Watch Shows vs Hi-Fi Shows

There I was, sitting in a fat, comfy business class seat, wondering if the audio industry could do what the watch’n’jewellery crowd could do. One phrase stuck in my mind, from one of that industry’s annual trade fair’s opening speeches: “Unit sales are down, but value is up.” Think about it: fewer sales and more money. A dream, huh? While you lot survive on miserable, tiny sales with miserable, tiny net profits?

What do they do right that we’re doing wrong? How is that BBC will run a half-hour special on Cartier, that Swiss TV will devote an hour of prime time TV to a panel discussion involving a collector, a watchmaker and an auctioneer, that the FT will produce a 12-page supplement called Watches & Jewellery, while the only mainstream coverage we get are sarcastic op ed pieces on the iPod?

More head scratching. Could we possibly do what ‘they’ can do? Is there a brand in the high-end home entertainment business – and for the last time, I am NOT talking about budget equipment – that could throw a party for 4000, and have a VIP section boasting Jean Alesi, Cate Blanchett and Boris Becker? Could the various elements of this industry put down their fists long enough to collaborate on something like the annual Geneva shebang, invitation-only yet packed to the rafters? Let’s analyse this.

Like that industry, we, too, have an annual mega-event. For us, it’s the trade-only CES. For the watch industry, it’s Baselworld – the mainstream rival to Geneva. The difference? Baselworld allows in the public, which we don’t need to inflict upon CES because – unlike the watch industry – we have an abundance of regional and national shows specifically for the public. They don’t.

So far, though, so equal. At both shows, you have the classy nestling alongside the utter shite, everything from £28 quartz ca-ca watches to Patek Philippe and Rolex in the same hall. But their show attracts journalists from every upscale paper and magazine in the world. And I mean EVERY magazine and paper. And they will provide coverage.

Hmmm: I don’t recall ever meeting anyone at CES from the TatlerVogue or Orient Express Magazine.

Now look at CES. Aside from a few short spots on US news channels, and op ed pieces about iPods and plasma screens, it doesn’t exactly heave with mainstream coverage. I didn’t see USA Today devote a whole section to it. I didn’t see any of the financial shows on CNN or Fox devote 30 minutes to a panel of A/V experts. I hope an American reader of Inside Hi-Fi & Video will correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t seem to recall ANY major US newspapers producing 12-page supplements in early January.

Be that as it may, CES does what it should for the trade, and it’s high-end audio’s own fault that it’s stuck in a toilet called Alexis Park, and that nobody cares about it anymore. So what we have to do is ‘glamorise’ upscale audio and video. Here’s how the watch guys make it and ‘event’, those brands who refused to exhibit $300,000 tourbillon watches alongside £28 quartz ca-ca.

Whatever the reason, many years ago Cartier left the Basel event and set up a rival fair in Geneva. This being a Swiss affair, you can be damned certain that they were dispassionate enough to be practical and realistic. So, they ran the event not at the same time, but overlapping by three days. Basel takes place first, running for seven days, while Geneva starts when Basel is half-over. Thus, all those foreign visitors don’t have to make two separate trips to Switzerland.

Because the shows collaborate in terms of calendar positioning, any venom between them is below the radar. Nobody even cares any more about the conflict or its odd by-products, e.g. why aren’t Patek and Rolex – both high-end AND Genevoise – in the Geneva show? Put simply, the shows co-exist, and they’re only a train-ride apart so you can visit both. But the Geneva event is a different beast altogether, 16 exhibitors versus 1200-plus. And it’s exactly how you should present extreme luxury goods.

First of all, it’s invitation-only. You have to be in the industry for real, e.g. a retailer or distributor; any press in attendance have to prove their credentials. (Also invited from outside the trade are high-roller clientele, usually the guests of the retailers who are selling them a handful of gem-encrusted pieces every year.) I pass muster because I contribute to a watch magazine and a number of newspapers, totally legit.

Secondly, exhibitors are ‘approved’, so there are NO low-end brands in sight. Why? This is Richemont’s baby, Cartier’s parent company, a luxury goods conglomerate so huge that it could fill Geneva’s Palexpo Hall 6 on its own. But, in addition to its own brands – IWC, Montblanc, Dunhill, etc – they allow in classy independents like Parmigiani Fleurier and Roger Dubuis. The downside is that the show costs a fortune, and all of those hotel nights for the guests and free sushi and champagne are paid for by the exhibitors.

Could we do it?

(Inside Hi-Fi, 2005)