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How the RHS overcame Covid-19 to create first online-only Chelsea Flower Show in just eight weeks

The technology and digital teams at The Royal Horticultural Society discuss the work that went on behind the scenes to transform the Chelsea Flower Show into a virtual event with just weeks to plan

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How the Chelsea Flower Show blossomed as an online-only event

For five days each May, the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, London, play host to one of the most notable and well-attended gardening events in the world, the Chelsea Flower Show.

The annual event, organised by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gardening charity, is used by exhibitors to showcase new plants and the latest thinking in garden design, as part of the RHS’s aim to get more people across the UK into gardening as a pastime.

This year’s show was set to run for five days from 18 May 2020 as normal, with many of its exhibitors already prepped and raring to go when the government declared the UK would be going into lockdown to halt the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

As a result, along with countless other outdoor events and mass gatherings across the world, this year’s Chelsea Flower Show was cancelled. This might have been for understandable reasons, but that did not make the decision any less disappointing or upsetting.

“It’s the high point of our gardening year, and when we announced that we’d cancelled the show, it left a big hole,” Matt Rooke, digitech director of the RHS, tells Computer Weekly.

“Not just in our world, but in many people’s worlds as far as planning and preparation goes – the designers, the show’s team, the exhibitors, the nurseries growing the plants, many of whom will have been working towards this year’s show for more than a year,” he says.

“The show’s cancellation created a huge gap, and meant lots of exhibitors found themselves with a whole load of plants they were growing, but nowhere to show them.”

Around this time, the RHS started tentatively contacting exhibitors about the possibility of trying to plug the gap left by the cancellation of the physical show in a way that would not risk devaluing the event, and would be possible to achieve in just eight weeks.

“We were inundated with responses from people wanting to get involved in something different, which created more of a challenge for us because we had to try to dilute down [the essence of the show] into something within a timeframe feasible for us to achieve,” adds Rooke.

Filling the gap

The most logical way forward would be to create a virtual event, the RHS decided, and when it went public with its plans it found itself inundated with offers to help from across the technology community.

As appreciated as those offers were, one thing Rooke and the wider IT team at the RHS were keen to ensure was that any technology used to bring the show to life would not risk overshadowing the efforts of its exhibitors or their plants.

“We made two very important decisions early on,” says Rooke. “The first one was that we did not want to simply replace the real show with a virtual one, because it wouldn’t live up to expectations. There’s nothing like smelling, seeing and touching the real plants.

“We also didn’t want the technology to outshine the plants either, because we wanted the plants and the people [presenting them] to be the heroes of this show. So, from a technology perspective, it was very important for us to keep things simple.”

“We did not want to simply replace the real show with a virtual one because it wouldn’t live up to expectations, and we didn’t want the technology to outshine the plants because we wanted the plants and the people [presenting them] to be the heroes of this show”
Matt Rooke, RHS

Particularly as the RHS was also, for Covid-19-related reasons, in the process of furloughing staff, and had the additional challenge of ensuring its business continuity needs could be met with a reduced workforce, while also hosting a virtual event for the first time.

“Not only were we dealing with something that we’ve never had to do before, but we were doing it virtually ourselves as we weren’t able to meet and discuss what we needed to do and whiteboard it, as we were having to do all those meetings virtually,” adds Rooke.

Therefore, the priority for Dimitri van Kakum, head of IT at the RHS, was to make full use of the infrastructure stack the organisation already had in place, while ensuring it had capacity to cope with the surge in visitors the virtual show would likely bring to the RHS website.

“We didn’t really have the time to put any other infrastructure in place, so we had to make do with what we had and make sure the current infrastructure was ready to handle the load that could possibly hit it,” van Kakum tells Computer Weekly.

The start of the lockdown period had conspired to dramatically inflate the volume of visitor traffic to the RHS website on an everyday basis, as interest in gardening increased across the UK now that the populace were largely confined to their homes.

So much so, the amount of traffic the website was receiving at this time was on a par with what the RHS would usually receive during the course of the Chelsea Flower Show under normal circumstances.

“We knew the actual general run rate [of traffic] during the weeks before was at normal Chelsea Flower Show levels because everybody was gardening in lockdown, and [to cope with that] we would need to prepare for that a couple of weeks in advance in a normal year,” says RHS account manager Kevin Murphy, whose company Iomart has provided hosting capabilities to the RHS for the past eight years.

“We just had to work together to try to achieve a [capacity] level that we felt comfortable with, and that was an enjoyable part of the project,” he says.

