Tips for Attending the Basel Fair

Posted by Mike Disher on August 05, 1999 at 17:22:40:

Bulletin Board Post Number: 776

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My wife and I attended our first Basel Fair this year (April 29 – May 6, 1999). I took a few notes along the way with an eye toward passing on some helpful hints to those who are considering a trip in the future.

1. First consideration – should your spouse go with you? My wife Denise is very understanding about my watch addiction, but she does not share it. If you go to Basel, you’ll be spending many hours every day at the Fair doing nothing but looking at watches and talking about watches. A spouse becomes bored rather quickly. While it is the Basel Watch and Jewelry Fair, the jewelry is in other buildings, so if you want to see watches and your wife jewelry, you’ll have to split up. My recommendation is this: if you take your spouse, split up on the days you attend the Fair. Let them go shopping, go to a spa or whatever, and simply agree to meet up at the hotel that night. You’ll both be happier.

2. Make hotel and airline reservations EARLY. We decided to attend the Fair a mere month before opening day. Based on what I had heard from other TZers who’d made the trip before (notably Michael Friedberg and Hans Zbinden), rooms in Basel are impossible to find and very expensive during the Fair. Our investigations confirmed this to be true. It can also be difficult to find open airline seats close to the Fair dates.

We were traveling on a fairly limited budget (we used frequent flyer miles for plane tickets), so reasonable prices were important. Again based on some help from TZers, we considered two Basel alternatives – just over the border in Germany (Basel is on the Swiss- German border) and Zurich. Zurich is more distant, but there is very good train service to Basel and back. We did not plan to spend all of our time in Switzerland at the Fair, and we prefer a city atmosphere (museums, sightseeing, restaurants, shopping etc.) I naturally wanted a concentration of watch shops, and Zurich has that. We decided on Zurich, and I’m glad we did. We were able to locate a reasonably priced room close to the Zurich train station, but it took some looking. If you like to walk and the weather cooperates, you don’t need a car to see Zurich. Mass transit (trollies, cabs and trains) are plentiful. We loved Zurich – it’s scenic, clean and safe. There are beautiful parks, a fun “Old
Town” area with many restaurants and shops, and of course the Bahnhofstrasse, one of the great shopping streets in the world, with amazing watch shops on every corner. If you stay in Zurich, be sure to see the Turler clock at Turler Jewelers. It was designed by Ludwig Oechslin (of Ulysse Nardin fame). It’s the world’s most complicated clock, and it is an amazing sight.

3. Use the internet to find a hotel and make reservations. We used the net to select and reserve rooms at our hotels in Zurich and Paris. We used the phone for airline reservations. We did not rent a car.

I found a couple of good websites for planning the trip, including,,, and These offer good information about hotels, sightseeing, restaurants, etc. Some have pictures of hotels and rooms and on-line reservation and room availability checks.

4. The Flight and the Zurich Airport. We flew SwissAir, and it was the best airline I’ve experienced. We used frequent flyer miles for the tickets, so we splurged and went business class. The seats were huge and comfy, the food and wine wonderful. I highly recommend SwissAir, and they accept Delta FF miles. From San Francisco, the flight to Zurich (nonstop) is about 10 hours. We arrived at the SF airport about 2 hours early (since everything went fine getting there, including rush hour traffic). We had an evening departure. After checking in, I traded some US currency for Swiss Francs. Then we went to customs and registered the watches we were wearing on the trip. You fill out a little form, and you must have the serial number(s) for the watches you want to register. The customs agent needs to verify the serial number, but ours were inside the watches, so we took the original papers showing the serial numbers, our receipts and some insurance information. (Check with US
Customs to verify what you need). The customs agent was reluctant to accept our papers, but in the end he agreed and signed our forms. You keep the form, and it is used to establish the watch was not purchased in Switzerland during your trip, should a question arise on your return.

This was my first 10 hour flight, my feet swelled up like blowfish. Wear loose shoes on the flight. And believe it or not, SwissAir sells watches, including Omegas, in flight.

5. Zurich Airport and Train to Zurich. The Zurich airport is modern and easily negotiated. After exiting the plane, follow signs that read “Exit Zurich”. Your first stop is passport control. There are two lines, one for Swiss citizens and one for all others. They take a quick look at your passport, and if you’re not wanted by interpol, you buzz right through. Next stop – customs. Go to the line with a sign “Nothing to Declare”, and you can walk right through. Luggage carts are free, and if you have much luggage, get one. After collecting our luggage, we purchased two one-way 2d class tickets to the Zurich Main Station (Hauptbanhoff) and headed for the trains. Zurich airport is about 7 miles from downtown Zurich. Cabs can also take you into town from the Airport, but my understanding is that can be fairly expensive. To get to the trains, go down one level to a very large shopping area (lots of watches for sale), then down one more level for the

The trains are a bit confusing at first. To see what time the train leaves, find the big schedule sign and look for “Zurich Hauptbahnof” (train station), a time (e.g. 18:07) and a platform number. Go to the platform, then look at the signs over the platforms and you’ll see “sectors” labeled with capital letters, e.g. D C B A, and below the letters are numbers 1 or 2. The numbers refer to 1st or 2nd class coaches, so if you see a “D” and below it a “2”, that means a second class coach will be in sector D. Sectors are just places to stand along the platform. From the Zurich Airport, the Zurich main train station was the second stop.

