Taking garden tourism seriously

Photo by Thomas Herrera-Mishler
The National garden Festival is
going into its fourth year.
Last Monday, around 80 area garden tourism stakeholders met in the WNED-TV studios in downtown Buffalo to discuss the future, viability, and sustainability of garden tourism in Buffalo Niagara. Organized by Visit Buffalo Niagara on behalf of the National Garden Festival, the purpose, ostensibly, was to find ways to make the event financially sustainable and have the people within the community help lead our burgeoning garden tourism trade into the future.

We've brought in speakers like Amy Stewart,
Stephanie Cohan and Kerry Ann Mendez.
This was an unprecedented crowd of people from the diverse fields of marketing, tourism, landscape design,  not-for-profits, law, garden tours, master gardeners, media, publishing, education, garden centers, gardeners and more.

We've thrown social kickoff
events for participants.
Representatives from the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens, Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, WNYS Landscape & Nursery Association, Garden Walk Buffalo, area garden tour leaders, Massachusetts Avenue Project, WNY Land Conservancy, Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House Complex, Buffalo Spree magazine, Buffalo Niagara Gardening.comBuffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Dore Landscape, The English Gardener, Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo, Buffalo in Bloom, Rochester's Naturally Green Radio Show,  the city of Buffalo, an Erie County legislator, and dozens more.

We threw a "gala-like" fundraiser -
lots of fun, lots of work.
The facilitated meeting was four hours long. Each table was tasked to break up into groups of two and answer some very specific questions about the future of garden tourism in Buffalo, specifically what we could be doing in 2017, when FloraNiagara will be happening -- attracting hundreds of thousands of garden tourists just across the border in Canada. Then the discussions were opened to the entire table. Each table was then tasked with addressing one question in particular and then asked to present the ideas generated to the larger audience.

Our Front Yard Contest between area landscapers
is not sustainable the way we're doing it now.
Though it's agreed that giving back to the
community in the form of bettering
neighborhoods is important to us.
My hope out of the meeting was to find ways to make the events of the National Garden Festival (garden-themed motorcoach tours, a garden art sale, 75 Open Gardens, educational events, the Front Yard Contest and garden walks and tours) generate funds and keep them all going into the future. To date, we've depended on the generosity of our partners (Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens, WNYS Landscape & Nursery Association, Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, and Visit Buffalo Niagara) as well as generous grants from the Wendt Foundation, the Oshei Foundation, the WNY Foundation and the Buffalo Green Fund, among others. Relying on foundations is not a viable path forward. The most recent grant, from the Oshei Foundation is specifically for capacity building and sustainability.

AAA/Horizon Tours organizes five to six
garden themed bus tours each year
during the five weeks of the Festival.
These are just about self-sustaining and building
to bring a bit of money back to the Festival
once they're established and profitable.
There were a couple specific questions, among the list of topics being discussed at individual tables, that addressed financial income opportunities (brainstorming some anyway). The way the meeting was set up though, it was just one among many questions addressed by the group. Much of the meeting was built around idea generating and envisioning the future of garden tourism in our area. I have no problem with that -- I've been doing these for years now! We have no lack of ideas, it's funding them and coming up with the capable leaders to make them happen.

We can get a decent crowd to see a speaker,
but to keep costs accessible to most, they barely
cover our costs, so this is not a profitable venture.
Worth doing? Yes. Income generating? No.

At our table it was determined that corporate sponsors and foundation grants are worth pursuing but it is not a sustainable model for growth of the Festival. It is complicated because one of the greatest features of the Festival is the five weekends of 14 different area garden tours. Each garden tour is its own entity with its own leadership, each prints their own map, etc., and their funds come from different sources (municipal, sponsors, individuals, donations, etc.). And they do not have money to share, nor would want to charge for their tours. Which is only right.

The garden art sale was popular and can
probably be built up over time to grow in
size and profitability.
The largest of these tours (and the largest in the country!), Garden Walk Buffalo is its own 501(c)3, and has a sustainable model already including corporate sponsors and an established donor list, among other fundraising activities. It's a free event, and they've been doing it for 19 years. I'm the outgoing president of the organization and we've done a good job of growing slowly and organically, never growing beyond our means.

