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How garden attractions can build a successful garden show

Some of the biggest garden shows in the UK are not held in a garden. RHS Chelsea Flower Show is located on the grounds of a retirement home, the BBC Gardeners’ World show is located at the Birmingham NEC and the new Ascot Spring Show, which held its inaugural event this month (April) makes the most of its racecourse venue.

Many others, including Blenheim, Newbury and Henley are held at garden venues but run by an outside events company.

But some gardens open to the public are making the most of their in-house assets to both run a successful show and cross market both the garden and the event.

Great Comp Garden

Great Comp Garden Curator William Dyson (above) has launched five garden shows at the Sevenoaks, Kent attraction, including horticultural and smallholding show Hens and Gardens, which while it may be niche, attracts more than 800 people every year. This year to celebrate the garden’s 50th anniversary, he is launching a Fine Food Festival.

Dyson says garden shows are a great showcase for your garden. “It puts your garden on the map and it broadens the scope of people we are attracting. “It gives us something to shout about.”

Dyson launched his first show, the Great Comp Summer Show, 16 years ago. Now held every August, it attracts 3000 visitors on average, ten times the number who will attend on a non-show weekend.

Now the garden runs the Snowdrop Sensation in February, the Spring Fling in April, Hens and Gardens in June, Great Comp Summer Show in August, the Fine Food Festival in September and the Autumn Extravaganza in October. The shows now make up most of Great Comp’s annual visitor profile.

Entry to the shows is included in the £8 entry fee for the gardens, and visitors can get this amount discounted from an upgrade to an annual membership on the day. Exhibitor fees cover costs.

Dyson says: “Year on year it’s built the visitor numbers. It’s brought in people who would have never have visited a garden. It helps to build your visitor numbers through the year. If you then diversify your range of shows you can get a different sector of your public to visit. They see what you’ve got as we sell a huge quantity of garden season tickets on show days. It really does pay dividends. I think it’s the way to go really.”

Hens and Gardens event at Great Comp Garden

Pay attention to planning and infrastructure

When thinking about launching a garden show, it is advisable not to stint on initial brainstorming and ideas, according to shows consultant Stephen Bennett. The former RHS shows director who planned and designed the first Ascot Spring Garden Show, recommends resisting the urge to “churn out RHS lookalikes” and start by looking closer to home.

“Start with ‘what have we got? What do we want? How many visitors can we accommodate each day? Gardens should try and create something which has a strong character and a distinctive identity. Could the USP be art in the garden, could it be music?”

Next it is crucial to ensure you build your show on the right foundations.

“Without infrastructure you are in trouble. That leads to commercial considerations. The biggest mistake you can make is putting on a show that’s too big for the visitor volume. That balance between the range and type of exhibitors and volume and quality of visitors – if these two groups are happy then you have cracked it. To begin with don’t be hung up on size, start smaller and let it grow organically.”

He suggests tying in the timing of your show to whenever your showcase blooms are at their best but warns that there is quite a busy show schedule already, so it may be best to choose a quieter time of year.

“You want to pull in people that have never been to your garden so they can discover it. You need to decide if you want to run it yourself or bring in an outside company,” he advises. “Make it personal, don’t start by thinking you have to outsource it, bring in the expertise you need on an advisory basis, operationally, logistically.

“If it is run by the garden’s own team that would give it a nice personal touch. Gardeners would be attracted to that. It would be very easy to advise the team in what they would need to do to plan and run their own garden show, assuming they have the resource and required skill set.”

This is what has happened at Woburn Abbey. The Duchess of Bedford contacted Bennett and asked how he could help her gardens team improve their existing show.

Use your garden team

Woburn Abbey and Gardens award-winning gardens team – they scooped the Best Gardens or Arboretum Team award at last year’s Custodian Awards – and Estates gardens manager for the Bedford Estates Martin Towsey, who won the Custodian Award in 2017, are a key selling point of its summer show, which bills itself as “The Gardeners’ Garden Show” Under head gardener Andrew Grout, gardeners give tours of the Humphrey Repton-designed gardens and are available to give horticultural advice to visitors. There is always some kind of display at each show which highlights Woburn’s position as Repton’s most realised garden, and encourages visitors to learn more about the site as a whole.

