Here’s Looking Toward 2021 - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Here’s Looking Toward 2021

While none of us have a crystal ball handy, many lawn and landscape professionals are wondering what 2021 has in store. As we sit here on the cusp of a whole new year, it’s hard not to reflect upon 2020 and the unexpected twists and turns it took us on as an industry. Across the nation, landscape industry businesses were deemed “essential” and forged on, even as so many other industries had to slow operations or shut down entirely.

As Mark Hopkins, executive vice president of LandCare, which has 50 locations in 20 different states, put it: “Many of us came out largely unscathed. We were deemed ‘essential’ early on, and that continued throughout the height of the pandemic.”

Of course, that’s not to say that it was easy. Many companies had to swiftly adapt to new rules and regulations. Some in-office staffs were dramatically downsized, crews had to learn to social distance and adopt new policies and procedures in the field, and many had to overcome a steep learning curve of implementing new technologies in what felt like a “sink or swim” fashion.

But many businesses also reported to us that they have come out stronger on the other side. They now have new ways of doing business that they might not have adopted otherwise. The ingenuity of our industry carried many through months of state shutdowns and government mandates.

And now we have an entirely new year facing us — and we’re wondering what it holds. What topics, trends, and issues will carry into 2021 — and how will they impact our industry?

Although none of us could have predicted what 2020 held — and we certainly can’t be sure of everything that will happen in 2021 — thinking ahead and making some predictions can help us plan for the future.
That’s why we recently caught up with a number of NALP members to find out what’s on their best thoughts on the coming year.

Uncertainty Abounds in Some Markets

While many lawn and landscape companies continued with “business as usual,” for the most part, some markets were hit harder than others. Hopkins says that while some sectors were strengthened — the industrial market being one of them — others were hard hit. Hospitality and retail were particularly impacted by the pandemic.

Photo: LandCare

“It’s honestly hard to project how those sectors will fare as we enter 2021,” Hopkins says. “Until people are traveling, and shopping again, as opposed to doing so much from home, we could really see some continued impact there. But our business is changing and adapting to adjust.”

Michael Mayberry, chief technical officer (CTO) at Level Green Landscaping, which offers commercial landscape maintenance in the Washington, D.C. market, agrees the retail sector has been significantly impacted — and that has created the need for constant communication with those clients. That’s something he sees carrying into 2021.

“We are finding the need to continually have conversations with clients to make sure we understand their situation,” Mayberry explains. “We also need to make sure we are apprised of any changes that occur as quickly as possible. As we go into 2021, we’ll be continuing to stay on top of ways we need to adapt depending upon what’s happening with impacted sectors.”

As many businesses have found that they can still operate with employees working from home, the need for brick and mortar office space may also decline in the coming year, says Mayberry.

“We can’t ignore this trend for reduction in office space,” he says. “Businesses have realized that they don’t necessarily need people reporting to an office. Why should they spend overhead on a building when they’ve functioned remotely during the entire pandemic? For that reason, I do think there are uncertainties in the commercial segment we’re going to need to address. Many of us are treading water in those categories and waiting to see what will happen.”

Mayberry says that Level Green counts itself among the companies that have learned they can function remotely. Andy Blanchford, LIC, owner of Blanchford Landscape Group in Bozeman, Montana, adds it may impact his company’s plans, too.

“We are planning for a new facility in 2022, however, the pandemic has us rethinking the need for so much office space,” he says. “We will rely more on remote work in the future. I live in Japan and do my job remotely regardless of the pandemic. But the rest of my team is also more remote now.”

Outdoor Living Will Remain Hot

One thing that’s certain is that the residential market remains hot. With more people spending time at home, lawn and landscape professionals who work with residential clients anticipate that outdoor living trends will continue to thrive — and maybe even grow. People are caring more about creating “staycation” spots at home — and also are concerned with keeping their property neat and tidy.

Photo: Grassperson

Blanchford says that it was the company’s mission to get people outdoors to stay mentally and physically healthy before the COVID-19 pandemic. But he says the times are coinciding with the company’s objectives and he sees that carrying into the new year.

“I think the demand for spaces that people can spend time in outdoors will only grow in 2021,” says Blanchford. “Outdoor living is a way to safely connect with family and friends.”

Beyond the typical design/build trends that have been steady — such as outdoor living spaces with amenities like outdoor kitchens, landscape lighting, pavilions, and swimming pools — companies that perform maintenance are also seeing an uptick.

