April 2018 sees the launch of the Ascot Spring Garden Show, a new event planned and designed by Stephen Bennett, the man who, as shows director of the RHS for 28 years, was behind many of the changes which transformed RHS Chelsea Flower Show into the world-famous event it is today.
We’re very excited to have some of our RHS-endorsed tools and accessories featured in Ascot’s APL show garden, designed by Claudia De Yong, and we’re certainly very much looking forward to going along and exploring the new show. In this exclusive interview with Stephen Bennett, we find out about his life behind the scenes at RHS Chelsea – and we get some tips from the top, on things to think about if you’re organising your own horticultural happening this summer.
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You worked at the RHS for 28 years, in a role that many people dream of. What was your route to becoming Shows Director?
I was working in retail at the time, in the wine business, and was opening quite a lot of new shops in the north of England. I was sitting on the banks of the Mersey, idly watching the early stages of construction for Liverpool’s International Garden Festival. It happened that the RHS took a lead role in that garden festival and they asked me for advice on staffing, office space, storage and accommodation. Following that, the RHS asked if I would be interested in expanding their retail operation, which at the time was only one outlet at RHS Wisley, and I could see that there was a lot more that could be done. Once I was at the RHS, I ended up in the Shows Office, in what was at the time a new role. I was very lucky in that I was able to pretty much write my own job description!
You were at the helm of RHS Chelsea as it became the world-famous event it is today. How did you go about making that happen?
Well, it was really a case of having to make some major changes. It used to attract around 240,000 visitors, and the huge crowds were really an issue, in terms of safety but also in terms of visitor comfort. I remember at one of my early Chelsea shows walking out of the ground to check on the queues, and there were columns of people six abreast trailing back from both entrances as far as the eye could see, essentially encircling the whole of the site. There must have been 18,000 people there – all queuing to get into a site that was already at capacity; inside the grounds, you couldn’t have fitted a cigarette paper between the bodies. So something clearly had to change.
Chelsea today has 100,000 fewer visitors than in those days, and they’re spread over five days, rather than four, as they used to be. The space occupied is also greater now, as the show has expanded into Ranelagh Gardens. It’s all made for a more pleasurable visitor experience. You might need to wiggle a bit to get to the front row at a show garden, like a tadpole in a pond, but it’s perfectly possible.
When I started with the RHS, it seemed there was nothing very substantial for RHS members outside of the South East. There was so much going on in London and Surrey, with RHS Wisley, the Vincent Square facilities and Lindley Library, the frequent Westminster flower shows at the Horticultural Halls - and the Chelsea Flower Show itself. We were clearly missing a trick, as the demand was there for good quality flower shows elsewhere. So from the start I was keen to expand the offering, and set about moving some of the Westminster Halls shows out to venues around the country, where each and every one flourished, eventually becoming RHS Cardiff, RHS Malvern Spring, BBC Gardeners’ World Live in Birmingham, RHS Hampton Court Palace and RHS Tatton Park - and new flower shows at the gardens at Wisley and Hyde Hall. It simply needed to happen, and I was fortunate in that I was in a position to move it forward.
What is your most cherished Chelsea memory?
That’s such a difficult question. There are of course myriad stories - you can read some of them here. Over the years I was responsible for 28 Chelsea Flower Shows and have been there in my own capacity in the last four, as well as all the other shows that now happen around the country. Aspects of my time with the RHS of which I’m most proud are, firstly, to have been a director of the organisation and the founder and MD of a hugely profitable trading company (RHS Special Events Ltd), and of course, to have enabled the shows to grow into the events they are today, making them safer and more comfortable for visitors without in any way compromising the high horticultural standards that lie behind every element of the RHS’s work. Securing headline sponsorship for Chelsea and working hard - and long in advance - to cultivate sponsorship for the show gardens at all the RHS shows was also an essential part of the job. Making Chelsea and the shows programme a major income source for the RHS’s charitable work in science, education, communities, gardens libraries and so on was the most satisfying part.
Do you have any tips for gardeners who are running their own gardening events this summer, perhaps with their Horticultural Society, Allotment Society, or NGS Open Garden?
The primary requirement, at the core of everything, is to understand what the public needs. As its most basic, this comes down to facilities - the availability of refreshments, seating areas, toilet facilities, transport links, parking, rubbish collection and all the other things which seem rather obvious and rather mundane; but when any of these services is lacking in any respect, visitor comfort is affected very quickly. It all has to be in place and working properly.
More than this though, is to consider why people are interested in coming. Does your event provide education, inspiration, spectacle, performances, shopping? It is easy for people to access these elements, once they are inside the venue? A good rule of thumb it to see where the gaps are in what an event offers, and find a way to make full use of all your facilities.
At Chelsea, for example, we introduced the charity Gala Preview evening because I was walking through the grounds one Press Day evening, after all the Royals, the VIPs and the press had left. Everything looked immaculate, and the scent from the gardens and in the big marquee in the summer air was quite heavenly. And yet there was nobody there! It struck me that we ought to be using this time to better advantage, so we got involved with charities to help run the preview evenings and to cultivate sponsors from their corporate contacts, which were more corporate. Big names from the commercial world understood very well the appeal of corporate entertaining, and these companies eventually became the first sponsors of the whole show.
I think another thing to bear in mind is to grasp the nettle if you need to make decisions which might be unpopular. For example, Chelsea was vastly oversubscribed, and a significant factor behind this was that entry to the show was a free RHS membership benefit, with tens of thousands enjoying free admission in unlimited numbers to an event that was inevitably over crowded. Limiting the number of visitors per day and introducing a fee for RHS members’ tickets (albeit at a lower price than the public rate) was hotly controversial, and significant numbers of members voted with their feet - 10,000 resigned in protest. However, because the restriction in numbers so greatly improved the visitor experience, and brought to an end the fact that membership nationwide were in effect subsidising those resident in the London and the southeast, RHS membership as a result grew very quickly, and 20,000 new members joined. The decision to charge members was never financially motivated. It was initially a safety issue and about improving the customer experience. But the effect was to open up the membership and make the RHS more inclusive. Making the right strategic decisions for the right reasons led to dramatically more membership, more trading income and much greater profitability.
I know it can be difficult to get everyone involved to buy into these tough decisions, but if you have a clear reason for doing it, and can communicate this and back it up with strong evidence, you’ll bring people round eventually.
Finally, look at what else is going on in your area and either better it or plan your event around it. A town or area can quite easily accommodate several events during the year, but there needs to be a reasonable calendar gap between them. Look at holding your event at a different time of year to your neighbours’, or find some other way to give it a different personality – combine it with a different discipline such as music, food, craft perhaps, or an exhibition of art and sculpture. Make sure it has a clear purpose and a strong identity. Don’t get hung up on size. And above all, don’t forget the loos, catering and car parking!
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Our thanks go to Stephen Bennett for taking the time to share memories and advice from his time as RHS shows director. In our next catch-up with him, we'll find out more about what's in store at the Ascot Spring Garden Show in April. We can't wait!