Iomart specifically provides the RHS with access to a highly available virtual environment with no single point of failure that can be scaled on demand, and features a separate private cloud deployment that can be used for production purposes.

“We didn’t have knowledge of the numbers that we needed to test against, and it was pretty much all three teams – from Iomart, RHS digital and RHS on the IT side – just really pushing [the infrastructure] to the limits and working collaboratively to test it, day after day,” adds Murphy.

The last two weeks in the lead-up to the show were spent rigorously testing its infrastructure for signs of weakness, as the three teams worked to ensure its website could handle up to 30,000 concurrent users on the site at any one time.

A near-live experience to protect the website

To help keep traffic levels manageable, the RHS also opted to make the virtual Chelsea Flower Show a near-live experience, says Rooke.

“We didn’t want to take the risk that we would go live and something goes wrong, for one thing, [but we also] didn’t want to release content on a timed basis because you’re leaving yourself open to getting real spikes [in traffic] at certain times, which might not always be convenient to the user either,” he adds.

“What we agreed early on was that we would work on a daily schedule, and [the content] would be posted sometime in the early hours of the morning, so people could engage when it was convenient to them. And that helped us to have a lot more control over the site performance.”

This cautious and careful approach paid off, with the first day of the virtual Chelsea Flower Show – on Monday 18 May – turning out to be the busiest day the RHS had ever experienced on its website.

“The previous year, we had 276,000 unique visitors to the website on one day – and that was to the whole site, not just to the Chelsea Flower Show pages,” says Rooke. “On Monday 18 May, we had 470,000 website visitors, and 40% of those were looking at content from the virtual Chelsea Flower Show.”

During the course of the show, the number of concurrent users on the site was also consistently higher than the previous year, he adds.

“Throughout [the show] numbers were spread more evenly throughout the day, and we were generally finding ourselves averaging 5,000 concurrent users, peaking at between 7,500 and 8,000 users,” he says.

“We didn’t hit the 10,000 mark that we did the previous year, but [back then it was] bubbling around 3,000 [throughout the day] and spiking at 10,000, so we were at a significantly higher usage rate on a continuous basis throughout the show in 2020.”

Some may call into question the decision to overprovision the infrastructure so that it could cope with 30,000 concurrent visitors when – in reality – it only hit 8,000, but Rooke says under-provisioning was a risk that was just not worth taking.  

“That’s just good planning, and the point was that even though we didn’t get anywhere near that number, the show was still an incredible success. Overall, to the show itself, we’ve had over half a million unique visitors to the virtual Chelsea pages, when, in a typical year when the physical show is running, we’d probably get about 250,000 to 300,000. And then 160,000 visitors to the show itself,” he says.

“Virtual Chelsea on its own exceeded anything that we’ve had with a real show and a website supporting it in the past, and that’s something we’re all so incredibly proud of.”

Looking ahead to a post-Covid Chelsea Flower Show

The success of this year’s unexpected and last-minute foray into virtual programming will leave a lasting impact on how future editions of the Chelsea Flower Show are conducted, with Rooke predicting that future events will provide visitors with more supplementary online content than before.

“We’ve learnt so much in terms of how we can complement the show better and the sorts of things our visitors want to engage with in a virtual word to support that reality,” he says.

“Quite a few people have contacted me to say how much they enjoyed the show online. They would never go to the show, whether they could afford a ticket or not, or they don’t want the busyness, but this gave them a taste of what it was like”
Dimitri van Kakum, RHS

“It’s not so much just about seeing the gardens themselves, but it’s getting in touch with the emotional side of gardening through talking to the nursery people and the designers and bringing more of their personality to that virtual space.

“[Visitors] have just loved watching and listening to people talking passionately about gardening, and we haven’t had that so much online in the past, so I think that’s something we’ll definitely change. But it’s important to stress that the real show will still be the hero,” he adds.

What this exercise has shown is the potential to vastly expand the number of people who can interact with the show, even if they cannot physically attend, given that the showground itself has a maximum capacity of 160,000 people.

The RHS’s own data from this year’s event suggests the age range of people interacting with the show has widened as a result of its move online, with a much larger proportion of people in the 21- to 34-year-old age category getting involved this year.

“Quite a few people have contacted me to say how much they enjoyed the show now it was online. They would never go to the show, whether they could afford a ticket or not, or they don’t want the busyness, but this gave them a taste of what it was like,” says Van Kakum.  

“So I think we will be looking at using the technology to enhance the experience, not to replace it. The plants, the gardens and the people who have the passion to create the gardens – we just want to use technology to enhance that more.” 

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