Using festivals to bring in more garden visitors

Snowdrops at the heart of winter festivals that are increasing footfall

Snowdrops: make it very easy to secure column inches - image: NGS
Snowdrops: make it very easy to secure column inches - image: NGS

Launching or joining a winter horticultural festival can have a big impact on footfall in public gardens, especially at a time of year when many outdoor attractions are closed. But what is the best way of achieving happy, if cold, visitors?

Founder of the Scottish Snowdrop Festival and chair of Discover Scottish Gardens Catherine Erskine, who is also manager of the Cambo Estate in Fife, had 170 snowdrop visitors in 2001 and this grew steadily over the next few years. But her garden saw a huge jump to 7,505 people when she established the snowdrop festival, getting the benefit of promotion by Visit Scotland.

"There's clearly a demand for us. It puts the garden on the map," she says. Now in its 11th year, the festival has 13 new properties this year and 50 in total, attracting more than 10,000 visitors between January and March, including coach tours from Germany and Holland.

Discover Scottish Gardens, a marketing network of gardens, plant nurseries and related businesses, grew directly out of the snowdrop festival and now promotes gardens all year round. Erskine says that in Scotland only three or four gardens used to open during the winter - mainly a handful of snowdrop openings for charity Scotland's Gardens. "Just for a few years it was difficult to encourage people," she adds. But she soon learnt: "Column inches are very easy to get for snowdrops. People could see there was an easy win."

National Gardens Service (NGS) chief executive George Plumptre agrees. The NGS doubled the number of its gardens opening at this time of year from around 40 to 50-90 last year when it launched its snowdrop festival. Bringing the various garden openings together to make a festival meant "the media side worked well", he says.

"Making a feature at a time when not much else is going on in the garden world makes you something that is easy to publicise - it gives it a bit of momentum." It helps if you give the media what they want, when they want it, he adds.

"Getting onto local radio is a great help. It's quite easy if we give them relevant, specific, timely information." He also advises building up a library of quality pictures for print and online media. "We have to be well organised and work a few months in advance at the back end of the previous years to get into magazines within a decent lead time.

"A number of people who don't do openings at this time of year are hesitant. People who are snowdrop aficionados know all about it. But telling people that we would create a formal festival and promote it made a difference. I think they just needed a bit of a prompt.

"What I think it's taught us is that lots of people will visit gardens at this time of the year for non-horticultural reasons and if you can provide them with somewhere nice to go you will see the benefit." Putting on or joining a festival is especially good for new gardens because people like going to new places, he explains.

Erskine says that while horticulture may be the draw it is important to look at your offering around the garden itself. "The difference is people are now creating activities. I would encourage people to have even the simplest of events. It's easy to attract people back each year if things are different. Don't just stay the same."

This is something Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew knows only too well. The famous London garden is a past master at horticultural festivals. This year its orchid festival (see box) is in its 22nd year and is a well-oiled machine. "We do see a significant increase in visitor numbers during February," says visitor programmes manager Sophie Sillitoe. "There's not a great deal to see in the gardens. It makes sense to have a festival and orchids bloom at this time of year. We build the whole festival around that. The horticultural displays come first."

National theme

Last year's Olympics prompted the choice of Brazil as a theme. Sillitoe says choosing a country worked so well Kew decided to pick another this year, India. "Pick a good theme, start planning early, be collaborative and if you're not an expert on your theme go out and find some proper people who are," she advises.

"Think about different audiences - adult discerning visitors, family groups, people who like our Lates programme. We call them 'exciting new experience hunters'. They are people who want to go out in the evening, have a drink and eat but also do something meaningful."

While the orchids themselves are the stars of the show, Sillitoe says it is important to have a secondary theme on top - "a wash"

- that helps to attract repeat visitors. "You add in new things each year. Having special events such as our talks on Saturday is really important as it helps to create a portfolio."

One new event this year is a talk on how Kew built the festival, after Sillitoe noticed there is always a question at the festival talks about how the festival is built. "People love the behind-the-scenes stuff. This year we decided to make a feature of it. Botanical horticulturist Alex Hankey does the talk and it gives us a chance to talk about how we care for and nurture orchids at Kew. People found it absolutely fascinating. It goes back to this thing about responding to different audiences."

But what pitfalls can be avoided? Plumptre says it is important to focus on practicalities. "We're more susceptible to really bad weather - for example, parking on a field in January. If it's waterlogged it's a major headache. Those are the sorts of practical things that can trip the festival up."

According to Sillitoe it is important to be clear with your theme, if you have one. "Last year we put on a Valentines' special. The ticket price was a bit higher - we gave a complimentary glass of champagne on arrival. We had a dance class on the regular Lates, but we changed from samba to salsa because it's a bit sexier. All that did was cause a little bit of confusion. This year on 14 February we kept all the content the same."

Kew: festival took India as theme - image: RBG, Kew/Jeff Eden

Case study - Indian Orchid Festival hosted at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The festival team starts early - April the preceding year - with three interdepartmental brainstorming sessions. After deciding on India as a theme, a researcher spoke to colleagues to ensure that there was a story to tell about Kew's work in India and Indian plants.

They established a focus group, which Sillitoe says was "a sense-checking exercise, to make sure our ideas were authentic. I've been to India once. I did feel incredibly ignorant. We used the focus group as a twofold opportunity to sense-check and to gain more ideas. I thought the group was going to be good but it was so much better than I thought. They have not only been able to help me with the cultural perspective but they've helped me with content for the Lates programme."

One focus group member inspired the commissioning of a filmmaker from Calcutta to create a video and a soundscape.

The team then thinks about different audiences and what events they might enjoy, as well as a variety of different art forms. These might include sculptures or graphic art.

Lastly, Sillitoe says, innovate but recognise when you get things right. "Last year I felt that we really got the programme right. This year I kept the same programme but changed the content. If all that behind-the-scenes stuff isn't broken, don't try to change it."

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