How do you develop a successful workshop program at your IGC?

Departments - Ask the Experts

Tina Bemis, co-owner of Bemis Farms Nursery, shares her best workshop tips.

May 3, 2013

We regularly ask successful garden center operators to tackle a question or issue pertinent to the industry. This issue’s expert: Tina Bemis, co-owner of Bemis Farms Nursery in Spencer, Mass., has hosted workshops for the past 16 years. She recently wrote the free ebook, “BenchMarketing: 15 Ways to Increase Profits with ‘Make and Take’ Workshops,” and shared her tips with Garden Center magazine.

Garden Center: How do you decide which workshops to hold?

TINA BEMIS: I get out my crystal ball, (laughs.) One half of my workshops are ones that I have held every year. So they’re the ones that are the most popular. Another quarter I rotate in and out so that the list isn’t the same every year. And one quarter of the list are things that are brand new that I find.

After 16 years of doing this, I know that I want to have a moss hanging basket class, that’s going to be every year. The living wreaths class, that’s going to be every year. I determine which workshops to offer by what was popular in the past and what I think is going to be. Sometimes the container stays the same, but the hot new plant will change. When the black petunia came out, we had a container class with a black petunia in it. So it’s the same container workshop but it’s featuring a new plant.

GC: How do you measure the success of a workshop?

BEMIS: By the number of people who have attended it, but it’s much more than that because sometimes there’s a really good money-making workshop. I send out four lists a year — a spring, a summer, a fall and a holiday. And in each one there is one that I just really make good money on. Others are successful because of the numbers. The one that I had the most for was 150. And that was my layer bulb pot class. We had it every hour with 20 to 25 people, just constant rolling all day long. I haven’t seen 150 in a while but 60s have not been unusual. And I can’t do 60 people all at once. I usually have between 20 and 25 at a time.

GC: How many workshops do you offer in a year?

BEMIS: I have been known to teach 200 classes a year, but that doesn’t mean it’s 200 different ones. I would probably say we have 75 individual workshops, but sometimes we’ll hold the same one three times if it gets booked, for a total of up to 200 individual classes a year.

GC: Do you teach all of the classes?
I do most of them. I have my assistants teach as well. I’ve had very experienced designers teach complex classes, and I’ve had my high school girls teach easy ones. It depends on who I think is the best person for the job.

Whoever teaches has to love teaching. All business is show business. I’ve had a lot of competent instructors, but just because they’re competent doesn’t mean they’re memorable. You have to entertain while you teach. They don’t always have to be your best designers. It has to be the person who relates best with people.

GC: How do you determine the price of the class, and what is your typical profit margin?

BEMIS: Most of my classes are $29.99. Some less, some more. I try to keep my cost of goods sold at $13, which is a 57 percent margin. Each season, I try to have at least one class with a high perceived value, but a low COGS. Hypertufa planters cost me about $5 in materials, and I charge $29.99 for the class. I just try to price the class for what I think it’s worth and what I think I can get for it.

GC: When is the best time/day to offer classes?

BEMIS: I have my classes on both the weekend and weekdays, usually Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. (winter) or 4 p.m. (spring) and then I will pick a class that I will hold at 10 a.m. and again at 7 p.m. on the same weekday. This way I can get some people who don’t work for a living or work flexible hours or work the night shift, so I don’t alienate people who want to come during the day. I also repeat the class at 7 p.m. for people who work during the day and can’t make it, and that’s worked out really well for me. So I usually pick a popular class, one I know I’m going to fill two sets of 20 people with. If it’s something I’m not so sure of, I’ll put that on a Sunday so I’m only holding it once.

GC: What advice would you have for other independent garden center owners looking to host classes?

BEMIS: Don’t start small. You have to start big enough in order to make an impact. You have to have enough to show you’re serious about it and you have to stay committed to it for a long enough period to create a following and to get word of mouth to spread.

And the second thing is that it’s not just about income from the workshop. If you simply look at profit and income from the workshop, that’s important, and almost all of my classes are profit-makers. But it’s also about creating loyalty; it’s about getting them to buy something else while they’re here, it’s about having a bounce back coupon. For example, we left out the basil because it’s too cold, but you’ve got to come back in three weeks to get your basil, so they make another trip to the garden center. It’s actually a whole system that we’ve put in place — it’s not just the class alone. You have to look at it as a whole system, and that’s what’s in my book.

GC: How can people get a copy of your ebook “BenchMarketing: 15 Ways to Increase Profits with ‘Make and Take’ Workshops,”?

BEMIS: Email me at for a free copy of the book.


All photos courtesy of Tina Bemis