One of our greatest area gardening
assets is having the country's largest
garden tour, Garden Walk Buffalo,
among the other 13 area tours the
National Garden Festival helps
promote to visitors.
Using Garden Walk's reputation to build upon for the region makes sense. Garden Walk Buffalo benefits by the publicity and promotion the Festival provides. But Garden Walk is a very successful event in and of itself. Garden Walk, like the other garden tours, are happy with, and proud of, their independence of other events.

ALL ideas generated at the meeting were collected and will be poured over and written up. Then, with a smaller group of diverse stake-holders (and hopefully some new ones we met through this meeting), we'll see what events/activities have to change or disappear (and/or be charged for) and what clever ways we can extract our annual budget from the people that benefit from the events we hold.

If you know of any fund-generating ideas, or have attended garden-related events that charge admission -- and was worth the price -- please share! You can be sure as we figure out our path ahead, I'll be sharing here.


  1. I was sad to miss this event as I had signed up to attend. I had gotten what occurred from Connie and from Barbara, of Lewiston. It sounded like much was discussed and many ideas were thrown out for consideration. I did attend the talk you have pictured though.

  2. I surely hope we don't break something that don't need fixin'. Words like "corporate", "revenue", etc. often have an irreversible impact.

    Why not charge attendees a couple of dollars to participate? That seems MORE than fair--people would pay that.

    Alternatively, the CITY should compensate the 501C3 with a % of revenue that these events generate; for instance, if the events bring in $6MM, give 5% back to the events (or $300k). Otherwise, we just enable the city to reap the benefits....without doing any of the work.

    Also, I do think it is high time to compensate some of these volunteers (Jim, etc.) who have been running the show for some time.

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  4. GardenWalk/Talk,
    I saw your name on the reservations list and then didn't see you there. Sorry you couldn't make it. Being a garden blogger, your input would have been great.

    Nothing's broke that needs fixin' though without some income, we'll have to pare back what events we do hold. Charge attendees a couple of dollars to participate? Participate in what? The garden tours? That's where the majority of people participate and that's the one thing the National Garden Festival has no control over.

    Garden Walk Buffalo has a direct economic impact of $4.5 million. Hotels, restaurants, shops and other arts & entertainment venues make that money. We'd LOVE to get some of that back from the city! But the city's take on that is only in the form of taxes collected on the $4.5 million spent by visitors--which is not nothin'!

    And thanks for the mention of volunteer's compensation. I'd LOVE to make some money in return for the hundreds of hours of time, design,marketing consulting, and resources I've spent on garden tourism between Garden Walk Buffalo and the National Garden Festival. I figure if I just keep at it, at some point there may be some money.

    I'd love to compensate some of the gardeners that open their gardens for bus tours with some sort of stipend. Most of what we're selling here is our great residential gardens, and they are magnanimously open to the National Garden Festival and all the garden tours in the area.

  5. I would love to visit the Buffalo Garden Walk some day. I also think here in Chicago it would be worth organizing some serious thought about generating garden tourism. After all, we have Lurie Garden, Chicago Botanic Garden, Morton Arboretum - all world class - and a great deal more. Not sure who would do that, though.

  6. It was a great discussion. There were a lot of ideas thrown out there, and you're right, they didn't all focus on making the National Garden Festival self-sustaining. But some new ideas did give me hope because I think they could be exciting, successful events that could bring in money for Garden Walk Buffalo. For example, we could have a photography contest or a plein air day (painting outside). The events could involve amateurs, but big-name artists could be brought in, too, to make photos or paintings in gardens. Then the artwork could be auctioned off, with the revenue going to the National Garden Festival. Adding some new events like these with a financial component might boost the financial stability of the National Garden Festival.

  7. Jason,
    It may only happen if YOU do it, I've found!

    The plein air painting is another good idea we've talked about doing before. It's a great one-time event (or every few years). I can see us actually doing it, if we found someone that were able to organize it. It isn't really a sustainable, year-round, year-in, year-out source of income though.


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