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Facebook / Philadelphia Horticultural Society

A Disney alum’s mission: Making the Philadelphia Flower Show fun

PHS events chief Sam Lemheney’s using booze, high-def projection and even “glamping” to pack in the crowds at one of the world’s foremost horticultural events.

If there was a giant indoor pop-up beer garden in Philly right now, would you go? Good news: There is.

“If you enjoyed the PHS Pop-Up Gardens over the summer, the Flower Show is like that but on steroids,” says Philadelphia Horticultural Society events chief Sam Lemheney.

Held annually since 1829, the Philadelphia Flower Show is one of the city’s biggest events, drawing 250,000 people to the PA Convention Center over the course of nine days. But under Lemheney’s direction, the event has evolved into more than just a staid showcase of botanical grace. It’s become something that’s full of visual beauty, but is also interactive and fun.

“We’ve taken a bit of a different of a different stance since I’ve been here,” says the 38-year-old Bucks County native, who joined PHS in 2003. “It’s more about entertaining the crowds. Plants and flowers are still the stars, but it’s not a museum experience.”

That’s entertainment

Lemheney’s first major job was at Walt Disney World, so entertaining crowds is something with which he’s intimately familiar. After growing up surrounded by horticulture — his grandfather owned a landscape nursery in Christiana and his dad was a florist who twice exhibited at the Flower Show — he became manager of the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. He worked there for 13 years, striving to make sure the event appealed to the theme park’s diverse audience, which spans all ages, races and cultures.

The Flower Show isn’t yet able to tout the same kind of diversity. Last year, more than 83 percent of attendees were women and nearly three-quarters were over 45. (PHS does not collect data on race or culture.)

Many sponsors actually love that the audience is mostly female, Lemheney notes (because it allows targeted advertising, one assumes). The age imbalance is a different story. Attendance has stayed more or less steady over the last decade — although for the past three years, the event has coincided with major snowstorms, which likely dampened recent numbers. Since the show is the major source of funding for PHS programs, from urban nutrition project City Harvest to post-prison transition curriculum Roots to Re-Entry, growing ticket sales is always a goal.

And the easiest way to increase attendance is to get more young people to visit.

How? It won’t be through a major rebranding. Though Lemheney admits many people think “grandma” when they hear the words “Flower Show,” the name of the festival is unlikely to change after 187 years. Instead, it’s all about added amenities.

Many of the exhibits, and there are 46 major ones this year, now incorporate projection and high-def imagery — the main stage features a webcam of Old Faithful’s regular geyser eruptions — as well as live performances. There’s a marketplace where you can buy jewelry and garden tools, a mini hiking trail for kids and a gallery where you can chill with 1,000 live butterflies.

Eat your vegetables and decorate with them, too

Then there’s the myriad options for food and drink.

The PHS Pop-Up Beer Garden, which is similar to the ones that attracted more than 75,000 people at two locations last summer, is located at “Base Camp” in the Grand Hall and features s’mores brownies, drinks and music. You can leave with a bottle thanks to the nearby Fine Wine & Good Spirits store, which will also give away free samples. And if the word “glamping” doesn’t make you cringe, stop by the Stella Artois-sponsored area described as a “lux outdoorsy pub.”

In non-boozy bites, there’s the Rita’s Water Ice Ranger Shack, the Garden Tea room and the Trail Mix Bar, plus several Aramark-run concession stands with cutesy names like “The Declaration of Cheesesteaks,” the “Smokey Mountain Cafe” and the “Death Valley Chicken Strip.”

Restaurants have become a driving factor in the local economy and the city’s public image, but it’s not all about eating and drinking.

The farm-to-table movement has gotten more people interested in horticulture in general, Lemheney says. “Being creative with vegetables and herbs — having your own miniature garden on a balcony or windowsill — that has just exploded over the past several years.”

To that end, PHS has increased the number of studio talks and workshops about DIY gardening, broadening the scope to include edible crops. “Guess what? Vegetable gardens don’t have to be in a straight row, and don’t get locked into thinking they’re just utilitarian: By the way, vegetables have flowers, too,” Lemheney jokes.

Why Philly?

By all accounts, our Flower Show is the largest and most significant horticultural event in the country.

Per Lemheney, who closely follows the global botanical scene, it’s one of the top three in the world, and other comparable events are often longer or not as frequent. The Singapore Garden Festival brings out 300,000 people, but it’s only held bi-annually. Britain’s Hampton Courty Palace Flower Show is physically bigger (it’s held outdoors), but only attracts 130,000 guests, on average.

It’s no fluke that such a juggernaut is based in Philly.

This region is what Lemheney calls the “garden hotbed” of the U.S. — it has more gardens per square foot than anywhere else in the nation, he says, plus it’s home to many renowned conservatories, from the Morris Arboretum to Longwood Gardens.

A lot of that has to do with the fantastic growing conditions: We’re in a sort of Goldilocks zone where the climate allows growth of many northern crops and plants but also many that thrive in the south. It’s also because when the colonists settled here, horticulture was already a huge part of their culture. Plus, Philly is an easy day-trip for more than a quarter of the country’s population.

That said, 63 percent of attendees do end up hailing from within 50 miles of Philadelphia, so the more locals that get excited about the show, the better.

“We have to give people something compelling enough to get them off their couch,” Lemheney says. “To get them to put down their phones for a couple of hours and come see some flowers.”

The Philadelphia Flower Show runs March 5-13. Find the full schedule and get tickets here.

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