For the past eight years, Sam Lemheney has been the designer for the Philadelphia International Flower Show, the country's number one flower show. Sam began his career at the Walt Disney World® Co. as an intern at the Land Horticulture Science Program in 1989, received a B.S. in Plant Science from the University of Delaware in 1991, and began his full time career at Disney in June of that year—eventually becoming the Area Manager of the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival.
For the Philadelphia International Flower Show, Sam is responsible for coordinating a floor plan of more than 50 full-scale displays and 3,000 individual amateur plant entries.
The Philadelphia International Flower Show will be held from March 4-11, 2012 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center (12th & Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107). "Hawaii: Islands of Aloha," is this year’s rallying theme and will introduce a tropical experience that blends next-stage digital technology with the natural beauty and rich culture of the islands. All proceeds, including tickets and sponsorship contributions, will support The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and its acclaimed urban greening programs, including City Harvest. Click here for tickets!
1. Who or what inspired you to get into horticulture? My grandfather. He owned a landscape nursery in Lancaster, PA. My grandfather learned about horticulture from my great-grandfather who came over from England. My grandfather grew cut roses in Lancaster County, PA, and then started his own landscape nursery. My father owned a flower shop as well, as a second career. It was my dad who expanded my interest into weddings and the flower business.
2. What initially made you want to design for the Philadelphia International Flower Show? What has continued to make you stay interested? That's an interesting question. When I graduated from college, I went and worked for Walt Disney World. I worked in horticulture there as well as special events, eventually producing and creating the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival.
In the industry, you find out that the Philadelphia International Flower Show is one of the best-respected in the world. The designer at the time was going to retire, so I was approached to apply. I was so excited when I got the job because I wanted to work for the best in the business.
Besides, I grew up going to the Flower. My grandfather went to the show, my father exhibited at the show—so this was a great career opportunity and a personal opportunity to be closer to my family here.
I've remained interested in the job because I enjoy the challenge of improving upon the previous year. Every year I want to hear that this show is the best show ever. Every year we get well over 200,000 visitors, and I love to go to the entrance and watch people smile as they enter and hear the comments they make, as well as the oohhs and aaahs of what they see. It's always inspiring.
3. How did you decide to make this year's theme focus on Hawaii? We actually pick our themes three years in advance. When we brainstorm, we think about what winter-weary people want to see. Orchids and tropical plants are always crowd-pleasers.
For a few years Hawaii would rise to the top of our lists. I’m so pleased with the selection because Hawaii offers diverse tropical flowers and plants, beautiful landscapes, rich culture and history, and that indescribable aloha spirit.
4. What is it about Hawaii's horticulture that interested you most? The natural landscapes. I’ve had the opportunity to walk through these tropical paradises that have crashing waterfalls and orchids everywhere. I discovered incredible diversity of the plants and landscapes depending on if you were on the windward or leeward side of an island.
If you take the big island, for example, the large volcanoes in the middle of the island actually block the weather, creating a rainforest setting on one side and a barren desert on the other. Because the mountains are so tall, there could be snow on the top while people are swimming in the ocean only a few miles away. That just blew me away.
One of our exhibitors, Michael Petrie, is interpreting "The Garden of the Gods," which is on the dry side of the island of Lanai. It almost looks like the surface of Mars, with red rocks and such—it looks really cool.
5. What excites you about this year's design over previous years? I’m most excited about the integration of technology into the exhibits. We are working with a company called Klip Collective that digitally maps three-dimensional surfaces and project images onto them. We are actually going to have waves coming to life and crashing overhead when you first enter the show.
Then we are going to have an area called Pele’s Garden. Here live dancers will interact with projected imagery to tell a traditional Hawaiian story. Plants and flowers will always be the stars of our show, but if we can incorporate technology and other mediums to help bring these gardens to life, to me, that's what makes it exciting.
6. What have you learned about yourself from horticulture and from designing the Philadelphia International Flower Show? That's a good question and a tough one. I think what I've learned about myself is that I enjoy entertaining people. Instead of having a voice or playing an instrument, I use plants and flowers to create a show. Even though I'm an event producer, designer, and horticulture person, I'm an entertainer as well. I want people to walk away from our flower show having been entertained in addition to learning something.
Me: I feel this answer is the whole reason why I'm covering this show. I remember when I was first approached about doing coverage for the flower show, they weren't sure if this was something that would fit with my demographics, but I felt it fit perfectly because it is a show. It may not be a show on Broadway, but it's still a show and I cover shows whether they are on or off Broadway, so this does fit with my mission.
Sam: We are a 9 day show and we have a lot of people that come through our doors, so it's definitely a show and people are paying good money to be entertained, so we have to deliver on that.
Me: Exactly and people are coming from all over the world to see the flower show.
Sam: Yep. They are.
7. What's the best advice you've ever received? I think the advice I use most often is: "There's always next year.” You can only do so much tweaking and improving, eventually you have to trust your gut and make a decision. I keep a list of things I want to improve on for next year, and I'm lucky enough to have an opportunity to continually improve.
Although it’s not advice per se, by mounting multiple shows I’ve learned how important it is to collaborate. This year I am especially grateful to Gary Radin and Bill Lance of GMR Design, Klip TV, Walt Off at Waldor Orchids, and Barb King of Valley Forge Flowers. As a unit we’ve bounced ideas off one another, had hours of brainstorming, organized our thoughts, and come up with a Show that people are sure to remember!
8. If you could design for any celebrity, who would you like to design for? Wow, that's a good one! I'm going to go with an organization actually. It would be amazing to design for Cirque Du Soleil because I love their design sense and I think it would be fun. I would love for them to come see the show. I would also love to design for Elton John because he seems like he would have different taste than most, which would make it fun and creative.
However, if I could design with anyone, I would love to design with Preston Bailey and collaborate with him on a show. I would also love to collaborate with David Stark.
9. What was the best part about working for Disney? How do you think your time at Disney prepared you for the work you do with the Philadelphia International Flower Show? When I was working at Disney, we designed shows for convention parties. The best was when we transform ballrooms into scenes from "The Lion King" when that film first came out. People just loved it.
My other favorite time at Disney was when the NBA All-Star Game was in Orlando. I'm a huge basketball fan, and I actually got to meet many of the players. The celebrity component at Disney was always great. I also gave a private tour of the Flower & Garden Festival to Roy Disney Jr. (Walt's nephew, Roy Disney's son). I am a big Disney fan and love the history of the company; so to be able to walk around with him and ask him questions about Walt was one of my career highlights.
The scale of the events at Disney helped prepare me for the over-the-top, sky-is-the-limit creations we make in Philadelphia. When you work on a show that takes up acres and acres, you need to know how to think big!
Sam: This has been a great interview!
Me: I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I really enjoyed it too.
Sam: These are fun questions and different than what I've answered in a long, long time.
Me: That's what I strive for when I do my interviews is to ask the questions others don't.
Sam: It's very refreshing to not have to answer the same questions over and over again, so I appreciate that.
Me: That means a lot to me! Thanks so much!
This posting is brought to you with the support of the Philadelphia International Flower Show.