How did Chelsea participants build the case for exhibiting?

Whether sponsoring, designing or building a garden at an event like the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, participants need to be crystal clear about their return on investment. So how did participants in this year's Chelsea make the case?

Sarah Price is keen to attract more high-profile projects. Image: Julian Dodd/HW
Sarah Price is keen to attract more high-profile projects. Image: Julian Dodd/HW

Council displays used to be a common sight at Chelsea, but Birmingham City Council — promoting the city, its parks, people and commercial nursery is the sole remaining council exhibitor. Birmingham, which raised £20,000 from local sponsorship, was able to take part this year thanks to a partnership brokered by the RHS in December with Baroness Floella Benjamin, who had the idea to celebrate the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush and the contribution its passengers have made to British life. The RHS contributed £3,500 and the Windrush Foundation provided £16,500. 

Designer and Birmingham director of waste -services Darren Share has estimated that the 
value of the media coverage the city gained in -previous years was as much as £723,000. That was for the city council’s 2014 World War One trench garden. This year the display gained a lot of interest too in the wake of the Windrush scandal. The garden won the city’s parks department its sixth gold medal.

Share says: "It takes a lot of effort and it is hard to get sponsorship. You’ve got to want to do it. We do get criticism from people in Birmingham when we are here, but a lot of people are proud. It’s really worth it, especially if you want to change the image of a city. Birmingham’s got a reputation of being a concrete jungle. This is one way to say ‘we are not, come and look at Birmingham’."

Contribution to tourism 

Sir Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, which sponsored Mark Gregory’s gold medal, people’s choice and best construction award show garden, agrees the investment is worth it. "I’m in no doubt our yearly show garden plays a significant part in making tourism in the county worth £8bn a year," he says. "Each year we showcase a different slice of our great county at Chelsea. Its main purpose is to entice visitors to experience the real thing for themselves.

"The media coverage of our 2017 garden reached almost 69 million people on TVs, radios and websites, with more than 800,000 hearing about the garden and Yorkshire in general on social media. This was further enhanced by the many images which were printed and shared of the high-profile celebrities captured visiting our garden on press day." Of the 168,000 Chelsea visitors, 60,000 of them took away one of Welcome to Yorkshire’s garden guides, which include details of gardens to visit in the county.

Business improvement district (BID) the New West End Company intends to go further and relocate the garden it and partners the Sir Simon Milton Foundation, The Portman Estate and Wild West End, sponsored — designed by Kate Gould, another gold winner — to Old Quebec Street as part of a pedestrianisation project. "We get the opportunity to work with a great designer and it’s a great platform to promote everything that we’re doing," says director of place-making Dan Johnson. "The thinking is to create a wonderful space where people who live, work and visit the West End can relax and improve their well-being". He adds that the BID members all "really get it".

Gould says: "I think from a business point of view it’s better to be here than not be here. When I started there wasn’t much competition. Now there are a lot of people doing garden courses yearly. They’ve all got websites, they’ve all got skills. Being here is a really important form of PR."

Sarah Price, who won gold for a romantic Mediterranean M&G garden, says Chelsea is an essential creative outlet for designers. "More than anything I need to be creative," she adds. "It’s very difficult to be creative in projects. It’s essential to use Chelsea as a place to experiment."

Price says shows can be the springboard for designers who do not have existing family connections to wealthy clients. She co-designed the 2012 gardens at London’s Olympic Park and was a planting consultant for LDA Design on the post-games legacy design following Chelsea exposure in 2006 and 2007. This year she used it "to make people aware I’m still here". She adds: "When you go and have a family people just assume you’re not working, or you’re not going to come back. Would I like another big public project? Yes please."

Shop window

Chelsea has dominated the career of Landform Consultants managing director Mark Gregory, who won his fourth gold medal as a designer for his Welcome to Yorkshire garden in his 30th consecutive year at the show.  "This is the shop window. This is the catwalk. This is high fashion," he says. "Chelsea is a massive influencer and so important. It’s a chance to experiment, be brave and trial things that maybe a client wouldn’t put in."

Jo Thompson, who secured gold for the Wedgwood garden, says having a fixed timescale and budget is useful but believes that otherwise Chelsea is exactly like working for a client in a real garden, with clients and sponsors both having "a story to tell". She adds: "You do more here than you would in a real garden. I wouldn’t have a bronze sculpture swooping through the garden."

Mark Tomlinson, who runs domestic and commercial business MTJ Landscapes in Reading, says building at Chelsea can put off some "bread-and-butter" domestic clients. "People think you might be overpriced, but when they realise you’re not they’re over the moon — they say our landscaper is a Chelsea landscaper," he says. "It’s led to a few other jobs that we couldn’t have normally got. We have a groundworks contract with Hillier as well."

For some, Chelsea is a springboard to a whole new career. Adam Frost won seven gold medals for his show gardens before launching a TV career and returning as a presenter of Chelsea coverage and Gardeners’ World. "I’m living proof that you can build your career here," he says. "It’s somewhere you can come and talk to the world. I don’t think there’s anything else like it."


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