“With the goal of educating U.S. florists and consumers about the top-quality floral products grown by Colombia’s flower farmers, Asocolflores traveled to the Big Apple in July to shoot a video showcasing the best of Colombian flowers.”

The Association of Colombian Flower Exporters (Asocolflores) flew a film crew – and tons of fresh cut flowers – to New York City last July to shoot a “tribute” to the United States, which is one of Colombia’s largest cut-flower customers. The association was filming its third international promo in two years, part of a “Tribute Tour” that has also saluted London and Tokyo. (Check out the London video at bit.ly/ LondonFlowerTribute and the Tokyo video at bit.ly/TokyoFlowerTribute.)
In a sweltering ground-floor Harlem apartment, I met with Daniel Velez, son of prodigal Colombian grower Ernesto Velez; Catalina Arango of Flores del Este, a self-styled international premium market grower and seller; and Jose (Joey) Azout of Alexandra Farms, the revered Colombian garden rose purveyor. As in the previous two “tribute” videos, the growers met with high-end floral retailers in the city, hand-delivering tremendous bouquets of  Hydrangea, Alstroemeria and Colombian-grown roses.

World-class Quality on Display

The short film, to be disseminated via YouTube and social media channels, depicts an unlikely rendezvous between growers and florists who operate at intercontinental distances. It is just such an encounter that Asocolflores is investing resources to encourage. Faced with a stagnant retail market in the U.S., Colombian growers are seeking better returns on their most premium products.

All three growers I met with were optimistic that U.S. consumers and florists, including high-end event designers that traditionally do a bulk of business with the Holland flower market, have the capacity to identify and seek out Colombia’s floral product as a premium good.

“Colombia is known for supermarket consumption, but we have a tremendous opportunity for design work,” Velez said. The growers are also hoping to ride a wave of change in the U.S. wholesale environment. As traditional floral wholesalers bow to mass-market and direct-to-consumer delivery services, Arango sees wholesalers targeting increasingly upscale markets with more favorable margins.

“People pay more for champagne because they recognize it comes from Champagne, France,” Arango said. “In the future, we need to do more like this.” To make that vision a reality, Asocolflores is facing a hefty consumer marketing effort, for which its “tribute” videos may serve as a pilot. Arango, who is an outlier in an export market that has traditionally sent most of its flowers to supermarket floors. She built her nursery after converting family land from dairy and coffee in the mid-1990s and has since flown around the world to handcraft relationships with designers and retailers in more than 20 countries.

The Star of the Show

Back to the backyard of the Harlem row house, a clapboard slams shut, and Arango walks down a staircase to meet floral designer Kelsea Olivia in front of a table set with bouquets. Crates and boxes marked with American Airlines cargo labels are piled to the ceiling in one room of the apartment. In this scene, Arango and Olivia meet for the first time.

Asocolflores tapped Olivia to pull together the flower arrangements and installations used in the film. She traversed a career in retail marketing to found her own custom design studio, East Olivia, which she runs out of the ground floor of the apartment. In just two years, East Olivia has attracted widespread attention on Instagram for massive public floral art installations around the city.

Olivia normally relies on her wholesalers to direct her to the most suitable product, but she jumped at the opportunity to participate and meet the Colombia growers. “Part of the reason this project was so exciting and interesting to me was to get to know the grower side of it a bit more and to know where the flowers are coming from,” Olivia said. “I rely on my wholesalers for that information.” Changing the source of that information is part and parcel to Asocolflores’ budding effort.

Changing Perceptions and Minds

Up the street from the flower-filled apartment, at a flower vendor on a busy street corner flanked by subway stations, small plastic vases of limp flowers sat in the steamy July heat. Roses were prices at a few dollars a stem.

“The New York market has two personalities,” Azout said. “The leftover flowers … end up in the corner grocery stores, but the highest-end roses are inside the high-rise buildings that have grocery stores downstairs. When we have to get rid of something, we might call New York, and when we have something really special, we might also call New York.”

Colombian flower growers are hoping, with some attention and investment, that New York might start calling on them.

John C. Harper is a journalism entrepreneur studying software engineering at Columbia University in New York City. An award winning journalist with the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Cleveland Plain Dealer, John is working on building the next generation of online news media applications with a respect for journalistic integrity.