Business lessons from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

The Chelsea Flower Show has been running since 1862. That kind of heritage and prestige can't be bought. But the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has also been at pains to modernise the show and ensure that a new generation of gardening enthusiasts fall in love with it's most prominent Flower Power event.

Given that Sloane Square is in gridlock and tickets to the Chelsea Flower Show sold out far in advance, the RHS is on to something. Here are the clever tricks and strategies employed by the RHS to ensure that their show blossoms in 2011 and in years to come.

Help yourself by helping other brands to grow

The Chelsea Flower Show is the prime rib of advertising spaces, a captive audience of gardening fans who can afford to fork out up to £50 to admire 11 acres of flowers and foliage. Unsurprisingly, a symbiotic relationship has developed between The Chelsea Flower Show and a number of businesses, great and small.

Each year, the garden designs get more lavish, more sophisticated, funded by corporate marketing budgets. And each year, the signage for the brands gets bigger, the PR more overt.

Take the Laurent Perrier garden, winner of a Gold Award this year. How better to showcase the iconic champagne brand than creating a whole garden in "maroon, bronze and soft pink tones evocative of Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé champagne"?

UK-based drinks company Fever Tree also has a pitch at this year's show. Its garden features all the flowers and herbs from it's range of soft drinks and mixers. There's even a tree house (a place for children to play while the adults enjoy a G&T - no doubt made with Fever Tree tonic) that has been partly constructed with reclaimed wood from Cinchona calisaya: fever trees. Clever, huh?

Look for partnerships and complementary businesses in your industry. How can you help other brands to grow, and boost your client list, credibility or profits in the process?

When it comes to social media, don't be a wallflower

The Chelsea Flower Show's social media profile is pretty hefty. The event has plugged in to the Royal Horticultural Society's existing online community, linking to the MyGarden forum where budding gardeners can quiz the experts about their drooping strawberries and a plague of 'little black bugs'.

A quick scan on Facebook shows 500 check-ins and nearly 5,000 likes. But the wall isn't run by a Chelsea Flower bod, it's a chap from Saachi & Saachi called Chris who's trying to drum up conversations. Paying an outsider to talk to your fans? Always a big no-no in social media.

Neverthless, the Chelsea Flower Show has its social media bases covered: there's a constantly updating Twitter feed on the site and a #rhschelsea hashtag.

Weirdly, though, while we're talking Twitter, there is no dedicated profile for the show. Nearly 2,000 people are following the BBC's Chelsea Flower Show feed: @BBC_at_Chelsea while @Chelsea_Show has yet to utter a peep.

Smart social media folk know that all their profiles and updates need to be interlinked. Facebook users should be encouraged to become Twitter followers and vice versa. With Google's Social Search gaining ground, these platforms, as well as videos on Youtube, contribute to your search ranking. But there are no short cuts here. While PR firms can advise and steer your social marketing, it's the people that really know the business/event that should do the tweeting/wall posts.

Be topical, relevant and reactive

Here's something pretty damn smart. A crop of the gardens in this year's Chelsea Flower Show have plugged into topical issues and  subjects that people feel passionate about. Royal Bank of Canada designer Nigel Dunnett chose to tackle a huge environmental issue with his creation. Deteriorating biodiversity and the decline of the UK insect population inspired the 'insect houses' in his garden: he has created a whole ecosystem in one small plot.

Ishihara Kazuyuki's story is even more inspiring. The Japanese designer managed to complete his garden, A Beautiful Paradise, against all odds. Many of his team suffered personal loss at the hands of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March and had to pull out of the project. He witnessed the devastation first-hand.

"I thought I must do something to highlight the plight of my country," he says. "Many times since then I had doubts about whether I could do this in time. All my plans were in pieces.

"This is my way of saying that we will bring back the beautiful views of trees that we once had. I am determined to rebuild Japan as a gardener.'

It is this relevance that really appeals to people, that keeps the Chelsea Flower Show relevant today and newsworthy. It's a lesson all businesses could stand to learn: if you can react to the zeitgeist, you prove that you are listening to the people - your customers - and understand their needs and concerns.

There's always a cross-sell opportunity

On the RHS website, there are no fewer than 20 ways that Chelsea Flower Show fans can flash their cash. Whether they are buying an event-branded mug, tea towel, tea tray, shoulder bag, t-shirt, fridge magnet, coaster, padblock or postcard, that's an extra pound in the RHS's pocket (or £11.99 for the t-shirt. It's only a pound for the postcard though).

And it doesn't end there. Like the plants you see at the show? You can buy them for your own garden. Prices start at £4.99 per plant and go up to £20 for a single Trachycarpus fortunei. That's a nice revenue stream if you can get it.

For the digitally-minded, there are yet more goodies. The Chelsea Flower Shop DVD is on sale for £15 RRP; there's even an 'RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011 - The Insider's Guide' iPhone app, retailing for £1.19 on iTunes.

Don't stop at the obvious cross-selling opportunities. How many people think 'iPhone app' when they pick up their trowel and hedge trimmers?  Hopefully, a few more after this article. And there's also the other RHS events. Calls to actions implore the reader to "Visit one of the other leading RHS flower shows". BBC Gardeners' World Live, Malvern Spring Gardening Show or Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, anyone?

Oh, and you can, of course, simply join the RHS. Have you been this comprehensive in your cross-sell strategy?

Location, Location, Location

Unless you've been under a rock, you can't have missed the astonishing amount of publicity being generated by new E4 reality TV show Made In Chelsea. If even Charlie Brooker feels compelled to watch a show to "see what you were all going on about", you know it's big. The Chelsea Flower Show 2011 has benefited from this tidal wave of interest crashing over its ancestral home. Hell, some journalists have even riffed off the link.

News searches for "Made in Chelsea" on Google, the technological trend bible, pulls up hundreds of links to the Chelsea Flower Show. Free press: it's nice when you can get it.

Anyone making a lot of noise about your area? Get involved.

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