Flower Show lost $1.2 million, and leader blames TV

Sheri Anderson of Alexandria, Va. , peeks through a portal to view a flower arrangement at the Convention Center. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Sheri Anderson of Alexandria, Va. , peeks through a portal to view a flower arrangement at the Convention Center. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 20, 2013

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society usually makes about $1 million in profits from the Philadelphia Flower Show.

But not this year.

The 2013 show actually fell short about $1.2 million, not an unprecedented event in its 184-year history but a short-term disaster for the many urban "greening" programs it supports. PHS president Drew Becher is now scrambling to cut costs - and to raise $1 million for programs and $200,000 for Flower Show expenses from PHS members and an insurance policy.

For all this, he blames local TV and radio stations.

With unusual bluntness, Becher accuses them of "hyping up" a major snowstorm during Flower Show week that never materialized - but led to scores of canceled tour buses and visitors, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket and merchandise sales.

"It was a snow drumbeat, and it was relentless," Becher said of the weather forecasts that week.

The 2013 show drew 225,000 attendees. That's 17 percent less than 2012 and the lowest total since 2001, even though the show - the PHS's major fund-raiser - was open to the public for an extra day this year.

Representatives of CBS3, 6ABC, NBC10, Fox29, and KYW Radio all declined comment on the record or did not return phone calls. Becher, the Flower Show's cheerleader-in-chief since 2010, exempted newspapers and their websites from criticism because "more people go to other media outlets for weather."

He acknowledges that by speaking out, he risks alienating his "media partners," who vigorously promote the Flower Show every year and "partner" with the PHS at other times, too.

"But they know a snow or a weather event is basically gold on their advertising dollars. People need to realize that what they're saying on air actually causes harm," Becher said, calling the connection "pretty cut-and-dried."

Snow is always a risk during the Flower Show, which dates to 1829 and has been held in March since the 1920s, usually about three weeks before Easter to promote flower sales. It's been locked in to the beginning of the month since 1996, when the venue changed from the Civic Center in West Philadelphia to the Convention Center at 12th and Arch Streets.

This year, the show ran March 2-10, and forecasters began touting the potential for a major snowstorm the weekend it opened. Midweek predictions ranged from two to four inches in Philadelphia and South Jersey and up to eight or more in the western suburbs, with another round to come Friday.

The week's totals were considerably less, with Philadelphia racking up a negligible 0.2 inches and a little rain, and the western suburbs "a few flakes," even less than one might have expected this uneventful winter, according to meteorologist Greg Heavener of the National Weather Service in Mount Holly.

"It was a botched forecast," he acknowledged, including not just TV and radio, but the National Weather Service, all of whom predicted "heavy bands of snow to move across Southeastern Pennsylvania that never materialized."

"Precipitation was light, and temperatures started off a couple degrees warmer than we thought it would be. Both added up to a really, really botched forecast," Heavener said.

But he made a distinction between the federal government's weather operation and local media:

"Our job is to get the information out to the public. We're not a business. We don't make money for our broadcasts. They do. They hype it up for ratings and viewership, and all meteorologists kind of take the blame for it."

Pittsburgh did get four to six inches that week, and points north and south of Philadelphia got more, which fueled a raft of tour-bus cancellations - 88 on Wednesday and Thursday of show week alone.

Still, 60 percent of Flower Show visitors are from the Philadelphia area. "For a lot of people, it's one of those impulse things," Becher said. "They get up in the morning, hear the forecast and say, 'Nope, I'm not going.' "

He dismissed the notion that dissatisfaction with ticket prices, the show theme - this year, Britain - or any other factor played a discernible role in this year's attendance drop.

He noted that attendance increases in 2011 and 2012, and said that before the "snow drumbeat" began, 2013 online ticket sales were trending 7 to 15 percent ahead of 2012. Also, that the show's early-morning tours and garden teas were sold out and that the first weekend, with the show open to the public on Saturday for the first time, was crowded.

To make up for the shortfall, the PHS has filed a claim on its event-insurance policy, as was done in 2001 by Becher's predecessor, Jane Pepper, when a much-ballyhooed "storm of the century" also proved a bust. The claim yielded $900,000.

And in 1993, the PHS lost $500,000 after a blizzard forced the show to close early. There was no insurance that year, and PHS members made up the difference.

Becher has already sent letters to 4,000 potential PHS donors seeking $100,000 for the cause. "We wanted a goal that was attainable," he said. Two board members have offered to donate $25,000 if PHS raises the additional $75,000 by June 30.

But the pain continues. Because the show fell so far short, the PHS in 2014 faces possible cuts in programs, staff, pension contributions, and other items. "Everything is on the table," Becher said.

As for the local media's weather forecasts, Becher said, he spoke to one channel during the show about his concerns and likely will write to all of them before next year's show, scheduled for March 1-9.

Meanwhile, the PHS has just joined forces with 6ABC for a project called "the Action News Garden." PHS experts will offer "gardening tips and trends" in a garden outside the station at 4100 City Ave. This will also be the backdrop for the weather team's five-day forecasts.


Contact Virginia A. Smith

at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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