“£160 million is being invested across the organisation.”

Melissa Hackney

Group Sales & Marketing Manager, Royal Horticultural Society

Melissa Hackney, Group Sales & Marketing Manager, Royal Horticultural Society

The Royal Horticultural Society, founded in 1804 as the Horticultural Society of London, is the UK’s leading gardening charity.

How did you become a specialist in this industry, and what do you bring to the challenge from your previous roles?

“You could describe me as a poacher turned gamekeeper…My background is actually in tour operating – both on the inbound and outbound sides of the business. I think as a result I have a good understanding of the pressures from the client side as well as the supplier.

“I’ve sold a range of destinations – from the UK and Europe to Australia and New Zealand, so to be focusing on promoting something as quintessentially British as gardens is new to me, but it’s great to be working a bit closer to home.

“When I was selling longer tours, I gained a real insight into the importance of excellent service, quality guides and interpretation so you could bring a destination to life for your clients. And also of creating unique, exclusive experiences that you can’t necessarily access as an individual traveller.

“Now I’m working with the RHS, it’s great to be able to help unlock those elements that are available within our gardens to offer them to GTOs and group tour operators and to make sure they can in turn offer the best experience to their clients.

“On the most practical level, having worked on both sides of the fence, I also understand the importance of helping make life for GTOs and tour operators as easy as possible, whether this is timely information, good quality promotional images or flexibility when booking.

“We are a nation of gardeners – and whether you are a mad gardener, love the health benefits of being outdoors, or just enjoy soaking up beautiful surroundings, garden visits are forever going to be a popular product. I see my role as raising awareness of the breadth of what we offer at the RHS and making sure our gardens feature on every GTO’s programme!”

What is the RHS offer for groups?

“The RHS has over 200 years of experience behind it as is the world’s leading gardening charity. Since the first shows in the 1800s, we have been welcoming visitors and encouraging a love of gardens and gardening.

“We also passionately believe that whilst we are committed to upholding excellence in horticulture, this shouldn’t mean that our gardens become merely a museum, or a collection of plants.

“A visit to an RHS garden should be all about being enthused and inspired, being able to immerse yourself in the surroundings, with the chance to take both ideas and inspiration home – as well as perhaps some of the lovely plants on offer in our shops.

“Everyone at the organisation is passionate about what we do, and we hope that spills over in our volunteer tours – where people are giving their time to help people explore and enjoy the gardens.

“Each of the four gardens Harlow Carr, Wisley, Hyde Hall and Rosemoor has its own unique feel and personality, and different plants and styles that thrive in their region. Because of the combination of the natural cycle of a garden, complemented by an ever changing calendar of events, there is always something looking fabulous, and no two visits are ever the same.”

How is RHS developing the offer?

“Some £160 million is being invested across the organisation, with highlights including a new garden at RHS Bridgewater in Manchester opening in 2020, a new welcome centre and wisteria tunnel at Wisley in 2019 and there will also be a new restaurant and learning centre at Hyde Hall.

“Additionally, there will be new catering packages, new garden tours with members of the horticultural team for those who want a more hands on experience, and a range of new events.

“My main focuses at the moment are service and communication. We are encouraging all GTOs to sign up to our database to make sure they can stay in touch with the latest developments and be first to know about new products and events available for booking.”

How much product do you sell directly to GTOs, and how much do you work with or through tour operators? How do you make bookings and reservations flexible?

“Our approach varies from garden to garden. Currently, the majority of GTOs (about 75%) book with us directly. We are working with tour operators to develop product for those that need to include overnight stays.

“We offer the option to hold tickets and confirm and pay final numbers on the day – our GTOs are very good at letting us know final numbers sooner than that though.

GTOs are increasingly booking additional catering with us and this is paid for in advance. We have a ‘meet and greet’ service enabling us to tell each group what is looking great on the day, give out maps and tickets and free £5 retail vouchers, so that they can bypass the queues and head straight into the garden.

“Garden tours are only £3 per person and also very popular with the groups. The feedback is that the interpretation and hidden secrets and behind the scenes knowledge give even more reason to come again.”

This article was originally published in issue 279 (March 2018) of GTO magazine.