It is a sunny September morning in Geneva when Bulgari Group CEO Jean-Christophe Babin appears onscreen for our video interview. While he bears a relaxed demeanour and the telltale tan of a European summer, there’s no doubt it has been a busy year for the head of the Rome-headquartered luxury brand.
For one, the pandemic has upended the traditional watch-event calendar, giving rise instead to smaller events taking place throughout the year. This year, Bulgari participated in LVMH Watch Week in January, Watches and Wonders in April and the recently concluded Geneva Watch Days in August and September.
Recovery for Bulgari and its parent company LVMH is pretty positive, to say the least. In July, LVMH recorded a solid first-half performance, reporting organic revenue growth of 53 per cent compared to 2020 and 11 per cent compared to 2019. The report highlighted Bulgari’s “good growth in jewellery” and to this, Babin adds that “Bulgari is seeing double-digit growth in watches compared to 2019”. The CEO shares his thoughts on the changes in the watch industry and his plans for driving growth across territories and sectors.
Bulgari has been present at several key watch events throughout the year. Even post-pandemic, will this format be around?
Broadly speaking, we have five collections: Octo and Bulgari Bulgari for men, and Lucea, Serpenti and Diva for ladies. Each year, we also have several novelties in each of those collections. We group them into three different batches and release one of those three batches at each event. Organising new launches in batches allows us to focus on a few collections at a time.
If you show everything at one event, you can create confusion for retailers and the media. We try to make life simpler for everyone, including those in our workshops who cannot craft everything at the same time. More and more, we want to deliver what we show at the same time. This batch approach is a good way to execute the “see now, buy now” concept as it allows for a production sequence that’s consistent with the human resources behind the craftsmanship.
LVMH’s first-half results were excellent, and jewellery stood out as a growth driver. What have been Bulgari’s strongest growth areas and regions?
Mainland China remains very strong for us, as it is the main driver for the whole industry. Additionally, the US has demonstrated quite robust growth for us, which is a very good sign. Besides those two markets, the Middle East and Japan have also been performing very well. The most difficult remains Europe, where travel retail has suffered since travel was stopped.
According to many brands, China has been driving growth during the pandemic. How is Bulgari’s China business strategy different from the rest of the world?
We are perfectly aware of the strategic necessity of a good balance in terms of territories. This has always been our motto. During the pandemic, we have improved our processes in running the business differently. Despite the dominance of China, we do see growth in other regions. Our local events have ensured visibility and appeal in key markets, and we have been able to stay in touch with local clients.
Building e-commerce is one of your biggest priorities. What are your plans on this front?
E-commerce has allowed us to partially compensate for the loss of physical sales during the lockdown periods. The onset of the pandemic last year has been a powerful accelerator for developing our e-commerce platforms in almost all our markets. The challenge of e-commerce is to find the right balance with the physical, brick and mortar stores – to have a good mix of products and price points between the digital and physical channels. In hard luxury, it’s part of an omnichannel journey that often involves the stores, among many touchpoints.
You are also focused on developing Bulgari’s hotels. What is your outlook for travel and hospitality in the months and years to come?
The Bulgari Hotels & Resorts division is moving fast. We have several projects and openings in the pipeline, starting with Paris in a couple of months and then Rome, Tokyo, Moscow and Miami in 2022 and 2023. Other than Bali, the Bulgari hotels have not been too badly affected by the pandemic, welcoming local guests rather than international ones. Each offers a Bulgari-branded, exclusive immersive experience that is unlike anything else. Travel will resume a certain level of normality with ongoing vaccinations around the world, so we are extremely optimistic.