Blooming Proteas: A Look Into Maui Floral
My recent trip to Maui was a very exciting one. One of the reasons it was so fruitful was that I met up with Carver Wilson and learned more about Maui Floral. His story and the success of his protea business are fascinating and gave me great insight into Hawaiian floriculture, the rise of proteas, and much more.
Maui Floral and Entering the Floral Industry
Carver has been in the floral industry and, specifically, the protea industry for more than 45 years. He originally came to Maui fresh out of college to look for a business opportunity in uncertain economic times. Little did he know that he would fall in love with proteas and Hawaii and grow a successful flower business.
Along with his friends, Carver started Maui Floral in 1974. It seemed like the perfect opportunity since flowers bloomed at a different time in California and they could grow flowers when others didn’t have any. With the help of some angel investors, Carver delved headfirst into Maui Floral and is proud to call it his only job to date.
Today, Maui Floral is the largest and one of the oldest protea farms in Hawaii. It’s located in Kula, Maui, at about 3500 ft. With cooler temperatures and ideal growing conditions, it’s a great place for a floral business. Carver and his people grow several hundreds of thousands of stems every year and distribute them all over the United States and the world. Thirty acres of the 50-acre farm consists of production, but Carver has another farm that’s about 8 x 8 acres. Maui Florals is known for high-quality proteas, including pincushion proteas and King Protea.
Protea Growth in Hawaii
Maui Floral first got its plants from the Howard Asper Jr. Green Valley nursery in Escondido. They were originally from South Africa, and they grew up in California because of the similar climate. The hybridization program at the University of Hawaii helped a great deal and resulted in pincushion proteas – these special flowers are now a signature of Hawaii. This was done with macadamia nut hybrids with the help of Phil Parven and is unique to Hawaii.
It's also important to note that there weren’t that many protea growers when Maui Floral first started. However, once commercial production started in Hawaii, it bloomed. That being said, it thinned out again because of processing and shipping difficulties. This was before FedEx and direct mainland flights, which made transportation challenges.
Since proteas are becoming more popular and there’s renewed interest in them, we’re seeing smaller growers in Maui. This sudden mainstream popularity wasn’t expected 20 years ago, but now, King Protea is a favorite at weddings.
While Maui Floral focuses on protea, Hawaii is known for other tropical blooms, including orchids, heliconias, and anthuriums. Many of these beautiful blooms are now being imported from Thailand, but leis and tropical flowers continue to be Hawaii’s most prominent flowers.
The Impact of COVID-19
Like other businesses, Maui Floral and the floral industry in Hawaii were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cancellations started coming in the day after Valentine’s Day. By March 22nd, Maui Floral had to let most of its employees go. The flights to the mainland were cancelled, weddings were called off, and no tourists wanted to visit.
Carver and Maureen continued working on the business but had to scale back from 35 people to four people. Eventually, business picked back up, but it was slow, and there was still a significant reduction.
COVID-19 resulted in weddings being cancelled and hotels and restaurants being closed, which took away a significant proportion of business as well. The entire island suffered the highest unemployment rate in the nation. This is especially dire since most people in Hawaii have two jobs.
However, interestingly enough, the need for connection grew, and Maui Floral started seeing a boost in its consumer sales channel. Gift box sales soared, and everyone was sending their friends and family gift boxes. Despite business lagging, gift box sales saved the company. This, in combination with marketing and a new website, helped raise demand and redefined Maui Floral’s presence.
Challenges of Running a Floral Business on an Island
While Hawaii brags about beauty and ideal growing conditions, it’s not without its challenges. One of the biggest challenges faced by Maui Floral is being such a remote destination. While the island is large, has many tourists, and is part of the U.S., it’s still further than other locations. That being said, since Hawaii is only five hours from the mainland via jet and there are plenty of planes going to the mainland, transportation has drastically improved.
When Maui Floral first started, transportation was a big challenge. Now, there’s a lot of trade because of frequent flights and more options for transportation.
Embracing Digital Marketing and SEO
One thing I find especially interesting is Carver’s explanation of how digital marketing, social media marketing, and SEO transformed his business. Despite being old-school, he has embraced this new concept. While his primary demographic is older, Carver realizes the importance of reaching out and marketing to the younger generation. Many people still place orders via call, but Maui Floral has adapted and invested in digital marketing with the internet taking over and becoming ever-present. Carver states that embracing technological innovations has propelled growth and made Maui Floral easier to find.
In the past, proteas weren’t as popular. Marketing also helped with that. Maui Floral’s link to consumers has always been essential but investing in websites and connecting more with their customers has been game-changing for them. This has become even more relevant with the success of gift boxes. With customers who have been loyal for 25 years and continue to support them, establishing a connection becomes even more important.
Connection With Customers and Nature
In addition to connecting with customers, Carver notes that customers connect with nature more than they used to. They’re also connecting to Maui and Hawaii and trying to make memories. In sending flowers, they’re connecting with their friends and family. So many life events are marked by flowers, making them an especially poignant gift.
History of Proteas
I also had a fascinating discussion with Carver about the history of proteas. The old flower has a fascinating history that goes back to Pangea. They’re native to South Africa, but they’re now grown all over the world, including Australia, Chile, and more. The King Protea is the national flower of South Africa and has always been cherished.
One of the most fascinating things about proteas is that they weren’t cultivated until recently. Since they weren’t a part of mainstream floriculture, they were always gathered, and not cultivated. Growers were never sure if they ever would become mainstream, but today, they’re more popular than ever before.
When I asked Carver about his thoughts on how proteas went mainstream, I got a fascinating insight into their popularity. He said that they exploded in Southern California in bouquets at supermarkets. Since they were also shipped directly from California to stores and supermarkets, they were also more accessible. They also became popular in Holland and made an appearance at Aalsmeer. From then on, they’ve been flourishing.
The flowers are so extraordinarily beautiful that this isn’t shocking. Most people haven’t seen flowers like proteas, making them novel and exciting. Today, Maui Floral ships proteas all over the nation and worldwide. Since they’re grown all over the world, the opportunities are limitless. Even countries like Australia, China, Spain, Peru, Portugal, and Tenerife grow them.
Other Uses of Proteas and Looking Towards the Future
It seems that the hype surrounding proteas isn’t going to die anytime soon. In the meantime, despite their popularity as flowers, they may even have additional uses such as medicinal or food sources. They’re excellent for nectar for birds but could be expanded and become even more popular.
It seems that the future for proteas is bright as far as the eye can see!