Exploring Powell Gardens | Embracing the Spirit of Place

Cliff Callis and Tabitha Schmidt's headshots in circles with green border on top of a green field. OUTdrive episode 57: Exploring Powell Gardens | Embracing the Spirit of Place across the bottom in white text. Available on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

OUTdrive Episode 57 with Tabitha Schmidt

Nature is part of what makes rural Missouri so special, and few people know that as well as Tabitha Schmidt, this week’s guest on OUTdrive. As Executive Director and President of Powell Gardens, she gets to help showcase the beauty of nature year-round. Powell Gardens, a nearly 1,000 acre botanical garden in Johnson County Missouri, offers visitors the chance to appreciate nature through its beautifully kept gardens, hiking trails, lake, architecture, and yearly events.

Keep reading to get a behind-the-scenes look at the hard work and planning that goes into maintaining and improving every aspect of the Gardens.

Making Progress with Marketing

Powell Gardens has been operating for 33 years and has expanded its offerings in the last five years with Tabitha in the lead role. Of course, marketing has been an important factor for the success of the Gardens. Tabitha explained the traditional marketing strategies she and her team employ, as well as others that set them apart.

Last year, Powell Gardens was able to expand its marketing efforts through a professional branding program, resulting in a greater focus on paid social media promotion and partnerships, including the addition of seasonal artwork throughout the park.

“We assessed how we were communicating with people in the right way. We’ve shifted our strategy and we do a lot of paid social media and work with a lot of influencers. Reach is really important and our partners are very important.”

Those partners include several prominent organizations in the Kansas City art scene, including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, whose works have inspired displays at the Gardens, and the Kansas City ballet. These partnerships tie in with Tabitha’s background in art and solidify the park’s reputation as being a work of art in its own right. Additionally, Tabitha says these art partnerships are helpful because they bring in their own audiences, increasing the interest in and name recognition of Powell Gardens.

Expanding Success with Sponsorships

Aside from maintaining the gardens, Tabitha said the main focus for the staff is “activation” of the gardens, or, “what are we doing with them?” She said education is a main effort of the staff, which is accomplished in part through the seasonal festivals, and partnerships.

Area businesses can contact Powell Gardens to become partners or sponsors and can enjoy name recognition and exclusive benefits for employees. Tabitha said the park also has a business membership program in the works. She stressed the importance of sponsorships to nonprofits and welcomes any business to contact the park if they are interested in giving their support.

Managing through COVID-19

Of course, 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic brought its own challenges, but Powell Gardens was able to survive and thrive, thanks to Tabitha’s leadership and some reimagined ideas.

Powell Gardens was growing before the pandemic hit, and despite a short closure that spring, Tabitha knew she wanted to keep that progress moving forward. She said, “A garden doesn’t care that there’s a pandemic,” so all staff members were kept on to maintain the grounds.

When the park was able to open again in the summer, it saw record numbers of attendees at the yearly Butterfly Festival. Over 16,000 people attended over the course of the festival, which was the most in the past five years. This trend continued with the winter’s Festival of Lights, which saw over 60,000 attendees in total, more than three times the total from the previous year.

These numbers were made possible by the park’s safety measures, including limiting numbers by utilizing advanced ticketing. Tabitha said the park would keep the advanced ticketing system in place even now that operations are mostly back to normal.

The Importance of Leadership

Part of the park’s success through the pandemic and over the last five years is a result of Tabitha’s leadership. “I’m pretty driven, I get my mind fixed on something and I’ve got to get it done,” she said.

Aside from her main duties of problem-solving, working with the Board of Directors and senior leadership, and being a community liaison, she sometimes gets out in the gardens and gets her hands dirty during the park’s all-staff workdays, where everyone can work together on large projects around the gardens.

Powell Gardens has also been able to expand its offerings under Tabitha’s leadership. In her second year as Executive Director, the park implemented its first Festival of Lights in the winter. The staff built the festival from scratch, which she said is one of her favorite memories from working at the Gardens. She gave much of the credit for the festival to her staff. “This place is full of can-do spirit,” she said.

Now, the staff is planning two more seasonal festivals for the fall and spring to round out the year and is working to increase the park’s food, beverage and retail offerings. Additionally, the park has seen several cosmetic improvements over the past few years, including a redesigned front entrance and repaving several of the interior roads. The park is also enjoying the benefits of increased partnerships and attendance. Tabitha said, “I love imagining and envisioning something and watching it come to life… that’s what I see myself doing in my role.”

Showcasing the Beauty of Rural America

Located 20 minutes east of Lee’s Summit, Powell Gardens is surrounded by farmland, and Tabitha and the park staff know the value of rural America. Tabitha grew up in the small town of Chilhowee, Missouri, just 30 minutes from Powell Gardens, so she has a personal appreciation for living in a rural area.

“I feel very blessed to have grown up in rural America. At the time you’re not sure, when you’re a kid you might sometimes wonder, you might want to go off and do other things, but I find myself drawn back to more space, more nature. In rural America, there’s room to breathe.

Tabitha said Powell Gardens is special because of its location since the views and experiences it offers can’t be found in an urban setting like Kansas City.

“This is an expansive prairie garden with vistas and lakes and meadows and hills, it’s the kind of landscape you see in a rural setting, it’s not something you see in an urban setting. We know for a fact people are coming to get away, they want a break, they want to breathe, they want a connection to the earth and to nature, and they find it here,” she says.

Tabitha described Powell Gardens as being about “people, place, and plants,” which led Cliff to add one more to the list – paradise.

Check out this episode of OUTdrive to hear Cliff and Tabitha talk about the importance of nature in rural Missouri and the responsibility that comes with showcasing it to the public. If you’re ready to plan your visit to the Gardens, visit powellgardens.org and get ready to embrace the spirit of place.