Move the Flower Show from March to April?

Snow barely stuck to the tree branches March 8 around City Hall, but the forecast of a major storm kept patrons from last year's Flower Show - which organizers blamed for a $2 million loss.
Snow barely stuck to the tree branches March 8 around City Hall, but the forecast of a major storm kept patrons from last year's Flower Show - which organizers blamed for a $2 million loss. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 10, 2014

It was no "storm of the century." Heck, 0.2 inches was barely a dusting. But the botched predictions of a major snowfall during last year's Philadelphia Flower Show live on in infamy.

At least, they do at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the show's producer, which blamed the forecasting debacle, to a great extent, for the show's losing more than $2 million and attracting only 225,000 visitors, 17 percent fewer than 2012 and the lowest total since 2001 - even though the show was open to the public for an extra day.

Now, PHS president Drew Becher, who hopes to recoup 2013's losses from a pending event-insurance claim, has an idea: What if the show, which is its biggest fund-raiser of the year, were moved from the first week in March, its traditional time slot, to the end of March or early April?

"The weather would certainly be better, and we could just take that out of the equation," says Becher, who has asked his staff for a recommendation on the issue this summer, well after the 2014 show - themed ARTiculture, "where art meets horticulture" - has been put to bed. It runs from March 1 to March 9 at the Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets.

Any changes would have to be approved by the PHS board and wouldn't take effect until 2017 at the earliest, says Becher, who sees both pros and cons to a proposal that sounds simple but isn't.

On the one hand, a later date would be that much closer to spring, and PHS could make plant sales a big component of the show.

On the other hand, in late March/early April, show exhibitors traditionally start outside cleanups, maintenance, and planting for their paying clients.

"If I have to lose a real job to do the Flower Show . . . there is no way. It won't happen. You can't be doing that in April," says Michael Petrie, the Swarthmore designer who in 2013 won top honors at the Flower Show and a silver medal in the World Cup of Gardening in Nagasaki, Japan.

PHS subsidizes its by-invitation-only exhibitors, whose elaborate displays are designed not just to win trophies, but also to entice new clients eager for some Flower Show cachet in the backyard. Many vendors say they rarely land jobs during the show anymore, which helps explain their reluctance to consider a later date.

Joe Blandy, vice president of Stoney Bank Nurseries in Glen Mills, another longtime, award-winning exhibitor, echoes Petrie's thoughts.

"We certainly love the Flower Show - we've built our business around it - but I think April would definitely conflict with our spring schedule," says Blandy, a landscape architect and son of the company's founder, Jack.

Even relative newcomers like J. Downend Landscaping of Crum Lynne are sour on the idea.

"A later show," says operations manager Tom Morris, "would really be a hardship. We'd be pulling our crews away from paying clientele."

There are other variables, too: the dates of Easter, Passover, and spring breaks; hotel availability; competing conventions and events; and something less tangible . . .

"It's too hard to get even an old idea reminded into people's consciousness, let alone a new idea," says Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, the renamed Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.

While an interesting idea, she says, "a flower show in late March or early April would have to be treated as a launch of a new event almost, because in any month of the year, your potential audience is different than it is for every other month."

Snow is always a risk in early March; the 1993 Flower Show ended early because of a blizzard. More typically, March gets 2.9 inches, April half that. "And it's more likely to be rain than snow in April," says meteorologist Valerie Meola of the National Weather Service in Mount Holly.

The show, which dates to 1829, had traditionally been held in March to promote flower sales for Easter, which made sense. The Philadelphia region was home to many noted nurserymen, who competed and sold flowers at the show, making Easter their most profitable holiday.

Flowers and floral design remain a part of the modern show, but there are no longer scores of professional growers competing. And Easter/Passover, according to industry data, accounts for only 13 percent of holiday flower sales, compared with 30 percent for Christmas/Hanukkah, 24 percent for Mother's Day, 20 percent for Valentine's Day, and 6 percent for Thanksgiving.

Becher, though, cites another reason for the show's March dates' being retained in more recent decades.

From 1966 to 1996, the show was held at the old Civic Center in West Philadelphia, on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus, and Becher says the March show coincided with Penn's spring break.

"It was all about parking," he says.

That is no longer an issue, and although the Horticultural Society's contract locks in the first week of March through the 2019 show, that week is not cast in stone for Bob McClintock. His opinion matters; he's operations chief for convention centers for SMG of West Conshohocken, which manages the Center City Convention Center and 71 others in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

"This is one of the signature shows we are fortunate to host," says McClintock, who, as a city employee, ran the Civic Center when the show was there and oversaw its move to 12th and Arch. "The key is finding the ideal time to host it."

Jerry Fritz of Linden Hill Designs in Ottsville knows his Flower Show and thinks March is ideal. "In March, people are lusting after anything green. Once the weather breaks and it becomes nicer outside, it may be harder to get the crowds."

But showgoer Rich Willard of East Fallowfield thinks "March is just too cold." He'd prefer April.

Patty Holtz of Newtown could go either way: "Honestly, I am not one deterred much by the weather, so I would go whether it was in March or April."

There's no "right answer," for sure.

Meanwhile, Becher has no plans to launch a preemptive strike on local forecasters before the 2014 show starts. "Weather is their business," he says. "Onward and upward."

215-854-5720 @inkygardener

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