Wilting under the strain
TO THE UNTRAINED eye, flower arrangements may simply look like a bunch of pretty flowers thrown together. However, there is much more to this art form than is evident at first sight.
Aspiring florists in the Tonie Yuen Professional Floristry Programme have to spend almost a year, or about 120 hours of course work, learning the basics.
The students also learn the commercial aspects of the trade, including buying and selling, marking up fresh flower prices, promotion and advertising.
At the start of a term, owner and instructor Tonie Yuen makes a point of telling her students that becoming a florist is not just about having a flair for flowers.
At the end of the day, floristry was a business and even florists had to draw a line between loving flowers and making a profit, she said.
For budding florists who do not want to take a complete course, there are many alternatives. These include a range of shorter courses offered by the Hong Kong Academy of Flower Arrangement.
The academy gives students an opportunity to specialise in areas such as European flower arrangements or bridal bouquets and wedding flowers.
The craft demands time and patience, whether one wants to become a fully fledged florist or just explore the art of floristry as a hobby.
Ms Yuen said not enough people seemed to understand this point, and many took the stereotypical Hong Kong 'get rich quick' attitude to the courses, which was threatening to bring down the quality of the city's florists.
'I have often been asked by people what the fastest way to make money is, or if I could shorten my course and just teach them a few basic elements of floral arrangements,' she said.
'The problem with people in Hong Kong is that they are too focused on making quick money. There is no such thing as a shortcut if you want to uphold a high professional standard.'
The issue is further compounded by the fact that the industry, which is notorious for hard work and long hours that often demand huge personal sacrifices, is failing to attract fresh recruits.
'We do want to train young people but there just aren't any who are interested,' said Oswald Chan, owner of the Oscar Floral Workshop in Harbour City. 'Young people are all just focusing on making money and wanting to become CEOs.'
The manpower shortage, coupled with demanding consumers in a crowded market, has changed the industry beyond recognition. This is a stark contrast to its position in the booming 1980s.
When marketing director of the Peninsula Flower Shop, Sue Lynn Woo, first joined the business 12 years ago, clients would just specify the colours of flowers they wanted and give the florist a free hand with the designs.
But those days are over. With a tighter economy and a tougher business environment, consumers have become much more price conscious.
Surviving as a florist had become much harder in the past few years, Ms Woo said.
That is why florists need to offer something extra to win the price war. For the Peninsula Flower Shop, that something is its unique creativity.
'We have decided it is not worth competing on price. So we have focused on offering cutting-edge designs,' Ms Woo said.
She said a florist's role had changed significantly. Florists could no longer just focus on flowers. For instance, the evolution of the internet had prompted florists to pick up new skills beyond their own craft. They needed to be computer-savvy to manage the store's website.
They also had to be more customer focused, possess good telephone manners and have an ability to understand what customers wanted, she said.
Although times are tough for florists, it is encouraging to see the proliferation of professional floristry courses. With a qualification in hand, aspiring florists can join a flower shop with relative ease.
Also, there is a clearer career path for them to pursue as compared to the earlier batch of florists who mostly learnt their craft as apprentices at an early age.
The challenge for the industry lay in the ability of florists to create cutting-edge designs that were also commercially viable, Ms Woo said.
'There is more to the profession than just a bunch of flowers,' she said. 'Otherwise what would be the difference between consumers buying flowers from a florist or a supermarket?'
Plants whose life cycle lasts one year, from seed to flower to seed
Plants offered for sale which have had all the soil removed from their roots
Nursery grown plants suitable for growing in beds
The art of growing carefully trained dwarf plants in containers
A flower with many overlapping petals, which gives it a full appearance