By Michelle Graff
A shot of the show floor at Baselworld in 2019. Show organizer MCH Group had to cancel the 2020 edition of the watch and jewelry trade show due to the coronavirus and is now facing blowback from exhibitors over its refund policy. (Photo of courtesy of Baselworld)
Basel, Switzerland—Baselworld has drawn the ire of exhibitors once again, this time for the amount of money it’s keeping after canceling the 2020 show and shifting the 2021 dates to January.

Last week, Baselworld organizer MCH Group emailed exhibitors giving them what one exhibitor, who asked not to be named, described as two “take-it-or-leave it” options.

The first is for Baselworld to take 85 percent of an exhibitor’s booth fees for 2020 and apply them to 2021, with the remaining 15 percent going to MCH to offset the costs the company incurred for the 2020 show that didn’t happen.

With the second option, exhibitors are being offered a 30 percent cash refund. Of the remaining 70 percent, 40 percent of that will be carried forward to 2021 while 30 percent remains with MCH for incurred costs.

There is no option for exhibitors that are unable to attend the 2021 show, which has moved from April to January.

In a press release circulated Friday, Baselworld organizers cited the “substantial financial commitments” already made for the 2020 show, which was called off just two months before opening day due to the spread of the coronavirus.

“By the time the crisis began to unfold, Baselworld was just a few days before setting up the fairgrounds and the major portion of the expenditures in preparation for Baselworld 2020 had already been made,” the release states.

Show organizers explained further in an email sent Thursday to National Jeweler.

“The proposal to carry forward 85 percent of the fees to the next fair in January 2021 is already very generous … If all exhibitors accepted this option, at most a third of the accumulated costs of around CHF 18 million would be covered. This means that Baselworld itself would also have to bear a large loss,” they said.

So, MCH came up with the two options, the second of which “not only allows our customers to lose a minimum of money but also secures the future of Baselworld.”

“In addition, if a large majority [of exhibitors] choose option 1, this will enable us to support smaller exhibitors in difficulty in order to ensure their participation in 2021,” show organizers said.

Some of the show’s watch and jewelry exhibitors see it differently.

To them, it’s new show management but the same “arrogant” attitude, the unnamed exhibitor said in an interview with National Jeweler, an adjective’s that’s been used to describe Baselworld organizers in the past.

“They’re [MCH Group] trying to make it seem like they’re doing a good deed, but this is obviously not how all the exhibitors feel,” he said.

Many jewelry and gem exhibitors, he said, think the refund policy is unfair, particularly given the change in dates.

Baselworld 2020 was supposed to take place April 30-May 5, but the 2021 edition is set for Jan. 28 to Feb. 2, which puts it right after VicenzaOro and The Original Miami Beach Antique Show, and right before the Tucson gem shows.

“These dates don’t work for us,” the exhibitor said, noting that brands were not consulted about the date change. “I’m not going to drop Tucson to go to a dying Basel show.”

Exhibitors want MCH Group to either issue a 100 percent refund to anyone who can’t do the 2021 show or move the show back to April.

Also angering exhibitors: Baselworld has given them only until April 30 to choose one of these two options, a deadline the exhibitor described as “insensitive and untimely” in light of the circumstances.

“If they don’t submit to exhibitor demands, they’re going to lose a lot of exhibitors,” he said.

A similar, and more ominous, prediction came from Hubert J. du Plessix, president of the Baselworld Exhibitors Committee and an executive with arguably the most powerful watch company in the world.

Du Plessix is the chief investment officer at Rolex.

According to Singapore-based journalist Jiaxian Su, founder of the blog Watches by SJX, du Plessix sent a letter to MCH Group that Jiaxian described as “quietly scathing.”

In the letter, du Plessix, in his capacity as president of the Exhibitors’ Committee, asks for full refunds of fees paid for Baselworld 2020.

“Otherwise,” the missive states, “we fear that this will be the end, pure and simple, of Baselworld, especially since the dates chosen in January 2021 are not suitable for the jewellery, gemstones and pearls sector, and that coordination with Watches & Wonders (SIHH) no longer exists.”

Show director Michel Loris-Melikoff said in an email to National Jeweler that it is “impossible” to pay back the full amount because it would “jeopardize Baselworld.”

He also said the dates were “discussed extensively” with the show’s Advisory Committee, in which the watches, jewelry/gems and technical sectors are represented, and that the watch industry was the sector pushing to have the show “much earlier” than April.

Baselworld 2020 was slated to begin immediately after Watches & Wonders Geneva (formerly SIHH), which was canceled as well.

Watches & Wonders Geneva has not officially announced the dates for its 2021 show and did not respond when asked about them Wednesday, but it seems that the two shows won’t be held together.

Loris-Melikoff said in an interview with Swiss newspaper Le Temps that Watches & Wonders Geneva 2021 will take place in April.

When asked about 2021 dates, Loris-Melikoff told National Jeweler this: “[Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie Chair and Managing Director] Fabienne Lupo and I seem to have a different reading of the exchanges we had in February.

“But no matter, the situation is as it is. Our choice of January is only for 2021. We still believe that coordination must be restored as soon as possible.”

Loris-Melikoff also noted that he’s begun talks with the Baselworld Exhibitors’ Committee in an effort to “find a common path.”

“If new solutions emerge in the discussion that are right for both sides, I won’t close my mind to them,” he said.

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