HomeGenevaInterview with Matthieu Humair, CEO of the Watches and Wonders Geneva Foundation

Matthieu Humair is normally a busy man, but in the weeks building up to Watches and Wonders Geneva 2024, his schedule is denser than ever. Grateful for his time, I wanted to arrive extra early. But when my smartphone kept telling me I was just meters away and I could see nothing but water, a bridge, more water, and a historical site that surely could not be offices, my stress levels shot up. Thankfully, it turned out that the iconic Pont de la Machine building, Geneva’s oldest industrial construction on the Rhone, in fact hosts the headquarters of the Watches and Wonders Geneva Foundation. Inside, the water views from all angles across three stories, reinforced by jellyfish-inspired suspension lamps, give the impression of being on a ship. At its helm, Matthieu Humair, the Foundation’s CEO.

Elegant and sharp, in both appearance and words, the Swiss executive previously ran the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie and its eponymous trade show SIHH. It is not difficult to understand why Rolex, Richemont, and Patek Philippe turned to him as CEO when they created the Watches and Wonders Geneva Foundation in 2022. In our conversation, Humair talks not only about the incredible heavy-lifting that takes place behind the scenes but also the regional responsibilities and vocational ambitions of the much-awaited event starting April 9. 

What is your state of mind a few weeks before Watches and Wonders Geneva 2024?

I’m both serene and excited. Our work throughout the year allows us to be confident today. But we know a lot is yet to come. It will be a big week! Today, we are focused, working with the Maisons. The week itself will be a celebration. Our attention will go to very small details. It must be a unique and irreproachable experience for visitors from the moment they receive their invitation to when they exit the show. The notion of service is essential in what we do, crafting the horological summit that brings together the industry.

What should we expect to be different this year compared to previous ones?

To start with, we have eight new Maisons, bringing the total to 54. Then, for the first time, there will be three days open to the public. The LAB will showcase start-up projects with watchmaking schools. That is very important since we want to inspire the watchmakers of tomorrow. The conferences will be on completely new topics. The photo exhibit will add not only an artistic but also a philosophical dimension around the concept of time, with timepieces as its witnesses. The In The City program is also a key pillar. There will be many free activities, including for children. Watchmaking is about emotion. This is the celebration of watchmaking, and we want it to be greatly inclusive.

What does this increased outreach to the public represent in your strategy?

The first four days of the event are for professionals — retailers and press. 1,600 journalists and 6,000 retailers will be there, and over 10,000 retailer appointments will take place through a booking system we provide. We also centralize hotel reservations. Overall, our role is to be a platform bringing a service to the Maisons. Some are still very B2B, others are more B2C. That is where the public days come into play. Last year, we were sold out — 12,000 tickets over two days. The average age was 35; 25% were under 25. Nothing makes us happier than when we hear about a young person leaving the event wanting to become a watchmaker. We also invite many watchmaking and engineering schools to attend. This vocational aspect is central to our mission. We are fortunate that our partners, the Maisons, have this long-term vision.

What goes on behind the scenes to put the event together?

I’ve just gotten back from Palexpo. The installation itself takes two months, with 2,000 people working hard to make the event happen. Many professions come into play and work together: electricians, carpet fitters, forklift drivers, to name but a few. The exhibit takes place over 75,000 square meters (807,000 square feet). You need 3,500 steps just to walk around it! And while the show lasts only a few days, the 450 posts that ensure a homogeneous architectural experience across the exhibit are stored in Geneva, year after year, for reuse. So are many other props and equipment.

Can you tell us about the Watches and Wonders Geneva Foundation and its work in planning the event?  

The Watches and Wonders Geneva Foundation was created by Rolex, Richemont, and Patek Philippe in 2022 to promote watchmaking around the world. Watches and Wonders Geneva is the representation of the Foundation’s long-term vision. We are here to bring watchmaking to the center of people’s attention and create vocations for the next generation. The permanent team, throughout the year, is just under 30 people. Every aspect of the show is planned in advance and centralized by our services. We meet with the Maisons on an ongoing basis, both collectively and one-on-one. While the pandemic was a difficult period for the world, the two digital-only shows we organized forced us to accelerate our digital transformation. It is an asset today in our ability to plan and execute with great efficiency for the Maisons.

What does this event represent for the city of Geneva?

The impact is considerable. 40,000 hotel nights, 43,000 unique visitors. The authorities, restaurants, the Geneva tourism organization, Palexpo, everyone is behind the event. Thanks to this unanimous support, we can even hold the Watchmaking Village right here, outside our offices, at the historical heart of the city, facing the water. Beyond the events taking place in Geneva, the global resonance is considerable. Via traditional media and digital content, Watches and Wonders Geneva reached 700 million people in 2023 around the world during the week. Symbolically, the resonance of the event promotes Geneva, and Switzerland as a whole, as the epicenter of watchmaking excellence.

At what point in the rollout of the event do you feel relieved? 

Never! (he laughs) More seriously, I would say once the construction is fully in place and the event is ready to start. That is a true “wow” moment for the teams. The day of the opening, seeing the first visitors enter the event, is also very powerful for us. That being said, we obviously need to stay very focused, very aware, throughout the week. It requires huge concentration, nonstop, and ongoing work.

What is your main goal in leading the Foundation into the future?  

As we grow, it is fundamental that we keep the notion of service at the center. Whether the Maison is a very large one or a very small one, our role is to answer their needs. The platform we create must ultimately give the Maisons a very strong return on investment.

How do you bring this into action within the organization on a daily basis? What is your style of leadership?

The most fundamental aspect for me is to stay close to the teams, listening, understanding. Empathy is essential when you want people to work hard and deliver their best. Not as a posture but to truly grasp the challenges and opportunities they are facing. And by “teams,” I mean not only those directly in the Watches and Wonders organization, but also our partners and suppliers. Then, it is about finding the right balance; trusting and delegating are equally critical. In today’s world, we all need to talk to each other, exchange information and ideas. Working effectively is about being close to one another. 

Photography by Jeanne Grouet for Time Files

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Alex

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Jonathan
Jonathan
25 days ago

This is a very interesting read, it gives me a lot more appreciation for all the work happening behind the scenes. I can’t wait to go again this year!

Lor
Lor
23 days ago

Interesting thank you! I heard Swatch group might be coming back next year. Any insights on that?

Taka
Taka
19 days ago

A wonderful article, very meaningful, thank you so much!

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