BaselWorld 2004 opens

BaselWorld 2004 opened April 15 with renewed optimism following a calamity-plagued 2003 fair. The optimism is warranted for a number of reasons: Both vendors and buyers expect business to be better this year; the restructured fair has expanded to accommodate national delegations; and the massive Hong Kong delegation, banned last year because of the SARS scare, has returned.

This year’s show hosts 2,186 exhibitors from 44 countries and expects some 80,000 visitors from 100 countries. North Americans usually comprise about 7%-8% of that figure. The concerns sparked last year by terrorism, SARS, and the war in Iraq depressed attendance by American buyers at BaselWorld 2003, and some vendors seemed to have evaporated as well. But by the second day of this year’s show, the number of Americans attending already equaled last year’s total (800).

Although the show’s behind-the-scenes security is tighter than ever, it’s no more evident to visitors—who see roving security personnel and carded entry into the show—than last year.

Officials of the Swiss and Hong Kong governments and the watch industry officially opened the fair at the new Hall 6—a huge facility built on a former railroad yard—which houses 700 non-branded exhibitors in national pavilions of 27 countries. The new hall was built following last year’s unsuccessful—and unpopular—effort to move the national delegations to a facility in Zurich, Switzerland.

The festive opening of the new “Hall of the Universe,â€Â complete with a Chinese lion dance, also marked the return of the Hong Kong delegation, with a record 333 companies, all major supplies of U.S. retailers. Last year, the Swiss government banned the delegation because of Swiss concerns about the SARS epidemic. MCH, BaselWorld organizer and Swiss officials spent much of 2003 wooing back the Hong Kong Trade Development Council and angry Hong Kong companies. A September pact gives Hong Kong the central location in Hall 6 and a fixed participation fee for six years, and makes the HKTDC a partner with MCH in its operation. (The HKTDC still has a lawsuit pending against the Swiss government.)

In the watch halls, some of the news concerns innovative mechanical movements and watches. TAG Heuer unveiled what it calls “a revolutionaryâ€Â rethinking of the mechanical movement, featuring tiny belts of high-tech polymer replacing traditional pinions and a linear oscillating weight. Swiss watchmaker Frederic Constant and luxury newcomer Vogard both unveiled new mechanical movements with unique functions or uses. Watch designer Gerald Genta, coming out of retirement, returns with a new brand, Gerald Charles, highlighted by a new tourbillon. Also notable is the wide use of color, in keeping with new fashions for fall and early 2004, on many new watch collections in all price ranges; colored sharkskin (both knobby and matte) for straps; and rubber or black polyurethane. The close connection between watch brands and cars continues: Oris, TAG Heuer, and Frederick Constant were among those announcing special collections or sponsoring tie-ins with well-known car names and auto races.

Marking its 20th anniversary is the BaselWorld Panel, an arbitration tribunal with representatives from the watch, jewelry, and legal sectors. The Panel reviews—and punishes—any complaints of counterfeits and copyright violations by vendors at the show. A number of watch brands also are marking anniversaries, including Timex (150 years) and Oris (100 years), while some U.S. companies—such as Bulova and Speidel—are using BaselWorld as the platform to expand their international presence.

Light at the end of the tunnel. The mood in the first days of the show was upbeat. Most vendors and attendees say they are more confident about business this year than last, and a number of watch vendors say their American clients are placing larger orders or spending more than in the past few years.

This year marks the end of several years of restructuring and construction of the Fair’s several large buildings, including a new 20-story glass tower for administration. Exhibition Square, in front of the watch hall, has been rebuilt, with several one-level, glassed-in, tented buildings on wooden platforms for restaurants and other uses, surrounded by squares of flowers and trees planted right before the show. And at day’s end, weary attendees and venders relax outside the halls listening to bands playing cool jazz and quaffing glasses of Swiss beer.