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No garden variety family business

Chris Adolph attributes the majority of his company’s 2011 success to the Maryland Home & Garden Show. The owner of Prestige Garage Floor Coating in White Marsh said the semi-annual event, where he exhibited for the first time last year, brought in about 60 percent of the year’s business.

From left, Jon, Jay and Jeff Plummer

“I wish I would have done it sooner,” he said.

In its third decade, the spring Maryland Home & Garden Show opens at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium on Saturday.

Since 1981, the show has been produced by Glen Burnie-based S&L Productions Inc.

Lois Plummer, 72, who owns the S&L Productions, organized the inaugural event at the former Baltimore Civic Center, now the 1st Mariner Arena.

Plummer, who was working with a business partner at the time, bought out his share of the company in 1983.

That same year, her son, Jay Plummer, 46, vice president of S&L Productions, joined the business.

Since then, Jeff Plummer, 51, and Jon Plummer, 39, have joined the company, as treasurer and account manager, respectively.

The brothers, who said they didn’t always see themselves entering the business, pursued interests in data processing, accounting and business development, until ultimately joining the company full-time. Their father, Jack Plummer, participates in the company’s semi-annual board meetings, but made his career as a government worker.

Though the brothers would like to keep the business in the family, they haven’t set a succession plan.

“We’ve done a little bit, but I wouldn’t say there’s a definite plan in place,” said Jeff Plummer, adding with a laugh: “But it is something I think we need to address in the near future.”

Along with Linda Brazil, who has been with S&L Productions since 1988, the brothers run the company’s day-to-day operations.

The show, which moved to the former Festival Hall in 1985 and the State Fairgrounds in 1991, started with about 100 booths. This year, almost 500 exhibitors and about 650 booths have been booked.

In addition to the semi-annual home and garden show, S&L Productions helps manage a promotional products show in New Jersey.

Over the three decades, one of the largest changes has been how the firm markets its events.

“There’s no longer three TV stations … there’s 300,” Jay Plummer said.

That’s made them turn increasingly to social media as the most cost-effective way to advertise.

The business has also felt the effects of the housing boom and bust, and increased use of the Internet.

In 2001, the show saw a dip in attendance, said Jay Plummer.

“We thought we should be going up, if anything,” he said, referring to the increased period of home buying in the early 2000s.

Though he said it’s hard to pinpoint what caused the drop, the increased popularity of the Internet may have been a factor.

Still, the Internet can’t compete with the tactile qualities of the show, Jeff Plummer said.

“Everybody was scared that the Internet was going to take business away from everybody, but what I think it’s done is made a better-educated consumer when they come in to see things. What the show does is it still allows people to touch and smell and feel and see and talk to the owners,” he said, adding that exhibitors also often offer pricing specials at the show.

About 60,000 people attend each of the Maryland Home & Garden shows, with attendance slightly higher in the spring, a more popular time for home remodeling.

Though the recession has caused some turnover in vendors and delayed others from booking their booths until closer to the opening weekend, the show has continued to sell out, Jeff Plummer said.

Adding more value

“When the recession hit … our goal was to add more value to our show,” he said.

That included upgrading the event’s website, increasing promotional materials, utilizing social media and adding a “Garden Preview Party” to benefit Habitat for Humanity the Friday before the show opens.

“We’re really a year-round promotional vehicle for our exhibitors,” he said.

“We actually have some vendors, where this is their sole marketing tool for the year. They’re not going to give that up,” Jon Plummer said.

But a slowdown in home buying may bode well for some of the show’s exhibitors.

Because homeowners often can’t afford to do large remodeling projects when they buy a house, new owners tend to come to the show looking for essentials like mailboxes and curtains, Jeff Plummer said.

“Now that we’ve gone through this downturn, I think people are going to stay in their houses longer, and they’re going to fix their houses up, and have the money to do those larger projects,” he said

In addition to home improvement exhibits and 17 landscaped gardens displays, the show includes crafters, plant and orchid sales, educational seminars and a wine tasting.

“I heard somebody say once, it’s kind of like Disney Land for your home,” Jay Plummer said.

It also centers around a theme, which this season is “Books in Bloom,” with the 40-by-60 foot feature garden taking on “Under the Tuscan Sun,” a 1996 memoir by Frances Mayes that was adapted into a movie in 2003.

“It’s probably the neatest part of our job — to come in and see a blank slate, and then see all of these projects come together at one time,” Jon Plummer said. The entire show is set up in 4½ days.

The company has dabbled in organizing other types of events, including an interior design trade show and a bridal show, but it was a tennis trade show in Miami Beach that brought the family one of its biggest surprises: Hurricane Andrew.

When the storm hit in August 1992, it wiped out the event and caused the Plummers to look into weather-related insurance.

“We said, ‘What happens if our biggest show, which is our spring home and garden show, what if that ever got hit by weather like this?’” Jay Plummer said.

The company purchased insurance in case that was to ever happen. The following spring, it did: a March 1993 blizzard shut down the last few days of the home and garden show.

“At the time, we were a one-weekend show,” Jay Plummer said. The show ran from Wednesday to Sunday. After the snow storm, S&L Productions expanded the home and garden show to two weekends.

“Essentially, we lost everything from that weekend,” he said. “But, we were paid from the insurance company.”

The family decided to reimburse exhibitors for booth costs for the days the show was closed. That included Columbia-based Maryland Pools Inc., which has been an exhibitor at the show since the 1980s.

“I remember it vividly,” said Bob Spero, co-owner and vice president of Maryland Pools.

Fearing the storm, Spero booked a hotel room at a nearby Holiday Inn, only to wake up to several feet of snow and a shut-down show.

‘Noble gesture’

The decision to reimburse vendors was “a noble gesture,” he said.

“As you develop business relationships, there are some people you really respect and some people you may not respect as much,” Spero said. “They were just really fair.”

Spero said his company does about six shows per year, including both the spring and fall Maryland Home & Garden Show.

“With the economy the way it’s been the last three years or so, I’ve seen a lot of shows where vendors haven’t returned, and I think I’ve seen more vendors stay with the show in Timonium than any of the others we’ve participated in,” he said. “And I think that’s due to the relationship we have as vendors with S&L.”