“When I worked at the RHS I wouldn’t have wanted that competition,” says Bennett. “The fact that the Duchess is personally involved, the fact that Martin Towsey and his gardens team are the ones out there all day long giving advice, these are real advantages. They are lovely, they are so motivated these guys.”

The show attracted just under 5,000 visitors last year, of a total of 42,000 total gardens visitors, and Towsey aims to increase that by a further thousand.

“The original brief from the garden show was to celebrate the garden. To get people in and to discover what’s actually here. It’s also for revenue,” Towsey says. “We’ve got to come up with all these innovative ways of bringing people into the gardens. We are a separate business to the abbey. I’m in charge of footfall.”

He says one advantage of a show run by a gardens team is that they have a vested interest in protecting the site and ensuring it still looks good after the show.

Also visitors appreciate the personal touch. “We do things individually. We’re telling them a story about what’s here at the gardens. Our staff are integrated into what visitors are actually looking at. They can demonstrate it better and with passion. It works out brilliantly.”

Logistics

Great Comp also has a crucial role for its gardeners at its shows – they are in charge of the marshalling system.

“The most important thing is getting the visitors on and off the site safely and parked correctly,” says Dyson. “We’ve also got limited access to our site. We consult with our exhibitors and give them timed arrival slots. We make sure we have all the staff on.” Staff join Great Comp in the knowledge they will need to work show weekends but as well as getting time off in lieu, Dyson says he is flexible about hours at other times to make up for it.

At both gardens, knowledge of the grounds is useful when it comes to dealing with issues such as waterlogging in car parking or access areas. At the Spring Fling, this happened and the team knew when to close off a field and re-direct traffic.

Towsey also says planning is crucial. “With the garden show it’s all about planning and preparation. Without it things won’t work and things won’t be in the right place at the right time.” When establishing the event, Towsey’s team took its cue from the England Rugby World Cup Team managed by Clive Woodward which won the World Cup in 2003, looking at the techniques used to achieve their success.

“Something will go wrong,” he says but he knows his team can handle any likely eventuality because they have already planned for it. Delegation is an important skill. One member is in charge of running the Honey Festival at the end of the year, partly as a succession planning exercise. The festival also gives an end of year boost, he adds.

Bennett suggests tying in the timing of your show to whenever your showcase blooms are at their best but warns that there is quite a busy show schedule already, so it may be best to choose a quieter time of year. The popularity of snowdrop festivals proves that garden shows do not need to be summer shows.

The Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society has been running its Spring Flower Show for more than a quarter of a century at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (RBGE). Society president, and also curator of living collections at the RBGE, David Knott, says the show brings people in at a time the gardens would otherwise be quiet. This year people battled through the snow from north of Scotland and south of the border alike to attend.

“I think it gives another dimension to visitors that visit the garden. The previous week we also had the Children’s Flower Show so we are encouraging the next generation.

“This year it was more impactful where we had these bulbs out.  You went from a cold, grey outside to a nice warm hall filled with scent, you were transported into spring.”

Whatever type of show you decide to put on, everybody agrees that good marketing and public relations are essential.

Dyson talks about the impact of the “drip drip effect” of getting regular events in the press of keeping the garden in the public eye as well as promoting shows.

“The most important thing of all is being able to market an event. So many people out there think they can have a show but they forget the vital thing about letting people know.  I think it’s so important that we have that good marketing and PR support and they are different – you’ve got to have both.”

Another way to use a garden show is “to link things back and forward,” particularly celebrities, Towsey says. For example garden designer and serial RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medal winner Adam Frost is speaking at Woburn Garden Show and this can promote and cross sell a garden design masterclass he is running at Woburn in September

“If you’ve got a big social media presence you’ll bring people back and back. Show them updates of what on and what’s going on in the garden.”

This post was written by: HortWeek