Pulling off a high-profile event such as the annual First Lady’s Luncheon in Washington, D.C., is never going to be easy. Adding to the challenge, this year’s luncheon was scheduled for just two days after Mother’s Day.
One problem the lead designers did not have to solve, however, was getting a generous supply of quality floral product: from day one, the plan was to showcase American-grown flowers and greens. It was the fourth year that Certified American Grown, a coalition of U.S. flower farms across the country, had provided flowers for the luncheon.
“We tried to be accommodating to all the flower farmers who so generously donated to this event,” said lead designer Mary Kate Kinnane, owner of The Local Bouquet in Little Compton, Rhode Island, who managed the logistics along with co-lead Christi Lopez, AIFD, EMC, of Bergerons Flowers in Springfield, Virginia. “At the same time, we needed to achieve what the Congressional Club [which hosted the luncheon] had pegged as the theme.”
Since the chair of this year’s event, Jennifer Messer, wife of Rep. Luke Messer (R-6-Indiana), was from the Hoosier State, the chosen theme was the Indy 500. “My challenge was to take that theme and make it a little more feminine,” said Kinnane. All 144 tables in the ballroom were decked with linens in black and white checks. Popping against that background, table arrangements were filled with red and burgundy flowers.
Head tables featured flowers in a cascading grid with an ombré effect, from burgundy to blush to white. A similar effect was achieved with flower walls for photo ops. Add cocktail table designs and 1,200 boutonnieres for arriving guests, and the luncheon made use of about 22,000 stems — a record number for this event. Flowers and greens came from 20 farms (out of Certified American Grown’s 70 members so far).
Other donations included vases from Accent Décor, hardgoods and flower food from Smithers-Oasis, and transportation from DVFlora.
Planning for the luncheon started eight months in advance. Over that time Kinnane flew from Rhode Island to D.C. four times for in-person meetings with members of the planning committee. “When you’re talking about textures and flowers it’s important to meet in person; you can’t do that over email,” she said. After the first meeting, Kinnane drew up a wish list for growers, who were able to promise some items and requested substitutions on others.
For Kinnane and Lopez both, another thing that made this event different was working with a team of 30 volunteers, including both designers and support staff. “I don’t ever run a team that big in my own studio, so it was a bit of a learning curve,” Kinnane recalled.
The designers — who gave up their Mother’s Day weekends to volunteer — came from across the country and from different kinds of floral businesses. They sometimes brought their own way of doing things, Kinnane noted. “In a lot of situations, where there was a challenge, I left it up to them,” she said. “I tried to accommodate everybody’s opinion and experience when possible, and I think that’s what made the event so strong.”
Among the flower farms that contributed was Bloomia USA, a new member of Certified American Grown, located nearby in King George, Virginia. On June 1, Bloomia will host a Field to Vase dinner, one of several events sponsored by Certified American Grown throughout the country and throughout the year.
Why donate product at Mother’s Day, just when flowers are at a high level of market demand? It’s not about a branding opportunity for Bloomia, said farm manager and director Werner Jansen; it’s about the opportunity to support Certified American Grown at a high-profile event.
For the volunteer designers as well, a major takeaway was heightened awareness of the options available with American-grown flowers, said Lopez, who also volunteered last year and who will be next year’s lead designer. Last year, she met peony farmers from Alaska, who had joined up as volunteers. As a result, she actually went to Alaska to visit the farms.
“I ended up ordering peonies from Alaska all summer,” said Lopez. “When you get to see what goes into the flowers, from start to finish, that brings home the value.” It also gives you a story to share with customers, she added — “and a story sells better than any kind of marketing I know of. Those are the conversations that sell more flowers, and at the end of the day that’s what we want to do.”
Bruce Wright is a contributing writer for the Society of American Florists. All photos courtesy of Certified American Grown and Kirsten Smith Photography.