Tips for creating an exhibit for the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest horticultural event in the USA (this info also applies to participating in smaller flower shows in your area)
By Jill Brooke
It’s not a surprise that many florists dream about creating an exhibit at the prestigious PHS Philadelphia Flower Show. After all, the Philadelphia Flower Show is the United States’ largest and the world’s longest-running horticultural event and features stunning displays by some of the world’s premier floral and landscape designers. Started in 1829 by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) the March show introduces the public to some of the world’s most celebrated floral stars and flower design installations.
Yes, it is a crowning achievement to be there. And yes, it will be on a florist’s highlight reel for the rest of his or her life. However, as many florists who present there warn, it is also a ton of work and requires far more skills than large Instagram followings and buckets of beautiful blooms.
“This is a 10-day show with a three-day set up,” says Bill Schaffer, AIFD, AAF, PFCI, co-owner of Schaffer Designs in Philadelphia, Pa., who along with his wife, Kristine Kratt, AIFD, PFCI, have, over many years, won numerous “Best in Show–Floral” cups as well as other trophies and medals. “It takes a full understanding of how to keep flowers day-one fresh for a long period of time in multiple environments from 90-degree hot—from the crowds of 25,000 attendees—to dips at night that can go as low as 40 degrees. Plus, there are diesel machines and Caterpillars moving around, which also impact flowers, and you need to have working relationships with contractors and unions.”
Furthermore, florists need connections to growers and flower sources because many of the installations at the show require thousands of blooms. There is also a need for many assistants and volunteers. Although the Philadelphia Flower Show gives a nice budget to those who win the coveted slots, many florists also contract sponsors to enhance their budgets and, thus, creativity.
But it is worth all the effort, says Jennifer Reed, owner of Jennifer Designs in Mullica Hill, N.J., calling it a “creative and adrenaline high.” “I like the creativity aspect of it, and my clients are proud that I’m part of it,” she says. “It can help your business, but you really do it for your own creativity as an artist.”
Any florists, Pearsoll says, can apply to exhibit on the show’s website (phsonline.org/the-flower-show). However, before applying, consider the following realities.
So where does one start? Seth Pearsoll, creative director and vice president of the Philadelphia Flower Show, is responsible for the strategic, creative and exhibition content of the show. He tracks the most celebrated florists in the world. The show then invites these artists to be part of this prestigious event. Examples from the 2023 show include Los Angeles-based floral-designer-extraordinaire Jeff Leatham, who dotted the landscape with thousands of ‘Pink Floyd’ roses for a spectacular effect, and Harijanto Setiawan, owner of Boenga Flowers in Singapore, who created an immersive and interactive maze of cutting-edge floral design, lighting and experiential elements. Setiawan’s exhibit, titled “Florid Electron,” won the “Best in Show–Floral” cup and “The Mayor’s Trophy” for the “most innovative or unique design or use of floral, plants or products.”
Reed says she spent “years” volunteering at the show and “learning her craft” before earning her spot with a large installation. “You get to meet the people and see what and who is involved with the show,” she says.
For the 2024 show, running March 2-10 and themed “United by Flowers,” Schaffer Designs has 30 assistants for its 65,000-square-foot installation. Eleven are coming from around the world, 13 are from states including California, New York, Arkansas, Florida, Delaware and Minnesota. Only six are local florists. Furthermore, they are coming to be part of the Schaffer Design team even though there aren’t funds for either airfare or hotels. Nor do they get paid.
The hours are also intense. “We work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. the first day, and then closer to the show opening, it’s more like 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” Schaffer says. “Last year, we didn’t finish working until 3:15 a.m., just before the judges came a few hours later.” In fact, Schaffer and Kratt had wanted people to leave, but the team wanted to see the completion of all the hard work and stayed till the wee hours.
Olga Ramirez, AIFD, the “cash-and-carry captain” at Jet Fresh Flower Distributors in Miami, Fla., apprenticed last year with the Schaffer Designs team. “I learned so much from Kris and Bill,” she says. “These are different skills than what I usually do.”
Schaffer and Kratt are known for caring deeply about “apprenticing” the talents of the industry to “learn the ropes” of what creating a display for the show entails. “We, as educators, have found joy in the floral-sharing opportunities,” Schaffer says. “For all the hard work, we also have a lot of fun. It’s very rewarding to do this type of work.”
2. Days Away from Your Business
The team at Polycarp Flowers, in Summit, N.J., did a fantastic job last year, winning the “Phyllis M. Craig Award” for the “floral major exhibit demonstrating the best use of color in flowering and/or foliage plants,” but it also required owner Daica Skrobala to be in Philadelphia for two weeks. This doesn’t include the amount of time conceiving the project and back-and-forth conversations with the show brass.
Not only must someone be at the exhibition, but he or she must also prepare months in advance for the installation. These are massive commitments of time and resources, and there is also little time to juggle other work while creating an exhibit prior to the opening of the show. Therefore, florists must look at this commitment realistically. Many volunteers use their vacation time for this opportunity.
When designing for a big wedding, you may be the only one in a venue. At the Philadelphia Flower Show, you will be coordinating a schedule with all the other exhibitors. Therefore, there is zero wiggle room when it comes to the timing of your deliveries. Furthermore, because your exhibit may have been conceived six months before the March show—designs are considered for approval in October—inevitably, you have to be adaptive.
Carolyn Daley-Brady, AIFD, a freelance floral designer in Philadelphia and one of the designers for the American Institute of Floral Designers North East Chapter’s 2023 “Bronze Medal”-winning exhibit, had hoped for copious Amaranthus for her part of the installation. What did she do when it wasn’t available to her in March? She resourcefully found yarn that mimicked the look of the pendulous botanical. Others have back-up plans with alternate flowers or foliages.
4. Flower Deliveries
It is true that florists at the show are both generous and collaborative. It is in everyone’s best interest to have a great show and that each exhibit be spectacular. Inevitably, some flowers will wilt too soon or need refreshing. When ordering flowers, anticipate needing more than you think you will. Factor this into the cost. The elements of an indoor space can be wonky, and you want to be prepared. As we all know, you can never have enough flowers. This is the one time you may want to splurge more for the mental rewards, if not financial ones.
Most florists rarely work with unions. If a tech guy comes over and asks if you want any help with electrical work, don’t think he is your friend or colleague. For any work that may be done, even if it’s for literally two minutes to find electrical outlets, you will be charged for not only an hour but also, possibly, a two-person crew when it was only one person.
Therefore, have as much of the installation completed as possible before asking for electrical help because it can add thousands of dollars to your bill at the show. This often happens to first timers. “We work hard to educate people on relationships with the unions,” Pearsoll says. The recipe for success, therefore, includes not only the design but also the mechanics, electrical and staff relationships. Plan in meticulous detail what you will need so that a union worker doesn’t have to help you frequently and can do the work efficiently without you cursing yourself for not being better prepared.
Pearsoll’s team at the Philadelphia Flower Show are a savvy bunch, and they’re in the business of wanting you to succeed. Furthermore, Pearsoll is also a flower and plant guy, so he is helpful in mapping out designs in the early stages as well as the execution. There is also a Philadelphia Flower Show liaison, Ron Mulray, AIFD, owner of Philadelphia Flower Co., in Philadelphia, who acts as a “sounding board” for floral exhibitors, helping them anticipate their needs and realistic costs.
“We want everyone to have a good time as well as succeed,” Pearsoll says. “It’s a commitment in the best sense, an opportunity to rise to the occasion.”