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GCA Cancels Christmas Competition & Annual Conference

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THE GARDEN Centre Association (GCA) has announced (October 2020) that after calling-off its inspections for the first time in 50 years it’s also cancelled its Christmas competition and Annual Conference due to COVID-19. 

GCA Chief Executive Iain Wylie says that despite these cancellations it has seen growth in its GROW e-learning initiative and has moved to having virtual meetings for its members. 

Iain said: “We recently wrote to our members to confirm that unfortunately, due to the ever-increasing range of restrictions, we have had no choice but to cancel our Annual Conference in January. It is a sad but necessary, and unfortunately inevitable decision, but as soon as we are able to meet together again, we will be organising an event for our members, which will be bigger and better than ever. For the same reasons, we have also cancelled this year’s Christmas Competition, particularly as differing local and country rules will make it even more impractical. 

“Like everyone in the country, we’ve had to make some changes after the impact of COVID-19. The early rumblings surrounding Coronavirus and potential restrictions coming into play earlier in the year meant that we postponed the starting of our annual inspections for the first time in our 50+ years history. At our first ever virtual exec meeting in early April, we decided to cancel them altogether and although the decision was made with heavy hearts, it was certainly the right one. 

“What was yet to come couldn’t have been predicted by anyone and the whole horticultural industry was affected greatly. We sought as many ways to help members as possible and from the outset joined with other trade associations and industry bodies to lobby the government as an industry with one voice. 

“The campaign was focused on getting the industry and its supply chain moving again and highlighting the plight of UK growers in particular. Facing the loss of the planting season, with garden centres closed and with crops already ‘ready to go’ and with nowhere for them to go, plant wastage became a major issue. Lobbying continued for compensation for growers alongside putting forward a case for garden centres to open. 

“Proposals were put to the government with how centres would operate under strict social distancing rules and with our input reflecting our members’ views and as few restrictions as possible on the products they could sell (especially furniture), centres were permitted to open again in May (ahead of other retailers who weren’t allowed to open until June/July).” 

Throughout their closures, many GCA members offered online or telephone ordering and delivery services, doing their best to ensure their customers could continue gardening during the pandemic. 

The Great British weather was on the industry’s side when centres re-opened in May and customers sent furniture and barbecue sales rising as they were up 25% in May compared to the same month in 2019. Sales have continued to rise in gardening categories and ones such as houseplants and seeds and bulbs, in particular, are still showing strong growth well into autumn too. 

Iain added: “Restaurants were a different matter however, as hospitality didn’t re-open until July and unlike the re-opening the retail side of their businesses, opening catering was less straight forward for our members. Centres were doing well on gardening, but the timing of reopening restaurants was more difficult to get right. Some opened straight away, some waited a few weeks and some even have their restaurants or cafés remaining closed.” 

During this time members were still able to log in to the longstanding GCA Exchange forum to talk with other garden centre owners and a WhatsApp group was started for the principals of the GCA’s member centres to keep everyone in touch, share ideas, concern and help each other through. 

As a result of the pandemic, many other GCA activities have been curtailed. In addition to its annual inspections, its Ruxley Rose plant area competition was cancelled as judging was unable to take place and its regional meetings were also unable to continue in person. 

Iain added: “Many centre owners and staff say our regional meetings are one of the best benefits of being a member, but it was just not safe or legal to continue to host them, at least not face to face, so we decided to host them virtually instead in the form of webinars. 

“Our first, in conjunction with The Garden Industry Manufacturer’s Association (GIMA), focused on matters affecting the whole gardening supply chain and aided a healthy debate to enable a stronger, more resilient, and dynamic supply chain going forward. Another, GCA members only webinar, saw Chris Brown of Turpin Smale Catering Consultants facilitate a discussion on catering where members shared their concerns and thoughts on how they would operate when they reopened. Most recently we held another webinar on the challenges of how to have a successful Christmas and it is pleasing to see our members remaining optimistic despite these difficult times. 

“We have also seen a rise in users of our GROW e-learning initiative, which is reassuring, and we have launched a module in collaboration with the Leisure and Outdoor Furniture Association (LOFA) on fire safety for furniture, with an emphasis on their excellent LOFA Assured scheme. 

“We are also proud to have launched another two modules. The first on operating social distancing in garden centres and the second on social distancing in restaurants, covering the new rules, regulations and guidelines issued by the government that have to be followed in order to continue to trade. The fact that both modules were turned around in the matter of days between when the government made the announcements and published the information and were live before the opening dates, is quite remarkable. They have been appreciated by members and used extensively by centre staff.” 

Mike Burks, GCA Chairman said: “Although it has been a strange and difficult time, we’d like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to each and every one of our members who have gone above and beyond for their customers, their staff, for each other and as part of the Association. They have worked tirelessly to adhere to strict new rules and have adapted to this new way of life, proving that nothing can stop the Great British public from gardening. 

“The one thing that has become evident during this time is the importance of gardening to the general public. We’ve always known it, but now it’s become more widely acknowledged. It can help keep you occupied and so helps with mental health issues, keeps you physically fit and, also, helps people grow their own food, so supplementing the food chain.”

21 October 2020

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