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Innovation

The future of luxury trade shows is ‘smart’, but not in the digital sense

Published 24 January 2022 in Innovation • 6 min read • Audio availableAudio available

The pandemic badly hit the ‘salons’, the traditional way in which luxury brands do business, but don’t write them off yet. 

At the end of 2021, the curtain came down on the Geneva International Motor Show, scheduled for February this year. And it wasn’t the first time; plans were initially abandoned on the eve of its opening in March 2020. In 2021, it didn’t even get a look in.  

It’s been a similar story for Baselworld, which was scheduled for spring 2022, having missed the past two years. “Organizers have decided to take more time for the launch of the new concept,” its website says.  

Watches and Wonders appears to be the exception, with a date in the diary for 2022 (30 March-5 April, at Palexpo in Geneva), having held their expos online in 2020 and 2021. 

COVID-19 seems to have dealt the final blow to this type of event, which some onlookers thought were on their last legs even before the pandemic. What’s clear is that the majority of shows scheduled to happen prior to June 2021 were cancelled due to the health risks posed. 

However, some of these shows were rescheduled and did take place later, despite struggles to fill the exhibition halls. VivaTech and FIAC in Paris, Art Basel and GemGenève were among them. 

Various other expos just about made it before 2021 drew to a close, such as La Biennale Paris, which took place at the end of November. Others had to abandon plans for a 2021 edition: Révélations in Paris, TEFAF in Maastricht and artgenève in Geneva have all been rescheduled for 2022.  

For every trade show out there, there seems to be a different scenario, making it difficult to draw hard and fast conclusions on their future. 

The importance of physical gatherings 

That said, those events that took place in situ during the pandemic have, undeniably, been successful. People came and business was done, underscoring the fact that we have missed not having them.  

We are, after all, social animals and we need to see each other in person, meet up, and literally know a good thing when we see it when it comes to making contacts and doing business. 

This need is multiplied when it comes to “salons”, a sub-genre of expo meets trade show put on by the art and luxury worlds. They showcase items that we are compelled to witness in person. We want to touch them, try them on and see how we feel in their presence. So far, it’s impossible to replace the physical and emotional reaction we have when trying on a piece of jewellery or a watch, or when we sit in a car, or stand in front of a painting. In fact, it seems hard to imagine how the feelings triggered by an object of beauty or a rare artefact could ever possibly  be replicated in a digital format. 

 

Digital events can’t fully pull it off 

Digital remakes of salons can tell wonderful narratives, take us to new realms, and provide incredible experiences that surpass our expectations. However, they can never fully replace the real thing. 

This is why salons, show rooms, summits, forums and the like have a bright future ahead. So bright, in fact, that they need a complete overhaul. 

 

Towards a post-COVID way of thinking 

The pandemic sped up our journey towards a smarter and more responsible tomorrow. We have witnessed our economy, our ways of life, our systems of governing and consumption habits on their last legs.  

Salons are a means of communication and, like all media, need to adapt to the times. Going digital is obviously a part of that, but it isn’t the full answer. 

In recent years, salons have lost their way. This is largely the fault of the exhibitors themselves, who have taken a frenzied approach of trying to become bigger and better. But this course of action has a price to pay: the often-astronomical costs of a stand at various salons draws into question their environmental responsibility, while the principles and management skills behind these events remain under scrutiny. 

Do we really need to build fancy fortresses to protect the future of our brands? Wouldn’t the money be better spent investing in drawing people’s attention to the product itself? Ways of doing this include investing in R&D, customer service, corporate social responsibility, and in the very values that any given brand wants to champion.  

“it’s impossible to replace the physical and emotional reaction we have when trying on a piece of jewellery or a watch, or when we sit in a car, or stand in front of a painting”

Would “corporate salons” be a better overall solution, perhaps? They could respect the values of the profession and make room for everyone – big or small, strong or weak, old or new alike. Envisioned as such, they would also champion inclusivity, such an important concept these days. 

Some brands have already made the bold move of leaving the salon world behind and going it alone, creating a new take on international road shows, searching for clients, distributors, journalists, bloggers and other influencers as they go.  

It’s a more efficient method and much less hassle too, albeit depending on the concept chosen. But it’s a method that generally favors the bigger brands, because they have the greatest ability to attract and mobilize their target clientele to become attendees. But many brands are targeting the very same potential attendees, meaning that if brands go-it-alone they are faced with the challenge of getting the very same people to come to multiple events, which are sometimes happening at the same time in different locations. The pandemic has added a further layer of complexity to such matters. 

Branching out solo also means brands lose out on prospective new clients; those they don’t yet know and therefore didn’t approach. With the luxury world facing more prospective clients, who are also increasingly young and international, brands are thinking that they should join forces in order to make the lives of their clients and invitees easier. This would enable all parties to attract new clients and would also make sense for reasons of economy of scale, as many of the organizing costs could be shared. 

Therefore, a revamped style of the salon is possible, reinvented for 2022 and beyond by taking all the best features and enabling them to stand the test of time. These qualities include strength in numbers, coordinating  the place and time, sharing costs, greater visibility, and showcasing the profession at its best. At the same time, brands need to avoid the pitfalls that come with making a headlong rush into arranging a salon, while also dodging the potential hazards of exorbitant costs, of one party benefiting at the expense of the rest, of giving off an arrogant vibe and of facilitating monopolies. 

Salons have a bright future. But brands need to be smart about it – to use the buzzword of our times. And by this, I mean clear-headed, responsible and wise. With this approach, such events will become worthy of the time and effort invested in them. 

Authors

Fabienne Lupo

Fabienne Lupo is former Chair and Managing Director of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH), where she headed up the organization of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (since rebranded Watches and Wonders). She is also Founder of Creative Lab Consulting. Previously, she was Executive Director of the Michelangelo Foundation and organizer of the Homo Faber Event in Venice.

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