By Amanda Temple
Floral Management, October 2000
Would you spend months in detail-heavy preparation, thousands of dollars in promotion and countless hours scrubbing, painting and gussying up for your open house if you knew that your competition was doing the exact same thing… on the exact same day.
Well, if you’re Janet Kister, you’d not only do it but you’d look around your spotless nursery and hope that your competitors in Southern California were working just as hard to get the grime out of their greenhouses and the word out about their open house.
Kister, co-owner of Sunlet Nursery Inc., in Fallbrook, Calif., was one of 22 plant nursery owners who joined forces to attract new customers and meet current ones at their operations in Southern California. Was the force a powerful one? Just ask the close to 300 plant buyers who traveled from nursery to nursery this past February, placing orders, asking growers what took them so long to host this kind of event and raving about it in follow-up surveys. Or ask the judges of Floral Management’s seventh annual Marketer of the Year contest, who selected the organizers of Southern California Plant Tour Days as this year’s winner.
The Perfect Hosts
Buyers from across the country headed west for the first-ever Southern California Plant Tour Days, held for three days in late February. Like organizers of one very, very big block party, the nursery owners opened up their doors, set out the snacks and gave visitors a tour of the place.
Platters of finger sandwiches emptied as quickly as order forms filled up. At least 120 new customers purchased $283,000 between the mid-February tour and the end of April. Existing customers who attended are projected to increase their purchases by $2,060,000. Overall, participating nurseries reported that they expect a sales boost of $3,520,000, thanks to the tour. "Going into this, we thought ‘ maybe we’ll get about 50 people and that will be good," says Kister, who served as the event chairperson. "But 300 people? Obviously, our customers were just waiting for this to happen."
The turnout is only part of the reason greenhouse owners are celebrating.The participants, many of whom compete for the same business, teamed up to promote the event, reach potential attendees and help one another prepare. That’s 22 different schedules, work styles, agendas, customer lists, budgets, and personalities coming together. "It was common knowledge that the growers in Southern California are fiercely independent and rarely cooperated," Kister explains, emphasizing the past tense. "So we had some fears to calm, doubts to erase… we had some work to do"
But that’s all history now. Here’s how "history" was made.
From Talking to Touring
Over the years, growers in Southern California had tossed around the idea of doing something together to bring potential buyers to the region. After much tossing, a group of 10 growers finally decided to grab on to it. About a year ago, Michael Kent, co-owner of Kent’s Bromeliad Nursery in Vista, Calif., had what would be the last "when-are-we-going-get-together-and-do-something?" conversation with Eric Anderson, president of the San Diego County Flower & Plant Association. "That’s when we decided to sit down and talk together," Kister says. "And we knew we had to get everyone involved or it would never get off the ground."
But why now?
Because the fish are biting, the iron is hot, the getting is good. "Business is very good for all of us now, we know our customers are in a buying mode, so now is the time to show them everything we have," she says. "We all understand that business is cyclic. But now when there’s a down-turn, we will have strengthened relationships and built new ones."
As members of the group, the growers already had the channels to get the word out and buy-in form other growers. Although "fiercely independent," the growers aren’t cut-throat, Kister says, thanks to plenty of networking and the simple fact that not everyone can sell everything. For example, if a buyer needed cactus, bromeliad and potted plants, no one California greenhouse could fulfill the order. The greenhouses knew they’d benefit from "selling" their combined selections. "The reality is we all share customers," says Laurie Scullin, marketing director at Paul Ecke Ranch, Encinitas, Calif. "So why not share our resources to get more of them?" Why not indeed?
Brainstorming about ways to drive more traffic is one thing. Handing over your coveted customer list over to the competition, no matter how friendly, is another. "We all knew that by trying to get more customers into this area, we would all grow. We all understood the more customers from out of state, the more tucks rolling out of here. That was the easy sell," Kister says. "The hard part was convincing everyone that an effective direct-mail campaign wouldn’t threaten their own individual marketing tactics."
To ensure privacy, the association hired a third-party mailing house to create one master list and handle all direct mailing. Still, participants were very resistant and it took several meetings to get everyone in agreement. "Consensus on everything is the only way we can do this," Kister says. Not only did they have to agree on what to do, the participants had to agree on what not to do. "I knew people would be tempted to pull their best customers off the list, so we addressed that head on," she says. First off, they’re probably on someone else’s list, so they’re going to get an invite anyway. And if they’re not and you don’t invite them… Well now you’ve just offended your best customers."
Promote, Promote, Promote
The point was a good one. Fears vanished and direct-mail pieces appeared. "It was never a concern once we hired the mailing house," Scullin says. In November, they mailed 3,600 invitations to individual buyers. And just in case the holidays got too hectic, they were sent again in January. They supplemented the customer mailing by targeting metropolitan areas with the highest concentration of buyers.
More than 300 replies came in and that’s when the promotional efforts kicked into high gear. Fueled by the "Let the Southern California Plants Grow Your Profits" theme, the group made sure each marketing piece complemented the sunny, bright, healthy image of California. Everyone involved contributed ideas and time to creating the marketing materials. "We wanted to emphasize our wonderful climate with the sun and what we produce with the potted plant imagery," Kister says.
