Growers who can put on a captivating display and give sound advice; exciting show gardens; and suppliers of quality garden products are three key ingredients in garden shows, providing a great sales platform for garden plants, products and services. That is so long as exhibitor numbers overall are limited and the generic duplication of plants and products is avoided.
The newest show to launch for April 2018 is the Ascot Spring Garden Show, which claims it will be the only substantial top-class plant-selling show in the South East prior to Hampton Court in July. The show will be at Ascot Racecourse and is running in association with the Windsor Estate.
The RHS is launching Chatsworth this summer, while its Harlow Carr show runs for a second time in mid June. In the meantime, Grow London has been sold by the Affordable Art Fair to Clarion Events and is moving to Olympia in London. The RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May remains largely a non-selling show for nurseries.
Events consultant Stephen Bennett has advised on the launch of the new event at Ascot Racecourse in partnership with The Savill Garden and The Valley Gardens at Windsor Great Park. It will run on 13-15 April 2018 and then annually. The Woburn Abbey Garden Show is also being reconstructed and relaunched for summer 2018 with Bennett acting as the consultant.
Bennett, who was RHS shows director for 28 years, reveals the secret of success for putting on good shows: "You cannot have two massive garden shows running simultaneously in the UK or two medium sized ones in the same region running at the same time. You can, however, have two medium-sized shows if they are in different parts of the country and/or in different calendar slots".
The size/calendar/season/geography ratio is important but so is effective marketing and, of course, the venue and its facilities too, he adds. "Most permanent year-round gardens were not designed to cope with a huge daily volume of vehicular traffic. Internal roads at most stately homes and historic parks are slender and built for horse and carriage - there are few hard-surfaced roads at the grand estates.
"At some National Trust and RHS gardens you can cope with up to, say, 10,000 visitors a day but not 30,000-40,000 a day as there's insufficient space to accommodate visitors' cars as well as the larger contractors' and exhibitors' vehicles. Tatton Park in Cheshire is one of the UK's few venues that contains a both a large ornamental garden as well as a large space for major events, including car parking. If it's really wet and you park on grass that can get interesting as many outdoor events found to their dismay in the very wet summer of 2012."
Bennett adds that a nearby railway station is an obvious asset for major event venues such as Hampton Court Palace, Hatfield House and Ascot Racecourse, although it can impact on revenue if car parking fees are charged. He has postponed the launch of the new garden show at Hatfield House but both he and the venue are keen to keep it "on the stocks" while Bennett regroups his team and resources.
Grower-wise, Bennett says specialist plant people who can put on a decent display and give good advice are essential. "There are thousands of nurseries in the UK but only a few hundred that can stage an engaging exhibit." He adds that good trade stands ranging from greenhouses, garden machinery and equipment are needed as well as show gardens, which "are the hardest part of the mix because there's no guaranteed return on investment. If you're starting a new show, the organisers have to contribute to the cost of the gardens, which is why most don't do it."
At Ascot there will be six part-funded show gardens designed and built by up-and-coming garden designers who are submitting proposals based broadly on a "town and country" theme. The show gardens are being curated by seasoned garden designer Andrew Fisher Tomlin. The plan is to include floristry, garden photography and botanical art "and then you have to offer something else, something extra, for instance fashion, fine food, comfortable dining and superb hospitality and music. Something that gives the event its USP."
He says engaging celebrities to make an appearance is a marketing judgement. "Sure, they bring in the borderline visitor. But keen gardeners know what they want and a celebrity presence is perhaps less important to them." BBC Gardeners' World Live has a key point of difference because it is famously celebrity-driven. "That's part of its BBC DNA." Chelsea attracts top celebrities on press day but Bennett says: "That took 100 years of horticultural history and hard work to achieve."