A new business model, particularly at an established destination, can be a risky move. But Selby Gardens has big plans to grow.
Entity. Selby Gardens Industry. Tourism, horticulture Key. Organization is shifting its business model to shift revenue from private fundraising.
Last Valentine's Day, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota opened an exhibit that seemed a natural extension of the 15-acre site's focus and mission. More than 1,000 orchids and other plants were displayed as part of “The Orchid Show: Celebrating 40 Years at Selby Gardens.”
The exhibit highlighted a specialty of Selby — the world's only botanical garden dedicated to the study, research, and display of epiphytes. Those are plants such as orchids, bromeliads, and ferns that grow on other plants without harming them.
The six-week show was also a test of a new living museum business model for Selby Gardens, and the results proved overwhelmingly positive. When comparing the run of the exhibit to the same six-week period in 2015, Selby posted a 42% increase in admissions revenue, a 45% increase in retail shop revenue, a 50% increase in food sales and a 67% increase in memberships.
“Shifting to this exhibition model translated to all the different earned revenue areas of the organization across the board,” says Selby President and CEO Jennifer Rominiecki. “What's so exciting about being a living museum is we're really changing the scope of what an exhibit is. With a museum exhibit, you might expect you're going to go into a gallery, look at art, and then leave. But what we're doing is much more interdisciplinary and experiential.”
The orchid show drew 45,000 visitors, almost half from outside Florida. Of the Floridian visitors, about a third were from outside Sarasota County. “If a tourist comes to Sarasota, they need to feel that Selby Gardens is a must-see destination,” says Rominiecki. “Part of that is giving everybody a reason to come, and these exhibits are a way to do that.”
Exhibiting an Impact
The living museum — featuring changing, interdisciplinary, artistic and cultural exhibitions tied to the gardens' plant collections — aims to both attract first time visitors and encourage repeat visits to Selby, which welcomed nearly 160,000 guests in 2015. “I never want to hear someone say, 'I've been to Selby; it's beautiful,' as if they don't need to go back,” says Rominiecki. “I think the onus is on us to create these happenings in order to give you reasons to keep coming back.”
The new model is also a chance for Selby to further diversify its revenue streams away from private fundraising, a big goal for a nonprofit. Selby had $4.25 million in 2013 revenues, down slightly from the previous year, according to the most recent public tax filings. It has nearly $12 million in assets.
“I expect this year to be very transformative financially for the institution,” says Rominiecki, named president and CEO in December 2014. “I think there's been a real shift with nonprofit organizations. Donors and investors want to know that institutions are doing everything they can to earn other sources of revenue in order to take the pressure off private fundraising.”
To further increase earned revenues, Selby Gardens recently partnered with Sarasota restaurant and caterer Michael's on East. The deal makes Michael's the exclusive food-service provider for weddings and other events at Selby Gardens and the Selby Cafe. Now a higher percentage of event revenues goes directly to Selby than it did before, when a variety of caterers were used. And Michael's on East handles all steps in the event process, from scheduling to menu planning.
“They're horticulturalists; they're not in the food business,” says Phil Mancini, co-proprietor of Michael's on East. “This takes the location out of the food-service business and lets them do what they do best. You're going to see this more and more.”
Mancini has already had experience with this, creating the Deep Sea Diner at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, now run by his brother. “Everybody is looking at these models and how important they are,” he says. “They're realizing that food-service operations are important to the future of the location.”
The partnership will also make possible an expansion of Selby's event space, scheduled to begin Aug 1. Plans call for doubling the indoor seating to up to 400 guests, boosting the outdoor patio size from 880 square feet to 2,400 square feet, remodeling the current kitchen and adding new restrooms. Michael's on East will pay for the majority of improvements, while Selby will chip in for updates that would have been necessary whether it was expanded or not.
Mancini, who proposed this kind of plan to the gardens about a decade ago, declined to disclose the cost of the project. Michael's on East also made investments in redoing the Selby Cafe, and has seen sales double there since it took it over in December.
“This is the one I've been waiting for 10 to 15 years,” he says. “I always said that if I was going to do another banquet space in Sarasota, it would be on the water. That's where the demand is.”
A New Way to Display
Selby owes its existence to its namesake, Marie Selby. The first woman to cross the country by car, she directed the landscaping plan for the property on Sarasota Bay, where she lived with her husband, Bill, beginning in the early 1920s.
Upon her death in 1971, she left the property to the community as a botanical garden “for the enjoyment of the general public.” A board of directors was appointed, which then consulted with the New York Botanical Garden and the University of Florida on a focus for the gardens. It was determined Selby Gardens should specialize in epiphytic plants, which would make it unique among the country's other botanical gardens. Marie Selby Botanical Gardens officially opened to the public on July 7, 1975. (Emily Walsh, a publisher of The Observer Media
Group, parent company of the Business Observer, is serving a two-year term as chairwoman of Selby's board.)
The current shift to the exhibition model is the result of a recent strategic planning process at Selby. Rominiecki's previous employer, the New York Botanical Garden, had success with a similar approach.
“A garden is ever-changing, and you have to really highlight that,” she says. “Many gardens are doing outdoor sculpture exhibits, because they don't have the facilities to do indoor ones. But we were primed for it right from the beginning, so I thought this was a perfect thing for us to explore.”
Selby Gardens has hosted art exhibits in its historic Payne Mansion since 1979, so it had an exhibit site already in place. It held a fundraising campaign to improve the mansion's climate control, lighting and security systems to better showcase high-quality artwork.
The gardens will start off its new model by showcasing rare botanical illustrations and preserved plant specimens from its own collection in “Selby's Secret Garden,” which opens Aug. 26. “We have rare botanical books and prints dating to the 1700s that have never been shown to the public before, and they're absolutely spectacular,” says Rominiecki.
Next February, it will unveil its most significant exhibit to date as part of a series sponsored by Sarasota philanthropists Jean and Alfred Goldstein. “Marc Chagall's Cote d'Azur: The Artist's Botanical Imagery and Inspiration Found on the French Riviera” will include as its centerpiece “The Lovers,” a circa-1937 oil painting by Chagall that will be on loan from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It will travel the 6,650 miles from Jerusalem to Sarasota with security guards and a licensed transporter.
“We're so excited about the fact that tens of thousands of people, if not more, will be able to experience this exhibit in a living garden,” says Howard Tevlowitz, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, the lead sponsor for the exhibit and an ongoing supporter of Selby Gardens. “They're going to be experiencing something many people have never experienced before — a piece of art coming to life in ways that not many people can do.”
Rominiecki hopes those exhibits are two of many more to come. “I think the community is really excited about Selby doing something new,” says Rominiecki, “and I think that there's a lot of momentum and energy.”
By the numbers
More than 20,000 plants, including 5,500 orchids and 3,500 bromeliads;
At least 12,500 live plants in 214 plant families;
About 111,000 dried and pressed specimens of tropical flora.
More than 124,000 books, periodicals, newsletters, botanical prints, drawings slide and digital images.
Source: Selby Gardens
Focus on Family
Selby Gardens has seen an uptick in memberships in recent years, and now has almost 11,000 members.
The addition of the Ann Goldstein Children's Rainforest Garden in November 2013 is a catalyst for the membership surge, especially for families. “We went from having almost no family members to more than 1,000 family member households,” says Selby President and CEO Jennifer Rominiecki. “So we have this really wonderful young family demographic that's new and thriving. It's really adding to the vitality of the organization.”
To keep the relationship strong with that group, Selby Gardens added events and programming, such as summer Splashing Saturdays and a Halloween “Spooktacular.”