Why is your show attendance (or orchid society) shrinking ?

There has been much conjecture about this problem in the last couple of years. Attendance at shows has been dropping off steadily, and new membership has followed this trend as well. This usually spells doom for an orchid society. Without renewed membership, shows and other society functions become more difficult to staff and organize since there are fewer and fewer volunteers to help out with these efforts.

Many societies are scrambling to address this decline. There have been many theories proposed as to why this is happening, and what to do about it. Some of the more popular ones I've heard are :

We keep hearing these theories, but something just didn't really ring true to us. Then just over a year ago, I had an interesting conversation with a young lady at a local show. I recognized her from a previous show, and this is how the conversation went. I never did catch her name, so I will refer to her as YL...
YL:(as she approached me) Hi... I have a question about your plants !
Me: Hi, yes, what can I do for you ?
YL: I bought a couple of plants from you at a local show in the spring.
Me: Yes, I remember you ... is there a problem ?
YL: I just want to know what is different about your plants...
Me: Different ? What do you mean exactly ?
YL: I bought plants from nearly every vendor at that show. I love orchids, and think they are so beautiful, so I wanted to try some. Every plant that I bought from other vendors has died already, or is doing nothing at all. They have all lost a lot of leaves after they yellowed, and now some of them are just barely alive. The only exception is the two plants I got from you. They have grown a lot, and now they look lush and happy. Why are they different from the others ?
Me: Hmmm (thinking) ... I do remember something one of the other vendors told me. He said that all the plants being sold at that show had been imported specifically for the show.
YL: What do you mean ?
Me: The plants were brought in from the tropics in bud a few days before the show, and then sold at the show. Since the show is held during a cold part of the year, there is a period of adjustment that the plants must make to the reduced light levels and temperatures compared to where they just came from. How would you feel if you had been plucked out of Hawaii and then dropped into this area ?
YL: Well obviously I wouldn't be too happy !
Me: Exactly ... me neither ! Well, plants are living things too, and they react the same way !
YL: So why would the society endorse vendors that do that ?
Me: Endorse ? What do you mean ?
YL: Well, isn't every vendor at a show endorsed by that society ?
Me: (laughing) Not at all ! Anyone who pays their fee can sell at the show, without any restrictions... and they can sell whatever they want.
YL: You're kidding right ?
Me: Not at all, unfortunately.
YL: Then how am I supposed to know who to buy plants from, and who to avoid ?
Me: I guess there's really no way to know except through trial and error.
YL: But that doesn't seem reasonable to me. The plants I bought cost a lot of money, and it's so discouraging to just watch them die. If it wasn't for those two plants from you, I wouldn't think that I could keep orchids alive, and I would never come back to these shows.
Me: You bring up a good point.
YL: How do the society members know who to get their plants from ?
Me: Well they have an advantage, since they know who the vendors are usually, and also how they grow their plants.
YL: Isn't there some way they could share that information with the general public ?
Me: I don't know, but I guess there might be some legal issue with discriminating against vendors who just "flip" their plants without actually growing them.
YL: Well then they should find some way around that since it's not fair to someone who is just starting out to buy a plant that's just going to die.
Me: You know, you're right. There should be some way of doing this.... but I'm happy to hear that your two plants from me are doing so well.
YL: Me too ... and thanks again for the information. Now I'll know better to be more careful !

The more I thought about this conversation, the more truths became apparent. The trend in recent years has swayed significantly towards "flipping" plants. Many vendors who used to grow their own products have stopped doing so, due to increased heating costs, and other business pressures. At the show that YL was referring to, there were about 15 vendors in all. Of these 15, there were only 3 who had grown their own plants. The balance were "flippers". There was no way of telling the difference between the two groups, and since the percentage of "flippers" was so high, most attendees at the show would have likely purchased the majority of their plants from them.

Some societies have implemented measures to ensure that they continue to have "beautiful and impressive shows". Scoring systems have gone into place to limit vendors that do not put in nice displays. Well, this doesn't really reduce the number of "flippers" since they only order a few extra plants to use in their displays, and then sell those off at the end of the show. It is actually surprising how many vendors don't know much about orchids at all, and don't even maintain a greenhouse since they have very few plants of their own (if any).

If the public perception is that every vendor at a show is endorsed by the society, then it is no surprise that membership and attendance would steadily dwindle. It would be great if societies could somehow flag vendors that the society actually recommends. This would serve two purposes :

  1. It would make a clear distinction for the public, between vendors that are recommended, and those that are not.
  2. It would encourage more vendors to actually grow their own plants, and stop this trend of every vendor becoming a "flipper".
Societies should solicit input from the average attendee at shows, finding out details about success they've had with plants they bought from the show, and trying to determine whether they would continue to attend shows or join the society if those plants died. It is obvious from the one conversation I had what the potential ramifications are if things continue on the way they are. Societies could continue to bark up the wrong tree in trying to address their problems, without really identifying the root causes. I personally would be very interested to know how many more stories would match the conversation I had with YL.

Just as a side note, the next year I attended that show that YL had referred to, the number of repeat customers I got was amazing. The stories stayed consistent. They had great success with my plants, and not with the others they had purchased elsewhere. They all bought even more plants from me, based on the successes they already had. So, trial-and-error does work, but it will only become obvious to people who happen to purchase a plant from an actual grower and not from a "flipper". Does your society even know what percentage of their show vendors are "flippers" versus "real growers" ?

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