If you can't control the weather, try controlling television weather forecasters.
Drew Becher, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, recently blasted television and radio "snowmaggedon" scenarios that proved false, yet shriveled the Philadelphia Flower Show's ticket sales like an early frost. The venerable event, the society's principal fund-raiser, suffered a 17 percent drop in attendance in March and lost $1.2 million. Now, PHS is scurrying to make up the difference.
"It was a drumbeat, and it was relentless," Becher told The Inquirer. He targeted stations for "hyping" bad weather, which makes you wonder if Becher has ever watched local newscasts. "They know a snow or a weather event is basically gold on their advertising dollars. People need to realize that what they're saying on air is actually causing harm."
True. Bad weather makes for great ratings for local stations, which employ four, five, even six full-time meteorologists. Snowstorms are a big story.
And regional residents have become - what is the correct word? - chicken when it comes to potentially lousy weather. The March forecast of two to four inches in the city, but far more in the western suburbs, resulted in 88 buses canceling trips to the show in two days. The reality was a dusting of 0.2 of an inch. Almost two-thirds of PHS membership is 55 and older, and we know that older people tend to be more skittish about going out in snow.
"Everything is affected by the weather. It's the final determinant in whether you go," said Meryl Levitz, CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. Of Becher's pique, she understands his frustration, "but you can't tell people how to do the news. They don't take that well."
Several station staffers were eager to respond to Becher's charges but, in one of several ironies, were under orders to remain quiet from their corporate media bosses. The PHS complaints struck some folks as less than gracious given that few regional events receive more sustained publicity from media outlets, including The Inquirer, than the Flower Show.
If you stage an event during the colder months - the Flower Show has been held in March for almost a century - you have to prepare for bad weather and hyped forecasts, especially now that the show extends to nine days, basically a third of the month. One station news executive told me, "You can take it to the bank that there will be a threat of a snowstorm during the Flower Show."
Also, the station executive noted that Becher should be grateful the event isn't scheduled for February - a rating sweeps month.
There is the additional irony that PHS is complaining about forecasting weather, which gardeners have been at the mercy of since Eden.
A 1993 blizzard forced the Flower Show to close early. PHS filed a successful insurance claim for lost business, a tactic it is using again, as well as appealing to donors. In 2001, PHS lost money on the "storm of the century," which proved to be nothing of the sort. Frankly, a problem every dozen years doesn't seem too bad.
In 2009, the Philadelphia Auto Show, held in February, was shut down by a "storm of the century" that actually resulted in 27 inches of snow. Auto Show attendance also dropped this year.
Becher declined to blame poor attendance on high ticket prices, or a British theme, with Queen Elizabeth II as a marketing tool, that failed to court a larger audience.
Going forward, PHS might want to be less dependent on one event to raise $1 million, especially given March weather and television weathercasters. "You need to remember the show part is as important as the flowers," Levitz said. "How do you engage young audiences and get that cool factor?" PHS is working on drawing younger patrons, many of whom are less susceptible to bad weather - or forecasting.
Event planning can go awry even in the delightful month of May. Becher is currently attending the Chelsea Flower Show, celebrating its centennial in London. Even the garden-besotted British, who deal with inclement weather year-round, are bemoaning the lousy climate. "Celebrations seem somewhat subdued at this week's event, as do many of the show gardens," the Irish Times reported. "A harsh, cold spring hasn't helped."