair survived them and we’ll be stronger in 2004.” Kamm said the fair is now investigating legal recourses, if any—as are the Hong Kong exhibitors associations—against the government for its last-minute edict, “especially since [the government had] assured us for weeks that there would be no problem.”

Kamm said the show’s relationship with the Hong Kong exhibitors, especially the Hong Kong Trade Development Council organizing body, “isn’t sunny, but it’s not broken down either. They understand it wasn’t our decision and that we weren’t able to do anything about it.”

Estimates of the cost to Hong Kong firms from loss of business and investment in their new exhibition area in Basel’s Zurich facility run into billions of Hong Kong dollars.

Kamm said the HKTDC and the Hong Kong exhibitors “have no more confidence in the authorities of Zurich.” The show’s SARS crisis had been precipitated by the Zurich authorities’ hasty fax to the Swiss government three days before the show opened urging it to close down the Zurich fair. Hong Kong exhibitors probably won’t want to return to Zurich if Basel continues its “one show, two locations” concept, he said.

Kamm said the Basel fair management wants “an independent body [set up] to study and assess this whole situation. We want to be sure nothing like this—such arbitrary decisions—happens again.”