Duane and Alice Kelly are the founding owners of both the Northwest and San Francisco Flower & Garden Shows. Their company, Salmon Bay Events, has put on the country’s second and third largest garden shows for the past 21 years, but if there is no buyer to be found, both shows will be closed for good. For those of us who survive the gloomy Northwest winters, the Northwest Flower & Garden Show is the ceremonial start of the new garden season.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Duane Kelly about the how’s and why’s of the generation gap that looms over the gardening industry. When you consider that Gen Y is the next largest consumer group, it would be industry suicide to ignore this audience too much longer. Thank you Mr. Kelly, I mean Duane, for your passion and attention to my generation’s growing interest in gardening and the environment.
When did you first notice there was a generation gap emerging between the boomers and younger generations?
About 5 years ago.
Was it something the nursery retailers or landscape designers brought to your attention?
No. Through our own research and anecdotal observations at our own shows. We also did some focus groups about 5 years ago that gave us additional insight.
I’m familiar with marketing being in sales. Were your focus groups specific to the Northwest area?
I did them in both areas. I did them in San Francisco and in Seattle.
Can you tell me some of the reasons for this generation gap that we’re seeing?
Is it okay that I wax philosophical for a little bit?
Of course, if you have the time to.
Okay, there were some unique characteristics to the Baby Boom generation that caused them to embrace gardening in a really big way and at an unusually early age. I believe the factors that caused them to embrace gardening were the uncertainties this generation faced. The threat of the nuclear war during the cold war, the assassinations of the two Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King in the 60’s, the Vietnam War; in the way that it tore our country apart, and lastly the counterculture. In my opinion, these four things converged to attract the Baby Boomers to gardening.
Retail nursery sales really started growing in the late 70’s and peaked in 2001. There were a number of things that peaked because they all reflected the same demographic forces. The sales of garden books peaked, sales at retail nurseries peaked, and attendance at garden shows peaked. Interestingly enough, this also happened in England. Even though their social factors were different, there was still a big Baby Boomer generation over there because all the soldiers came back from World War II at the same time.
Gen X and Gen Y have grown up with the digital world, so they get their information in a different way. They didn’t grow up with the threat of a nuclear war. You know, when I was a school kid, we had to crawl under desks and run into bomb shelters. These kinds of things have a profound impact on children. Also, there wasn’t as much divisive forces going on in the country like there was in the counterculture and the Vietnam War.
Around the same time as the Digital Age, there was an emerging concern coming from another direction, and that was the environment. There was a slow growing awareness of global warming and that our planet is actually a small rock in a greater cosmos. Younger generations feel that this is the only planet we’ve got so we better take care of it. They also understand that the things they do in their own backyards have an impact on the larger environment. I’m thinking of pesticides and herbicides in this case.
Because of the major forces that I mentioned before about the Baby Boomers, they viewed the garden as a sanctuary. The garden was a place to escape to from all the stresses of modern life. This is not how Gen X and Gen Y see the garden. They see the garden as part of the larger ecosystem, and whatever they do, they want it to benefit the larger environment and not harm it. They are also more interested in the garden as a social space, as opposed to a sanctuary, and are more concerned about the activities that take place in their backyards with their friends and family.
All these things I’m talking about are not black and white. Some Baby Boomers share some of the same interests and concerns as the Gen X and Gen Y have about the environment, and Gen X and Gen Y certainly can appreciate that a garden can offer a sense of escape and sanctuary.
As a 30-something garden blogger myself, do feel that social media, like Facebook and Twitter, can help encourage the younger generation’s interest in gardening?
Yes they can. We have blogs now for one in each market [San Francisco and Seattle]. We’ve invested a small fortune in our website in recent years because that’s how Gen X and Gen Y get their information. We work really hard on search engine optimization techniques, so that when you Google “garden shows,” our shows come up to the top. So, absolutely do I think that social media like Facebook and MySpace are really important. I don’t know if you noticed, but a month ago, we launched a social network of our own called My Garden Spaces. We’ve created our own small version of Facebook for gardeners. We already have 250 people signed up, and from where I sit, that looks pretty good.
That is pretty darn good!
Yeah, 250 people have already signed up, posted photos and started to have dialogue. I’m encouraged by that.
I think you should be.
But there’s also a very interesting thing here though, because your generation is so digitally oriented. When the internet first became accessible to the public, the mantra was “it will make the world smaller, bring the people closer together, make communication easier, and reduce the differences between people.” I’m not completely sure that’s how it’s turned out. When I see somebody with their earphones turned on from their iPod, or somebody starring at their computer 8 or 12 hours a day, they’re not really interacting with real homosapiens. So I worry a little bit. Is this digital age harming community rather and forging community?
I just raise the question. I don’t know the answer, but it has relevance to my business, because what is a flower show? A flower show is a temporary community. We just erect a tent and invite a lot of people to come into it. Well, if a generation, for whatever reason, isn’t really interested in coming inside that tent and interacting with fellow gardeners, then that raises the question, “will shows be popular for that generation?” Or will shows just have to ride it out for subsequent generations? I don’t know but I’d be interested in your opinion about that.
I have a lot of opinions about that, but do you mind if I ask you a few more questions?
No, go ahead.
I think I already know the answer but I want to confirm what I think you’re saying. Do you feel the garden industry has ignored our generation for too long?
The short answer is yes, but it has been done in a passive way, not in an active way. The Baby Boomers were so interested in gardening, spent so much money on plants, garden design and landscaping, the nursery and landscape industry was quite content to serve the needs of that generation. The [industry] didn’t have much motivation to get creative and understand the needs of Gen X and Gen Y because they were doing quite well serving the Baby Boomer generation. There’s been a big wake up call. Your generation is so complex, but the industry can no longer afford to ignore younger generations.
That is a great answer. Can we circle back around to your question about technology’s effect on community?
Does the digital world encourage isolation or does it encourage community?
I think it depends on who you are. For someone like me, I have made so many friends on my blog, Facebook and Twitter. I actually have a question from a fellow Twitter friend, “over the past 20 years, who or what have you found to be the most influential to the garden show?”
Boy that’s a big question, I don’t have an immediate answer. I would need to think about that.
Sorry, I realize that’s like asking a friend you haven’t seen for 20 years, “what’s new?” How about this, who would you say are the industry’s current leaders in innovation? Who are the mover’s and shakers?
There are a number of garden designers that I certainly admire, Dan Pearson in England and Bernard Trainor in the San Francisco area. Those are two people that come to mind but there isn’t one giant figure who towers above everyone else, in the way that Thomas Church did back in the 50’s and 60’s. The talent is much more evenly distributed.
One last question. As you pass the torch, because I have complete faith that you will find a buyer, what one pearl of wisdom will you pass on to the new owners?
To not be afraid to change. Don’t think that you can come up with a formula that can be repeated year after year. I would like to see somebody younger buy these shows who is committed in a passionate, as well as, in a practical business way. It’s important to make sure these shows evolve in a way that captures the soles, the minds, and the imaginations of younger generations. That’s what I want to happen.
Keep The Show Alive
This interview marks the start of my personal plea to save the Northwest and San Francisco Flower & Garden Shows. Attention bloggers, readers, retailers, landscape designers, whoever you are; start spreading the word to help encourage a buyer. If these shows are important to your business or lifestyle, then lift your fingers and start demanding the show must gone on!
Make your voice heard, share and Twitter Mr. Kelly’s interview. Let’s go viral.