Networking a business benefit of RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Landscape contractors explain reasons for getting involved despite difficulties.

Gregory: Chelsea great for showcasing quality of work
Gregory: Chelsea great for showcasing quality of work

Building an RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden is risky, time-consuming, labour-intensive and mostly invisible to the public eye, so why do landscape contractors get involved?

Chelsea veteran Mark Gregory of Landform Consultants is building Nigel Dunnett's RHS Greening Grey Britain exhibit, Tracy Foster's Welcome to Yorkshire garden and the Seedlip garden, designed by Landform's own Fiona Cadwallader, as well a plot to launch Arup's green wall system.

He says the show provides a unique meeting point for the world's best designers, contractors and suppliers and is excellent for networking, as well as for ensuring and showcasing quality of work. "It benchmarks our ability to deliver something to a very high standard during a very tight time frame. Can you deliver this whatever happens? Yes we can."

It is also useful for staff recruitment and retention, adds Gregory, with landscapers keen to put Chelsea on their CVs. "It's a unique situation. The lads get paid properly, they make great money, they get great overtime. That's how it works."

Retail benefits

On the retail side, director Peter Clay of Crocus, which built last year's Andy Sturgeon best-in-show garden and is working on James Basson's M&G garden this year, says Chelsea gives his company the "ability to work with some of the most brilliant minds in garden design and learn from that experience in terms of plant choice, plant combination and general philosophy.

"Our whole point in life is to give the ordinary gardener the same choice and palette as the professional and the best ideas. We can only do that if we know what the best are doing and thinking. That's really why we do it."

Clay says the show does not directly inform buying much, although occasionally Chelsea plants become huge sellers. But he adds: "We are working with new plants all the time so we're learning. We get paid to do it and we do it for a price that covers our cost. We don't make money on it. I don't think anyone makes money on it because of the costs involved. If you're going to be involved you have to be realistic about the pros and cons."

He says customers are not wowed by Crocus's work at Chelsea because contractors are so far down the kudos list, but "it's a low-level awareness that builds over time so there is a value to it".

Contractor visibility

Bowles & Wyer Contracts is building Darren Hawkes' Linklaters Garden for Maggie's. Director Dan Riddleston, who is marking 25 years at Chelsea this year, says the visibility of contractors is starting to change with the introduction of the contractors' award last year, contractors' names appearing on garden display boards and last year's Daily Telegraph article "Heroes in high-vis".

"Exposure to the general public is nice but we don't expect any direct orders," he adds. "Perhaps there's some sort of general acknowledgement and PR."

But building a Chelsea garden is a useful shopfront to invite garden or interior designer and landscape architect clients to view, particularly if much of your previous work has been on private land with access issues. "It might help seal a deal," says Riddleston.

He agrees the show is great for business-to-business networking but ultimately it is a commercial opportunity. "We don't use it as a promotional tool. We recognise the value of promotion but we also have to make money out of the project or we wouldn't do it. It has to be profitable."

Clay warns that it is important not to let Chelsea take up too much time. "You're putting time and effort into something at a time when you should be making a lot of money because it's the peak of the garden season. If you're not careful you can get diverted from your core business."

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