March 22, 2019

Where Does the Boston Flower Show Go From Here?

Me, way back when.  You
can double-click on the
photos to see a slideshow.

Before I go further, I need to say I have a strong interest the Boston Flower and Garden Show (BF&GS), as well as its predecessor, the New England Spring Flower Show (NESFS).  It’s an emotional investment: I ran the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s activities at the BF&GS for three years, and helped build flower show exhibits for several years prior to that.  This essay’s title is intended to pose two questions; one geographical and the other philosophical.  Both are hard problems with no easy answers.

The old Bayside Expo Center
I’ll start with location.  After a peripatetic existence in the 1950s and 1960s, the ‘old’ New England Spring Flower Show settled into a long run at the Bayside Exposition Center in Dorchester, six miles south of Boston’s Financial District.  The facility, a failed shopping mall, leaked and was abysmally maintained.  But it was cavernous and had location in its favor: just off the Southeast Expressway with thousands of adjacent, reasonably-priced parking spaces (attractive for suburbanites), and walking distance from the MBTA Red Line (convenient for city dwellers).  

The move to the Seaport World Trade Center was a compromise.  At roughly 120,000 square feet, it was less than half the size of Bayside, but Bayside was shutting down.  The Paragon Group (the group sponsoring the BF&GS) could not guarantee the hotel bookings necessary to secure the use of the Boston Convention and Exposition Center (BCEC).  Seaport became, quite literally, the only game in town.  The other facilities were too small or not available.

Two years ago this was a surface
parking lot across from Seaport.  I 

took this photo on the show's last day.
In 2010, the first year of the Seaport venue, things went reasonably well.  Seaport (itself a repurposed and re-built cruise ship terminal) was a hotel and office complex amid a sea of cheap, surface-level parking lots.  Mass Hort had no problems drawing floral designers, amateur horticulturalists, and volunteers for the show; and show attendees found ample, reasonably-priced parking  Within two years, though, the Seaport District began its transformation into an office and residential district.  Within six years, the cost to park for a few hours soared from $11 to $36 and traffic bogged down in a morass of lane closures.

Then, last year, Fidelity Investments announced it would close Seaport’s exhibition hall in mid-2020.  Moving the show became not an option but, rather, a necessity. 

Seaport's footprint, while hardly
ideal, is better than alternatives
Where can it go? In my opinion, suburban Gillette Stadium’s field house at just 80,000 square feet, is too small for the show.  The Back Bay’s Hynes Convention Center has 150,000 square feet of space, but it is on two floors and has the same access issues as Seaport.  BCEC is unlikely to make an exception to its hotel/night formula.  Absent a mall closing down (always a possibility in the current retail landscape) or a well-situated warehouse becoming vacant, the alternative is to relocate the Boston Flower and Garden Show elsewhere in New England.

Is there still a demand?
Which goes to the heart of the second question: is there still a demand for a late-winter flower and garden show?  Having been to Philadelphia and being acquainted with the Maine Flower Show in Portland, I can easily argue there is an audience.  But the Philadelphia Flower Show, run since 1829 by the powerhouse Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, is a sensual extravaganza that draws a quarter million attendees from the northeast and mid-Atlantic states.  It will go on as long as Penn Hort is around.  Now in just its third year, the Maine Flower Show is intimate by design and is profitable on 50,000 attendees.  Although held at the end of March, it is in a location where nothing will be green for at least another six or eight weeks.

Waiting to get into the New England
Spring Flower Show in the 1950s
I cannot help but feel – and this is personal opinion – that ‘flower shows’ in northern urban centers have been bypassed by time and technology. In 1960, the ‘winter vacation’ was the province of the wealthy.  Today, for $79, Jet Blue will fly a Bostonian to Ft. Myers or Ft. Lauderdale, where the flowers and greenery don’t have to be forced and six hours of artificial spring isn’t followed by stepping into icy puddles accompanied by a blast of 35° wind.

Mass Hort's exhibit in 2012.
Everything was in bloom.
Also, in my opinion, the 2019 BF&GS was a dispiriting affair.  I know landscape exhibits; I know what it takes to force plants to be fully in leaf and flowering for mid-March: it requires a large greenhouse heated to 80° for as long as three months and a lot of tender loving care for thousands of plants.  Yet, at this year's show, I walked by one exhibit by a ‘major’ landscaper in which dozens of azaleas were barely leafed out and not a single one was in flower.  To me, it was inexcusable - or cheap (forced plants must be returned to those same greenhouses until May).  Many other exhibits consisted more of stone than of plants ("It don't cost a dime to force stone," an exhibitor once told me).  And, if the landscapers aren’t putting their hearts into it, why should a visitor pay $20?

Amateur horticulture at the 2019
flower shoe was a high point...
Mass Hort wisely moved its entry day for amateur horticulture to Sunday from Monday to avoid fighting Boston’s legendary traffic.  The change, however, only paused the long slide in participation.  While the entries were of wonderful quality, they came from a shrinking pool of amateurs willing to make two treks into the city: one to drop off their plants and another to retrieve them.

... and amateur photography was
dazzling with entries from everywhere
Getting floral designers and judges to come into Boston was becoming difficult by 2012, my last year of running Mass Hort’s activities at the show.  Why?  Because so many designers now winter in warmer climates.  This year, the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts formally dropped out of the show, dramatically reducing the number of floral design exhibits on view. Only Ikebana (which expanded to fill the space formerly allotted to the two floral design divisions) and Amateur Photography delivered the ‘wow’ impact I believe show attendees deserve (and those activities were relegated to the nearly invisible conference center beyond the exhibit hall).

Is it a bygone era?
This is a difficult essay to write because – as I stated at the outset – I have an emotional investment in the success of the flower show.  With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the ten years at Seaport sapped the show of its energy by its smaller footprint and relative inaccessibility to the show’s target audience.  Paragon does not publish attendance figures, but my observation is that the show draws fewer people each year.  Friends tell me Paragon has told them there will definitely be a flower show at Seaport in 2020, and that a search is on for a suitable venue for 2021 and beyond.  I wish them success, but I fear the winds of change have sealed the show’s fate.