GARDENING / No biz like show biz: Wembley, Harrogate, Ohio - Michael Leapman on an expanding RHS

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The Independent Culture
THE Royal Horticultural Society's flower shows are among London's more sedate occasions. Held 12 times a year at its halls in Westminster for as long as anyone can remember, they attract an overwhelmingly middle-class audience. Women in sensible suits, up in town for the day, rub well-bred shoulders with green-fingered civil servants dashing in for a browse in their lunch-hour. The heady scent of perfect blooms mingles with the orderly hum of conversation on the finer points of growing carnations, clematis or cineraria.

Yet if you plan to head to Westminster today or tomorrow, hoping to catch the last two days of the RHS spring show, you are in for a disappointment. It has moved to the distinctly more torrid atmosphere of Wembley Arena, as part of the busy razzmatazz of the first International Spring Gardening Fair. It is organised by the newspaper publishers News International, whose skilful advance promotion is ensuring a strong attendance of Sun readers, in addition to the regulars who favour the Independent, Telegraph and Times.

Nor is this all. This year the RHS is taking on a clutch of new commitments. For the June show, Westminster stalwarts will have to go to the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, where it will be part of the first BBC Gardeners' World Live.

The society is also, for the first time, helping to run the spring and Great Autumn flower shows in Harrogate, and has taken over from British Rail as the organiser of the large Hampton Court show in July. Finally, in its transatlantic debut, it is lending its expertise to a show in Ohio.

If the RHS were a normal commercial business, analysts would be tut-tutting about the dangers of such growth. But Stephen Bennett, its shows director, is confident it can cope. 'We did ask the BBC to let us wait a year before starting Birmingham, to let us absorb Wembley, but they wouldn't,' he admits. 'Some competitors may feel the strain, but there is a long way to go before we saturate the available exhibiting talent. As for the public, it seems they can't get too many shows.'

Most exhibitors welcome the big venues. Walter Adams, a partner at Hazeldene Nurseries in Maidstone, Kent, has stands at about 40 shows a year. 'We should do better at Wembley than at Westminster but it's an unknown quantity,' he says. 'If it isn't worth it we shan't go again - I've dropped a couple of shows this year that were no good last time.'

Charles Williams, of Burncoose and Southdown Nurseries at Redruth, Cornwall, takes the same approach. 'There are a lot of contributory factors to what makes a show worth supporting,' he says. 'The weather is one, and where your stand is can be important. But if the NEC and Wembley are going to be anything like Hampton Court, we can't afford to stay away.'

Compare the attendance figures for a normal Westminster show with those for Wembley and you will see why the chance to get involved in the new venture was one the RHS could not refuse. By the time the doors close there tomorrow evening, some 200,000 gardeners may have passed through them over the five days. At the two-day Westminster shows the attendance has never gone above 18,000, with 10,000 as the average.

These new commitments are part of a strategy driven by the regional imbalance of the society's membership. In the mid-Eighties, 80 per cent of members lived in South-east England. This was scarcely surprising, since nearly all the benefits of membership - the Wisley garden, the Westminster shows, Chelsea - were in and around London. Since then membership has doubled, and continues to increase by some 20 per cent a year. The figure for the South- east is now around 60 per cent.

The involvement in the Harrogate shows was at the request of the North of England Horticultural Society, which had run them on its own for years. West Country and West Midlands members are now served by the new garden at Rosemoor, Devon; by the involvement in the Malvern Spring Gardening Show; by the RHS centre at the Pershore College of Horticulture in Worcestershire; and now by the NEC show.

But because membership in the South-east has continued to expand as well, members need more facilities there. One of the motives for getting involved in Wembley was to take pressure off the Chelsea show in May, where admission is now by pre-booked ticket only and limited to 170,000 visitors over the four days. Hampton Court will also benefit South-east members, as will the new RHS garden, Hyde Hall in Essex.

It is a vicious circle - or a benign one, depending on whether you think membership is infinitely expandable. Sir Simon Hornby, due to become RHS president next year, has already expressed doubts on the matter, and Stephen Bennett, too, has his reservations.

'We do get concerned when a particular venue or region reaches what we regard as saturation,' he says. 'You can reach a point where you have more members than you can effectively service. At that point you need to add more shows and gardens. Without Wembley and Hyde Hall, the facilities at Westminster and Wisley would get oversubscribed - as Chelsea does.'

International Spring Gardening Fair, Wembley Conference Centre. Today, 9.30am-7.30pm, tomorrow 9.30am-5.30pm (exhibits sold off from 3.30pm). Admission pounds 9 for RHS members, pounds 12 for non-members, cheaper after 4pm. For dates of other RHS shows, ring 24-hour recorded information line on 071-828 1744.

(Photograph omitted)