What does the Chelsea Flower Show mean for the industry?

It may be celebrity-focused but the media coverage benefits the entire trade, reports Matthew Appleby.

RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2010. Image: HW
RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2010. Image: HW

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is a highlight of the social calendar and attracts 11 hours of prime time BBC television coverage - as well as interactive "red button" content, radio, online and newspaper reports. But exactly where does the industry see the main benefits of the show?

There are, of course, some who see Chelsea as a celebrity-packed, media-frenzied sideshow. But garden centres report a 10 per cent uplift in sales purely because of the show. While commercial exhibitors may think twice about the high costs of exhibiting, the whole trade receives a spin-off from the annual extravaganza, industry figures agree.

Consumer interest certainly rises after the show. Squires managing director and Garden Centre Association chairman designate Dennis Espley now visits the show to look for trends and ideas on what to stock, although Squires stopped exhibiting after 2008. He says: "Chelsea certainly makes a positive impact on sales, no two ways about it. Of course, you're interacting with the weather. If the weather is good, then trade certainly improves."

Espley says media interest is the most important factor in raising the profile of gardening, which leads to more sales: "There is tremendous coverage on the BBC. It gets people going, especially with this late season. It's a call to action. Chelsea is more important because this season has been later to start than in other seasons, when people might have done their work on the garden by the time of the show."

He adds that long term, Chelsea has a "definite impact" on buying habits. "It's the quality (on display) that encourages people. I was very inspired by the show. The quality of the gardens was fantastic. There were more and more things ordinary people can pick up.

"The small gardens were very good and there were things you could take away about children and gardening. It's very difficult to say what the RHS could do better. It's easy to criticise but I don't know what else it can do. From the trade point of view, it should keep plenty of small gardens and keep in with the BBC. That's what drives business."

Espley says it is difficult to put a figure on it, but he estimates at least a 10 per cent uplift in sales because of Chelsea, depending on the weather. This year the timing has been particularly propitious, ahead of the May Bank holiday, which has given gardeners time to shop and get stuck into bigger projects.

Garden centres are less involved in the show now, apart from Hillier, which won a 65th gold medal. Squires and Notcutts left after 2008, citing costs. Yet online garden centre Crocus has a significant involvement, building gardens and supplying plants.

In the plant marquee, business-to-business brand John Woods is promoting stockists and new plants Hydrangea 'Twist-n-Shout', Coprosma 'Pacific Sunset' and Cornus Venus. Although they were unable to enter the Chelsea Plant of the Year Award because they may have been exhibited at the Ideal Home Show, like other growers, the firm welcomed the initiative, which exhibitors said would help to refocus attention on plants rather than personalities.

John Woods managing director John Lord says he is delighted by the scheme. He sees it as another commercial opportunity and believes it is "an opportunity missed" for those who promote plants that are not commercially available. HW Hyde showed the Lily Allen 'Popstar' lily, which is not commercially available, with only a handful to sell in 2011.

The Capel Manor/John Woods garden will live on at Capel Manor College from June, helping to further promote the plants and stockists.

Some exhibitors in the plant pavilion had the familiar gripes this year, among them the way that TV broadcasters seem to concentrate on gardens, and the all-pervasive fuss about celebrities.

With 100-plus plant launches, it is easy to get lost in the rush. In 2009's recession year, there were only three golds, compared with 12 this year, and commercial stands filled the gaps where gardens might have been. This year was more typical, with standards back up and fewer high-end sculpture-style products that the trade cannot sell and in which it has little interest.

Commercial standholders including Hozelock, Thompson & Morgan, Bulldog, The Compost Heap and Town & Country see the show as a flag-flying exercise. They also cover costs through sales, which growers cannot do because they are not allowed to sell plants.

Commentators Peter Seabrook and Neil Gow criticised garden designers at Chelsea who have moved on from the grow-your-own (GYO) trend just as Chelsea hits top speed in garden centres. Judge Andrew Fisher Tomlin admits the trend has lost appeal for designers: "It has been done to death." The new biodiversity trend does not spell such easy sales for the industry.

Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants owner Rosy Hardy says designers had not gone for "the GYO thing" but adds that the show had got back to "proper horticulture - what you can grow", rather than exotics and avant garde.

She says: "With this hard winter, people haven't got time to faff around with all the trendy exotics. The only gardens with exotics are ones showing off other countries. There are a lot more of the foreign exhibitors here, which are all about advertising for people to go on holiday, so there are fewer actual nurseries."

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