Dubai Watch Week offers clues for the future of fairs
In a few short years since its inception in 2015, the Dubai Watch Week fair has become a significant event on the international horological calendar. But it is the format, rather than the scale, of the show that has attracted the attention of watch brands and afficionados.
When the fifth iteration of the twice-yearly Dubai Watch Week was held in November, just 50 exhibitors and around 16,000 visitors come to an event that fell into the gap between the receding third coronavirus wave and the emergence of the Omicron variant. By comparison, the now-defunct Baselworld event — which was, for decades, the industry’s oldest trade show — used to pull in about 150,000 visitors and, at its height, featured 1,500 exhibitors.
However, Hind Seddiqi, director-general of the Dubai Watch Week event, suggests that a stubborn immutability was the weakness that made the demise of the traditional Baselworld fair inevitable. And she is not the first to do so.
“I think the downfall was fear of change,” Seddiqi argues. “Don’t forget, your consumer age group is changing. It’s no longer the same consumer as 10 years ago. You have new blood that has come in and may have new requirements.”
As the brains behind the Emirati event, she has created what many see as an alternative model. Veteran watchmaker Jean-Claude Biver puts it succinctly: “Dubai is teaching us how to do a fair.” Other industry leaders have also praised the format and the end result.
Seddiqi — a scion of Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons, the Dubai-based distributor and retailer that represents almost 60 brands in the UAE from Rolex and Patek Philippe to the independent rising star Akrivia — ran the first ever Dubai Watch Week in October 2015.
“We never thought we could even compete with Baselworld,” she says. “Our objective was always to educate the public and to attract more people to appreciate the watch industry.”
The idea came to her in 2014 when she invited the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève — the Oscars of the watch world — to showcase the winning models in Dubai. Collectors were enthused and were keen to know more about the watchmakers themselves, as well as the watches.
“We thought of creating a platform where we can educate people and introduce them to the people behind the watch brands,” says Seddiqi. “Not only the ambassadors or the CEOs, but the watchmakers, engravers, and craftsmen behind creating the watches.”
Dubai Watch Week launched the following year attracting 14 exhibitor brands and 800 visitors. Three thousand visitors came in 2016. In 2017, visitor numbers doubled. After that, it switched to a biannual event with more than 9,000 visitors in 2019.
“What they managed to do, no other retailer on the planet has done,” says Audemars Piguet chief executive Francois Benhamias. “They educate their clients in a very informal way. It is very friendly and very open-minded. I don’t look at this like a fair at all. It is not a watch fair — it is a promotion of the watch industry and an opportunity for us to launch novelties.”
He says Dubai Watch Week’s focus on consumers rather than trade is something other more established fairs could learn from. “If the Watches and Wonders [fair in Geneva] concept would cater more for end consumers, we might actually think about coming back.”
Dubai Watch Week is essentially all about access: Collectors to watchmakers, brands to consumers, chief executives to influencers. And, because it is viewed as a broadly educational platform, Seddiqi does not consider it a profit centre. Entrance for visitors is free, food is subsidised and booth costs start at a relatively affordable $6,000 for a 4 sq m space bringing it within reach of interesting but cash-poor start-ups. Other bigger and more established brands including Audemars Piguet, Rolex, Chopard, Tudor and Hublot occupy larger bespoke pavilions in the area around the main exhibition hall.
Dubai Watch Week succeeds in that it is less like a trade fair and more of a festival with various “stages” — from the intimate Christie’s pavilion where collector talks take place, to the main event area hosting discussions between craftsmen, executives and experts. Other events can be as diverse as a big-name product launch, the premiere of a documentary about independent watchmakers, or a live music performance.
Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, co-president of Chopard and a veteran attendee of the Swiss watch fairs, applauds the informality of the Dubai Watch Week and the proximity between watchmakers, brands and public. “[There] was a real exchange between us, the press, private customers, collectors and watch aficionados,” he says.
“Everyone can access information already [on the internet]. But when it comes to discovering the real thing, an exhibition like Dubai is extremely effective. When I left Dubai, I said to myself, ‘If only we could fly Dubai Watch Weeks to different parts of the world’.”