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What It Takes to Win

Landscape awards give you more than a plaque and a sense of pride. A win provides an exceptional marketing tool that can launch your company far ahead of the competition.
By Sally Benson


They must be doing something right.

Outdoor Craftsmen, a residential design/build firm located in Boulder County, Colorado, was established by Scott Deemer a little more than eight years ago. But in that relatively short span of time, the company has received 23 awards in the Excellence in Landscape Awards program sponsored by the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado (ALCC). In the most recent program - projects submitted in 2012 and awards granted earlier this year - the company was honored six times, four of which were Grand Awards.

"Our business model is one of high-quality workmanship and great service," Deemer says. "Even through the economic downturn, I've been able to sustain - and even grow - my company due to that commitment.



Attention to detail-a must in any project, whether design/build or maintenance- garnered Coast Landscape Company a First Place award in the Small Commercial Maintenance category in California's Trophy Awards.

"I have used that [awards] program as part of our overall business model," he continues. "We try to represent ourselves as leaders in the industry, of the highest quality and caliber of workmanship. And being recipients of multiple awards over the years is validation that that's part of our standard."



Outdoor Craftsmen, Boulder, Colo., was recognized twice in ALCC's Excellence in Landscape Awards program for work on this residence, receiving an Award of Excellence in the Design/Build category, and a Grand Award in the Wall Construction category.
Photos courtesy of Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado/ Outdoor Craftsmen

What's in it for you?

You do your best work regardless of the prospect of an award, so why should you enter the competition? In a word - recognition. Sure, your efforts will be applauded by your industry peers, but recognition goes well beyond handshakes and plaques. As with the experience of Scott Deemer's Outdoor Craftsmen, awards programs can help build your business by providing an impressive - and reasonably priced - marketing tool.

Denver-area landscape and garden designer Jocelyn Chilvers heartily agrees. She has been involved with ALCC's awards program for more than 10 years and has served as a judge for the competition. She encourages companies to participate in their state programs for three reasons, chief among them the outstanding exposure a winning company receives in addition to a certificate or trophy - and the respect of their peers.

"We [ALCC] have good marketing alliances with publications," she explains. "The winning entries are often featured in the local newspapers, the statewide home and décor magazines, and they're featured on our website. So [award winners] get a lot of free publicity. For their entry fee, they're getting big-time free exposure for their company."

Second, there's the hiring edge an award gives you. "Winning encourages new employees, those who'd like to say they work for an award-winning company," Chilvers says. With labor being at a premium, attracting the right staff gives you a head start on the competition. "This is always an advantage," she adds.

Third, winning feels good. "It helps considerably with employee morale," Chilvers points out, "especially when your employees can take ownership in projects" that are singled out for excellence. And when one's work is recognized, it's simply human nature to strive for more.

Deemer says that his current marketing program is "sophisticated enough that we don't have to rely on" the association's promotional efforts on behalf of Excellence in Landscape Awards winners. However, he points out, "Smaller companies actually need it. They need that kind of external support. I needed it early on in my business, but I quickly grew and it allowed me to be more self-reliant. Being recognized for that quality workmanship is something that allowed me to promote my company as being a step above."

In Michigan, the state's Nursery & Landscape Association provides what awards program coordinator Kelley Mireles calls "double exposure. The association promotes winning projects across the state, both to the industry and to the general gardening public. We provide great exposure to consumers at home and garden shows."

But Michiganders are not relying solely on the association's efforts; winners are taking full advantage of social media for that extra marketing boost. Within just a few days of notification, Mireles says, she's seen news of winning projects on the individual companies' websites and on Facebook. "Winners are posting pictures of themselves receiving their awards," she says, "usually within three days - sometimes sooner."



This historic Colorado home, built in 1899, was in need of restoration and upgrading true to the original design and elegance of the era. A new front porch and terraced entrance planters were approved by the Boulder Historical Society and blend seamlessly into the original architecture. Salvaged materials were sourced to match the existing as closely as possible, a modern irrigation system was installed, and hardy plant material was selected-winning Outdoor Craftsmen an Award of Excellence.

Seeing it from both sides

Lebo Newman has a unique perspective on landscape awards: As a partner in two landscape companies that provide services in Nevada and Northern California - Signature Landscapes and Coast Landscape Management - he's been the recipient of several awards. And as a member of the California Landscape Contractors Association, he's served as a judge for the group's awards programs, both at the chapter and state levels.

Regarding his awards, Newman says, "We absolutely use [an award] as a marketing tool. We look at it as an honor bestowed by our peers. The judges are always peers in our industry, so they know the industry. If our competition is going to deem us worthy of an award, that speaks highly of our work. We feel that if we prove ourselves with that group, then it's an excellent verification of what we're trying to do."

Newman also incorporates the companies' awards in employee training programs. "We use it as encouragement and training for our employees," he explains. "Training employees what quality is, showing them how to achieve it, having an outside person recognize their work as excellent" helps to grow a loyal staff dedicated to doing their best.

