Lisa Buckland, garden writer, has been co-directing the successful Toby’s Garden Festival for five years now. In this guest post, Lisa shares how important celebrity guest appearances are, the struggles of starting an event from scratch, and the speakers at this autumn’s Harvest Festival at Forde Abbey.
A truly great event is about going beyond expectations
It’s vital to meet expectations, but a truly great event gives people what they want, and then some. Offering the little touches means that once a person has paid to get in, they can experience wonder and beauty that they perhaps didn’t expect. For us at Toby’s Garden Fest, that includes Sherpas to carry plants back to your car, beautifully decorated tents with bunting and ribbons, live music, buskers, jugglers, and stilt walkers…for every event, that will mean something different.
Your audience is bigger than you think
Yes, you have your visitors – but your exhibitors and suppliers are also part of your audience, and it is your job to keep them happy, engaged, and involved in the day. Everyone should feel included and contributing. After all, if everyone running the show is happy, that is naturally going to be felt by your visitors.
Celebrities should bring authenticity to your event
Whenever we invite celebrities or well-known names to Toby’s Garden Fests, it’s not just because they are famous: they have to be relevant to our festival, and authentic in what they can offer. Our past speakers like Joe Swift and Adam Frost; they are known for their impressive garden design knowledge. It gives your visitors a buzz to connect with celebrities, but those celebrities will then take your event into their circles, giving you a wider reach.
Starting an event is always tough
What will make or break your event is your market research. Know your area, know your industry, and know your audience. Everyone in the Garden Fest team knows the gardening industry, whether as a presenter, writer, or foodie, so we had connections, we knew what was exciting, we knew the big players. We knew that local independent nurseries needed support. We knew that our demographic didn’t always want to travel to London for garden festivals. Being able to put all that knowledge together to create a solution is what makes a truly exciting event.

Accelerating reach can be tougher
Once your event is launched, you have to be constantly working to increase reach and generate more interest. Your tricks of your trade should range from good press and social media, to word of mouth, to quality content and good will! Winning the Devon Tourism Award in 2017 helped to bolster our name and widening your appeal will entice new audiences. For example, as Toby Garden Fest has developed we’ve added a VIP offering, a children’s tent, more practical workshops, and every year there is more to make it better, but not necessarily bigger.
Your values should shine out
By wearing your event’s values on your sleeves, you will connect with likeminded exhibitors, speakers, suppliers, sponsors, and of course, visitors. We have focused on creating an atmosphere that is very caring, valuing independent, quality, locally grown exhibitors – and that has enabled us to grow that market, and every year we see more and more visitors who care about those things too.
Ask yourself: what memory or emotion do you want your visitors to leave with?
That will shape everything you do, every facet of your event. Here at Toby Garden Fest, we decided pretty early on that we wanted visitors to leave feeling satisfied and inspired, having answers to their garden questions, having learned something new and feeling connected to nurseries, gardeners and local creators.
It’s why we invite speakers that inspire creativity: from Lillie O’Brien of London Borough of Jam who will be teaching jam making, to Georgie Newbery of Common Farm Flowers who will show visitors how to craft a hand tie bouquet, to Alex Metcalf who will share secrets of listening to trees with microphones – even a garden that’s growing and distilling their own perfumes at Keyneston Mill! We’ll have Alys Fowler from the Guardian, Lee Connelly from Blue Peter, Matt Biggs from Gardeners’ Question Time… all experts that will excite and inspire.
The nation’s visitors want three things from a day out…
…a view, a loo, and a brew! Whether you’re planning a choral recital or a half marathon, these three things have to come together to give people an event that they want to return to.
Toby’s Harvest Festival is on 15th and 16th September at Forde Abbey, Chard, Somerset