Brexit clouds gather over Chelsea flower show as sponsorship wilts

The Guardian · Finance · 10 days ago

The number of major show gardens may have been pruned back heavily as some key sponsors have pulled out, but the Chelsea flower show’s gala opening night on Monday remains one of the prime events of the London social calendar.

This year there will be just eight show gardens – down from at least 14 last year as some long-term supporters including the Daily Telegraph, which has sponsored a show garden at Chelsea for at least nine years, and Brewin Dolphin, which had sponsored gardens for five years, have pulled out. Other key names L’Occitane and Harrods have also made their excuses.

The show’s main backer M&G, which has sponsored Chelsea for the past eight years, has also said it would step down. No replacement has been confirmed for 2018.

Despite the difficulties, the gala night remains a networker’s dream that contributes a large proportion of the £10m-plus raised by the Royal Horticultural Society at the annual Chelsea event. Around 5,000 bankers, business leaders and celebrities are expected to attend on Monday and about half of them will sit down for dinner afterwards.

The evening sold out months ago despite tickets going for between £500 and £1,000 a head. One regular attendee said: “I don’t think there is any other date where you get so many important people in one place over two hours. It’s the party of the season.”

Last year, the newly married Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall were snapped walking hand in hand among the blooms in a rare public outing. Perennial attendees include the former Marks & Spencer chief executive Sir Stuart Rose, as well as Lord Myners, WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, former Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman, Stephen Fry, Ringo Starr and Dame Judi Dench.

One banking insider said: “It is like something from Victorian times with people parading up and down and trying to speak to important people. It’s quite difficult if you want to look at the exhibits. If you want to be able to say ‘hi’ to lots of interesting people and have a brief chat there is nothing like it on the corporate calendar.”

The RHS will raise about £3m from corporate entertainment over the coming week, having introduced an extra dinner venue with room for 300 people. It has also brought in celebrity chef Raymond Blanc’s team to improve the attractiveness of its garden dining chalets through the week.

Amid the economic uncertainty, it is no surprise companies scaled back their investment in show gardens – booking space alone can cost at least £100,000 including designing and building the garden. One former sponsor said:“I think the costs can be really quite prohibitive.”

Nick Mattingley, shows director of the RHS, said sponsorship suffered as the timing of applications coincided with last summer’s Brexit referendum. But he said there had been no real impact on the money raised for the RHS which comes form corporate entertainment and tickets sales. The garden sponsorship money largely goes towards plants and designers not the charity.

“We had a lot of application but we do look for quality and we didn’t want to lower the level to fill spaces,” he said, adding that Chelsea was in negotiations with more than one potential sponsor to replace M&G.

The missing show gardens have been partly replaced by more of the smaller Artisan and Fresh gardens and five Feel Good gardens fronted by BBC Radio 2 DJs, including the appropriately named Jeremy Vine. A couple of trade exhibitors have also taken larger spaces to develop their sales stand into gardens.

Mattingley said the changes had also enabled Chelsea to give space to new talent. “The show has been going for over 100 years and things are quite cyclical. When we had the credit crunch we had a moment when everything was reorganised and things go around again. We’ve got to work with it and be nimble on our feet and come up with new ideas and be creative,” he said.