By Richard L. Gaw
Longwood Gardens Director Paul Redman said that the Chester County cultural institution attracted more than 1.2 million guests last year, up from 750,000 as recently as six years ago, but through its long-term plans to increase educational programs and beautify its many acres, it has the capacity to conservatively reach 1.5 million visitors a year.
In his address at the Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce's annual luncheon at the Mendenhall Inn on Oct. 23, Redman married the future goals of the institution with the population density of the Philadelphia countryside region, where he said 20 million live within a two-hour's drive of the gardens. "You may think we're at overcapacity at Longwood, but we're not," Redman said. "Yes, we've grown, but we have been growing very responsibly and very strategically."
The lion's share responsible for that anticipated growth will be seen in increased visibility through the gardens' development of its educational programs, Redman said, who pointed to Longwood's mission-based K-12 programs that draw as many as 300,000 children a year, to adult and on-line programs that reach people throughout the world. Redman said that one such program theme, Longwood's "Beyond the Garden Gates," has introduced guests to the mechanical and functional "underside" of how Longwood works, with behind-the-scenes tours of gardens and fountains.
"We want to begin with the youngest of the young and also attract the oldest of the old," Redman said. "No other public garden in the world is doing what we're doing in terms of on-line learning of its kind.
As we think about who's coming to Chester County and who's coming to Longwood, we have people from all over the country coming to attend our educational programs. Our philosophy is 'Life-long Learning."
Changes are coming in the physical plant of Longwood, as well. Scheduled to debut next summer, Longwood's new Meadow Garden, located near the Route 52-Baltimore Pike interchange, will create what Redman calls "Longwood's largest garden," a 90-acre meadow with nearly three miles of walking trails hat will "connect two pieces of property that had been historically disconnected," he said. Redman said that guests can also look forward to improvements to the gardens' many fountains, with renovations scheduled to begin in the fall of 2014.
As the most attended public garden of its kind in the United States and one of the most popular destinations in the Philadelphia region, attracting visitors to Longwood Gardens is only one half of the institution's mission, said Redman, who added that Longwood draws between 200 and 4,000 people a day for 70 percent of the year. Making guests happy and keeping them that way in subsequent visits is the other. Longwood has established a Best Practice guest service academy required of all employees, and although it receives a 92 percent positive satisfaction from its guest surveys, each survey is read and responded to by Redman, and shared with other staff.
"We want to deliver a great first experience, engage guests, exceed their expectations, and cultivate loyalty," he said. "This is something we can all learn from, because as a region, when we have guests coming to this area, it's not just Longwood being nice, we all have to deliver the same extraordinary guest service to people coming to Chester County."
Longwood draws its audiences from a large cross-section, which ranges from families led by a female decision maker to grandparents to young couples. Redman called this demographic a "cultural carnivore," someone he said who is seeking "an authentic experience, something different, and something curated." Aimed at this population, Longwood's new marketing campaign, currently seen in the New York Times, brands Philadelphia as America's Garden Capital, with 30 gardens within 30 miles of Philadelphia.
"Tourism is growing in Chester County," Redman said. "It takes partnerships, an entire community to come together to make this the attraction we want it to be."