Pennsylvania Horticultural Society: Why Not Invite Bette Midler?

Philadelphia Inquirer
New PHS chief has ideas for propelling the Flower Show into the future
By Virginia A. Smith
Inquirer Staff Writer

It has been only nine months since Drew Becher took over as president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, succeeding Jane Pepper, who led the nonprofit for 25 years.

But already he’s stirring things up at the society’s signature event: the Philadelphia International Flower Show, which opens Sunday and runs through March 13 at the Convention Center, at 12th and Arch Streets.

“I think the show needs to be completely different,” he says, “layout, marketing, posters, everything.”

Before all you loyalists faint, realize one thing. As you slip into “Springtime in Paris,” the theme of the 2011 show, you’ll see much that is familiar – the giant landscape and floral exhibits, the vast Marketplace of vendors, and the competitive Horticourt, where obsessive plant geeks go head-to-head over pampered orchids and cacti.

But the signs of change are unmistakable. And Becher, a man in a hurry, promises more changes to come.

One of the biggest changes this year may not sound earth-shattering to the general public, but in Flower Show World, it truly is: For the first time, exhibitors will be promoting themselves with signs, videos, and plasma TVs, some as large as 25 square feet.

Historically, business owners have sat on directors chairs off to the side of their exhibits, answering questions and handing out brochures, often lost in the crush. This year, some exhibitors are in big-time promo mode.

Burke Bros. Landscape Contractors of Wyndmoor is installing a sitting area and 50-inch plasma screen in the back of its exhibit. “Now we can sit and discuss projects with clients and show them things we’ve done. It’s due. It’s certainly due,” says Kevin Burke, company president.

For businesses shelling out between $75,000 and $125,000 for a major exhibit, this is a welcome chance – in these times, especially – to aggressively court new clients.

“The Flower Show isn’t just for the love of it,” Burke explains. “It’s an important marketing tool, and we’d all like to see a return on it.”

Becher makes no apology for his promotional bent: He’s gunning for more corporate sponsorships, more business participation in Flower Show week, more marketing and “buzz” for the show and its exhibitors. “Ticket sales do not cover the cost of the show. Ticket sales do not cover the cost of an NFL team. They have sponsorships,” he says. “We need to do things like this.”

Some other changes this year:

A 6-foot-by-6-foot flat-screen will show nonstop interviews with Horticourt competitors. They’ll explain what it takes to force a hellebore into bloom and where their prized clivias live in winter. Sounds like a yawn, but it will be appreciated; the rules of competition are about as clear as the IRS tax code.

“Diehards know the plants and the growers,” Becher says, “but the novices think, ‘What’s that?’ ”

And who’s that?

Showgoers often are mystified by a name perennially seen on rows of prizewinning plants – “Mrs. Samuel M.V. Hamilton.” That’s actually Dorrance “Dodo” Hamilton, the show’s grand dame, and this year, we’ll all be able to take a voyeuristic video-stroll through her legendary greenhouses in Wayne.

A 2,000-square-foot Floral Showcase highlights the international cut-flower industry and regional floral designers and retailers. Becher also has invited “celebrity designers,” such as David Stark of New York, an international event planner, and Laura Dowling, chief floral designer at the White House.

“Flower-arranging is exploding. For goodness’ sake, they have a reality show about it,” Becher says. “We need to be on the trending, cutting edge.”

Landscape architecture has a bigger presence, as part of Becher’s desire to make the show “more current and design-oriented.” Ken Smith, who designed the roof garden at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, will speak, along with landscape architects Walter Hood, Thomas Woltz, Charles A. Birnbaum, and Lynden Miller.

Irish plant-breeder Patrick FitzGerald will introduce two new primroses, red and purple, at the show. Becher wants “more of what’s new” in the trade. After all, it was at the first Flower Show, in 1829, that the gardening world saw its first poinsettia and bird-of-paradise.

“We need to go back to the future to get ahead of the trends,” Becher says.

QVC will broadcast live from a corner of the show. “We’re really going to grow that relationship,” Becher says. “Next year, they should be in the middle of the show.”

Vegetable gardening, one of the few bright spots on the retail gardening scene these last few years, will be much more visible. “We’ll have a lot of it,” says Becher, who expressed surprise at this popular trend’s low profile at the 2010 show.

Becher has ideas for future shows, too, some destined to be controversial.

He asks:

Why can’t the layout be different every year? “We have this big, huge, empty room. Let’s figure out different ways to do this,” Becher says.

(The show occupies 10 acres in the Convention Center. While Becher does not envision moving into the center’s new expanded space, he does suggest that complementary shows – home furnishings, lawn and garden – could be booked alongside future Flower Shows.)

Why does the show have to have a huge central feature, and why does the theme have to be a place, like Paris? Why not a topic like water or the art of horticulture?

Why confine the show to one level, where exhibitors can display only in square footprints? “If we had another dimension,” Becher says, “it might drive creativity.”

Why not create a large “anchor vendor” in the Marketplace, the same way a mall has a department store, and put a “main stage” in the Marketplace middle, where vendors could promote their products?

Why not invite celebrity gardeners to the show, like Martha Stewart, P. Allen Smith, and Bette Midler, Becher’s boss at the New York Restoration Project, which he headed up for four years before coming to PHS? They could lecture and help design exhibits.

Why throw away those large Flower Show pieces – gazebos, topiaries, figures – after the show? Becher wants to place them in public spaces, skating rinks, and community gardens around the city, or auction them off to raise money for the horticultural society.

And why not – deep breath, stalwarts – bring a little reality-show pop to the venerable Flower Show? Becher is thinking along the lines of a floral version of Top Chef, offering cash prizes to winners of live flower-arranging competitions.

Even the Flower Show venue is up for discussion. PHS’ contract with the Convention Center, where the show has been held since 1996, runs through 2018. “We’re looking at everything,” Becher says.

For all of the new guy’s questions, longtime showgoers may have one of their own Sunday: Where is Jane Pepper?

Pepper, who retired in June, will be uncharacteristically AWOL on opening day 2011. Not to worry. She’s traveling in Argentina, due back in Philadelphia later this week, in plenty of time to catch the show.

2011 Philadelphia Flower Show

Opens Sunday and runs until March 13

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