The group, relying on the varied strengths of its members, sent press releases to 22 state and national industry trade journals, and several picked up on the story. "We pushed for pre-event coverage because we wanted to create a buzz in the industry," Kister says. Personal invitations from each nursery to its customers reinforced the direct-mail piece.
Sensitive to the fact no one had attended nor hosted anything like this before, the organizers kept a steady stream of pre-event materials flowing to both participating nurseries and attendees. They also held monthly meetings, exhorting members to remind customers of the event in every correspondence. All 374 registrants found a bright yellow nursery guide in their mailboxes months before the event. The guide includes profiles of each host nursery, detailed maps and some shipper contact information. Instead of loading up on one bus tour, the participants were able to choose their own schedules and routes, so the maps were key. Next came hotel suggestions and information about the all-nursery reception.
Supplying the Troops
The participants were just as diligent in preparing one another, knowing that one bad stop could ruin the entire tour for a visitor. And since some of the wholesalers were more seasoned marketers with open house experience, they were able to lead by example. For example, Paul Ecke had hosted several PAC trials and was able to share some insight to the logistics of showing off. Scullin, "a marketing whiz" Kister says, prepared a detailed primer on the how-tos of making your open house unforgettable.
Kent prepared a "trucking solutions" sheet, a master list of commonly used shippers and consolidators with shipping details to help field questions from out-of-state attendees.
Each nursery received a large Plant Tour sign to post along the route and a list of pre-registrants, organized by business type and customer name, to facilitate follow-up.
And everyone swapped business cards, updated their Palm Pilots and shook some hands with new contacts. "We all work 80-hour weeks and we do not get out and mingle enough," says Pat Hammer, owner of Samia Rose Topiary in Encinitas, Calif. "It gives us much more strength and it gave us a chance to get to know each other."
The event also gave them more financial leverage. The total cost for marketing and preparation materials was $17,083, a price tag that no single nursery could afford. "The benefit of working together is great economies of scale," Sculin says. "We could do a nice color pamphlet, hold a very cool reception and talk to more people than we ever could have just ourselves."
Bill Kovach, owner of Specimen House, agrees. "The most intelligent marketing event of the tour was that it happened at all," he says. "We have exhibited at many trade shows around the country and had always wanted the customer to come and look at the facility and the total product – not what was just shown in a booth at a trade show."
It happened, Kister explains, because everyone involved contributed time, money and experience. "When you have killer people with killer resources, no one gets stuck doing all the work," says Kister. However, the group did hire an administrator to handle most travel arrangements, catering and other planning details.
While a lot of work went into pre-tour coordinating and cleaning up, visitors, judging from the post-tour survey, were impressed with the seamless, glitch-free event. From the beginning, organizers were intent on making it easy for visitors to see what they want and buy what they want.
But the tour was as much about camaraderie and comfort as it was about commerce. Praise for the simple comforts like snacks and brochures, dominated the survey. "We felt it was important to have good ‘creature comforts’ available, like good food and a place to sit down," Scullin explains. Finger sandwiches weren’t the only popular offering. Paul Ecke staff also prepared a information package with catalogs and price information and gave tours to those who wanted to see the whole ranch. "But mostly, we listened."
At Samia Rose Topiary, the entire staff was available during tour time so customers could "learn first-hand that we really know our stuff," says Hammer, who also set up a photo story board with lots of helpful information about available plants.
With 22 growers to see, many of the attendees didn’t have time to take a full-scale tour. That’s why several greenhouses created "mini-trade show booths." For example, instead of taking someone to the back-40, Kister says she was able to give them a quick run-down of the products available, supply them with company literature and display examples of each type of crop.
There was one hiccup in terms of scheduling. Kent’s Bromeliad held a special event during the tour, attracting several visitors to hear a speaker. Unfortunately this created a traffic jam, leaving other growers wondering where everyone went. Next year, participants will schedule any add-on attractions after plant tour hours.
Wait Till Next Year
Attendees might have to wait, but the organizers are already mapping out next year’s tour, making sure to avoid any wrong turns from this year and share the lessons learned by all."Having the same tour over and over again will become boring to our current and newly acquired customers," Kovach says. "Our largest challenge is to continue to make the tour interesting to the customers and profitable to the nurseries."
Kovach is spearheading the creation of a Web site for Plant Tour Days, to better promote and facilitate registrations for next year’s event. The group is working with hotels, airlines and car rental companies to secure group rates.
They’ve also reviewed slides taken during the event, since no one got to see how the other operations gussied up and showcased fresh product. Growers are poring over the post-survey comments, from both participants and attendees, taking note of what the customers liked (lots of fresh product, scheduling freedom and yummy snacks) and what they would have liked more of (travel information, time, detailed maps and schedules).
A new guide is in the works, with better maps and a cross-referenced index to help attendees find products by plant type, grower and area.The participants are discussing standards to ensure that the quality and convenience of the event isn’t sacrificed when more growers join. For example, since visitors come from all over the country (at least 55 percent were from out of state), participating growers must have adequate shipping procedures in place.
Individual nurseries owners are working on their "If I could do it all over again" resolutions. Hammer wants to create a small pack for the customer to take home with an actual topiary. Scullin has visions of a more focused event at The Paul Ecke Ranch to buttress the entire tour, perhaps focusing on its renowned Christmas product. "The idea would be to do it outside open house hours and really target existing customers.
"Your customers are here, you better make the most of it," he says.