Sitting on the other side of the judges' table has helped Newman focus on what it takes to win, and he offers the following advice to contractors who may not be convinced: "Think of it as an investment in your future," he says. "It's an investment in a marketing plan that will reap tenfold what it cost to put in. The returns are easily tenfold.

"It's not easy," he continues. "It can be heartbreaking; it can be a lot of work. But if you achieve the goal of winning awards and use that to promote yourself, then it pays for itself."

Remember, Newman says, "in any awards program, God is in the details." Each program has many different categories, but "definitely, the difference is in the details. There can't be any 'back 40' in an awards submission. There needs to be the same, consistent quality throughout the entire project."

But not everyone can win - that's the nature of competition. "If you don't win," Newman urges, "keep trying, keep improving. Yes, it can be frustrating, but it's a matter of raising the bar. Losing is another benchmark: What did we not achieve? What did we not do right? Let's learn from that; let's improve that within the company, improve training and do it right the next time. It allows you to know where you're at, and you can continue to grow."

Newman feels so strongly in the value of landscape award programs that he says, "It's empty promotion for someone to say they're a professional without having awards behind them. If you choose not to enter, you're hiding out. You're confirming that you're not as good as you say you are."



Exceptional work at a unique property garnered Outdoor Craftsmen two Grand Awards-one for water features and one in the design/build category of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado's Excellence in Landscape Awards program.

How do you win?

So, you've decided to take the plunge. The logical first step is to review your state association's guidelines, then comb through your stellar installations and winnow down the candidates. But how do you know which to submit? What are the judges looking for?

"There are four big components to a winning installation," Chilvers states, "and these things have nothing to do with budgets."

First, Chilvers explains, "we look for a challenging site. There should a physical or some other constraint, such as limited access, working within a historic district or working with a difficult property owner." On the other hand, she adds, "a willing property owner, someone who is open to new and unusual ideas, someone who's not chasing the Joneses and has respect for the creative process," can make a big difference.

Enter to win

Despite a struggling economy, it appears that activity in many awards programs has been picking up. Ben Bolusky, chief executive officer of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA), says, "Last year, we were really happy with the number of entries, particularly because landscaping has been significantly down in the past couple of years. And we're hopeful for at least the same level of interest - or more so - this year."

FNGLA had put its program on hiatus for a while, but retooled and brought it back a couple of years ago. "We try to keep it as easy as possible," for companies to enter their best work, Bolusky says. "For example, we eliminated the dollar thresholds, so that each entry is judged on its own merits, not in comparison to others. [Within each category], it doesn't matter if it's a $5,000 or a $500,000 project."

Farther north, entries to the Michigan Nursery & Landscape Association's Industry Awards Program also have increased. According to program coordinator Kelley Mireles, "We sent a postcard and a newly redesigned brochure to the past seven years' worth of applicants, and we've had great response." And Mireles says she'd like to emphasize that a large budget needn't be the determining factor - either in entering or in winning: "We'd like to encourage small-budget projects; you don't have to have a quarter-million-adollar budget to be a winner."

The MNLA's seven-page brochure, which can be easily downloaded in pdf form from the association's website (www.mnla.org/mnla_industry_awards)



For its work at Broadstone Sterling Village in Vallejo, Calif., Coast Landscape Company received a First Place award in the Apartment Grounds Maintenance category of the California Landscape Contractors Association's Trophy Awards.

Chilvers says judges also look for "really great design with a 'wow' factor, perhaps innovative use of hardscape materials combined with great use of plants." As a judge, she adds, "it's really frustrating to see people enter a landscape program with a landscape that doesn't have any plants. There needs to be a creative balance between hardscape and plants."

Next, judges look for "great craftsmanship. The devil's in the details," Chilvers says. "When the professional who takes pride in their work really does things correctly and with beautiful technique, it shows. That's part of being an award winner."

Last, the project entered "should be at least three to five years old," Chilvers urges. "Judges need to see the plants have grown, and they've had ongoing maintenance." A brand new installation won't display the maturity that a winning landscape requires. "Enter the project at the peak of its appearance," she advises.

Ben Bolusky, chief executive officer of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA), also offers some tips to submitting a winning entry. "Submit a series of photos, before and after - and especially focus on the middle, the process," he says. That way, "the judges will have a full sense of what was really involved in making that site pop.

"Emphasize what was unusual or particularly challenging about the project," he continues. "Highlight what was unexpected and how you resolved that, or how you worked around it or made it work. As much as the visuals are important, taking the judges on the journey from beginning to end, highlighting those unexpected challenges, is just as important."

In Florida, Bolusky says, "bold, colorful, vibrant, striking projects" grab the judges' attention, but it's important that projects "reflect the lifestyle and wishes of the client. There are some clients who want landscapes that are peaceful and relaxing. Prove to the judges that you've listened to the client."

Receiving an award for your landscape work can multiply the positive exposure your company deserves and provide a marketing tool like no other. But like any competition, you must enter to win. What have you got to lose?

Sally Benson is editorial director for American Nurseryman; she can be reached at sbenson@mooserivermedia.com.