The main Zurich Train Station is quite large, but again fairly well marked with easy to follow signs, most in French and German, not English (contrary to what out tour book said). Announcements are in French and German, but not English. I speak only a bit of German and almost no French, and I got around just fine.

Even though our hotel was advertised as a 5 minute walk from the station, we were not sure how to get there from the station, so we exited the station at the sign “Bahnhofstrasse” in search of a cab. We found several lined up outside. Zurich cabs are generally considered expensive. We arrived at out hotel quickly, and it was indeed close to the station.

6. The train to Basel. We purchased tickets for the train to Basel at the Zurich train station. We told the ticket seller, who spoke English, that we were attending the Fair. Special Fair fares (sorry) are available, and your train ticket also covers trolly rides in Basel. Small train schedule booklets are available for free at the station near the ticket booths, and they are easy to use. We wanted an ICE or Inter City Express. These are fast trains that make no stops along the way. Swiss trains run on time, so don’t be even one minute late. The trains are very nice – modern, clean, comfortable, fast and quiet. We went 2nd class, and it was fine. The trip to Basel took about 50 minutes, as I recall.

Exiting the train in Basel, we expected big signs pointing the way to the Fair. There were none. We followed the crowd to an exit up to the street. The key is to follow the folks in nice business clothes – they’re headed to the Fair. At street level, no signs, so we followed the suits. They were getting on a trolly, so we did the same. Again, your train ticket from Zurich also covers the trolly from the Basel Station to the Fair. The trolly made a couple of stops, and there was no announcement that we had reached the fair. We simply exited with the suits. The trolly had stopped directly in front of the Main Hall where the watches are, so we went in.

7. The Fair. To gain free admission, you must present your passport and a business card with your name on it. The card need have nothing to do with the watch or jewelry business. I used my law firm card, and my wife used her company’s card. We were asked how many days we would attend, we said two, and we were given two passes each. Don’t volunteer that you are not in the watch/jewlery business. I have heard stories which lead me to believe that can cause problems. Just hand them a card and passport, smile and pretend you belong there.

Even though business attire is apropriate for the Fair, wear comfortable shoes! The Main Hall is HUGE! It is literally larger than most airplane hangers, and there are 2 and a half floors of watches. You’ll be on your feet all day. Dress for the Fair is up to you, but almost everyone is in very nice business clothes (lots of Armani suits). I wore a business suit on day one and nice slacks, sport coat and tie the second day. There is free printed material available at every booth. If you plan to pick this up, take a big briefcase with a comfortable handle. And remember, if you don’t ship it, you have to carry it home. There are Basel Fair “programs” for sale at 25 CHF. These are heavy and worthless, unless you’re in the trade and need to find specific booths at the Fair. They are simply text lists of exhibitors and their locations. They do not make a good souvenir.

The Basel Fair is a trade show, so it is about business first. Watches are not generally for sale at the Fair (i.e. individual retail sales to consumers). The Fair is where distributors, buyers, retailers and dealers come to meet manufacturers and each other. The buyers/distributors/dealers decide what they will sell during the next year, and they place orders. Business visitors to the booths have appointments to meet the manufacturers within. The booths are very crowded, and they are beehives of activity. If you hate crowds, you won’t like the Fair. Some booths are designed to be open and inviting, while others are closed (literally) and intimidating. Use your discretion when deciding whether to wander in. Many booths are set up so you can see all the watches without ever going inside – the watches are displayed in windows along the outside walls of the booth. Other booths are open and watches are on display inside. Again, I’d feel free to wander in if it looks like
that’s the point.

Cameras are not allowed inside the Hall, and guards will approach you very quickly if you even attempt to take a picture. I saw this happen more than once. They won’t confiscate your film, but you will receive a stern warning. I wanted to take my camera, because I wanted to get some shots of Basel. There are no lockers available for storage at the Fair. I used a small rectangular camera case, slung it over my shoulder and just walked in. They don’t search bags to stop cameras from coming in.

The only plug I will give is for the AHCI – the Academie Horlogere des Createurs Independents (Academy of Independent Horologists). This group includes Philippe Dufore, Svend Andersen, Ku Tai Yu, Matthais Naeschke, Christiaan van der Klaauw and other Master Watchmakers who produce some of the most beautiful, unique wristwatches known to man. Their booth was upstairs, toward back and somewhat difficult to locate last year, but finding them was well worth the effort. If you’re lucky, some of the Masters will be on hand greeting the public and showing their beautiful creations.

Be aware that the trains back to Zurich do not run all night. If you’re planning a late night out in Basel (like a TimeZone dinner), make sure you get to the train station in time to catch the last train back to Zurich.

Well, that’s the Basel Fair Experience from a first timer’s perspective. I hope these tips make your visit more enjoyable.