“People are home more,” says Bill Dysert, LIC, owner of Exscape Designs in Chesterland, Ohio. “They have their eyes on their yard more and that’s increased the maintenance opportunities for us. We have not always had their attention in the past when we’ve tried to sell those services. But now, they are more focused on what their property looks like. As we perform walkarounds, clients are a lot more engaged.”

Jack Moore, president and CEO of Grassperson Lawn Care & Landscape in Lewisville, Texas, reports similarities and also sees the trend continuing.

“Assuming the coronavirus continues until effective vaccines and treatments are invented and deployed, I believe that there will be a lot of people working from home,” says Moore. “I believe this will bode well for our industry. Many of us have seen an uptick in project work since more people are working from home and they have more time to notice various needs. They also want to enjoy their outdoor space since they are not going out as often.”

Moore says that some industry trends he’s seeing include more companies beginning to diversify their service offerings in order to grow their wallet share from existing clients.

“Many companies continue to downplay basic maintenance and focus on more profitable income streams such as irrigation repair, chemical lawn care, outdoor lighting, natural water features like ponds and waterfalls, enhancements like flower beds, privacy enhancements like the addition of trees and shrubs, and hardscape installations,” Moore says. “Another trend I’m seeing is the use of artificial turf in areas where there is a lot of pet pressure or sports use.”

Chris Lee, president of Earthworks, Inc., in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston markets, agrees that the synthetic turf is a big trend right now — and one that he doesn’t see going away. He says the company — which is 90 percent commercial work and 10 percent municipal — has installed around a half million dollars’ worth of artificial turf.

“Ten years ago, I never would have predicted we would be doing that,” Lee says. “But it’s come so far, and it looks so real. We’re seeing a lot of conversions to synthetic turf on urban sites that get a lot of foot traffic.”

Adopting New Technology Remains a Priority

One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies to do is adopt new technology. Level Green’s Mayberry says that even once COVID-19 is gone, they’ll keep technological changes in place that have made a lot of sense. Team members are learning to work from home and connect using platforms that allow them to hold virtual meetings. Mayberry says that’s improving efficiencies in a lot of ways.

Photo: Grassperson

“Technology has been a focus for lawn and landscape companies because of the ways they now have to communicate,” he says. “It will shape everything going forward. We’re learning to communicate constantly, quickly, and efficiently with clients and the expectations they now have about our responsiveness will not go away. I think the pressure is really going to be on companies who are not using technology to the fullest because it’s becoming status quo. If you want to be competitive, you’ll need to see where technology can be enhanced.”

Another technology trend that’s getting lots of buzz and that lawn and landscape business owners see growing in 2021 is the use of robotic mowers. Robotic mowing is a relatively new service for Blanchford Landscape Group but one that they plan to continue to promote in 2021.

“It’s a good fit for our fine gardening business as we would no longer have to use our highly skilled gardeners for lawn mowing,” Blanchford explains. “We could increase our capacity without more labor. We are considering going all in with a robotic mowing division — but will only do that if we can find the right person to take on that division.”

Mayberry says that Level Green’s mindset is similar.

“We’re exploring robotic mowing and will continue to do so in 2021 so that we do not have to rely on human labor as much,” he says. “Labor has always been a challenge in our industry, so the onset of robotic mowers makes a lot of sense. It won’t replace humans but instead will allow us to do more work with the amount of people we already have. We hope it will ease the stress and the pressure of the labor shortage — which we all feel. We are hopeful the future includes being able to take on more work with the same number of team members by integrating robots.”

Facing the Labor Shortage with H-2B Falling Short

Unfortunately, the NALP members we spoke to all see a trend of H-2B shortcomings following them into 2021 — and it has them worried.
“I believe we will continue to see labor-related issues even though there are a significant amount of people who are unemployed,” says Grassperson’s Moore. “The pending election is causing labor-related issues including the H-2B dilemma that many of us are dealing with.”

Dysert says that coming into 2020, H-2B was the company’s single largest issue. In losing the lottery, they lost 35 visas. That left the company with more than 50 percent fewer workers than usual — and a lot of really tough decisions.

“We had to decide whether we would stay the course and try to hire more people if we could, or if we would just pull back so we were certain we’d have the capacity to service our existing customers,” he shares. “We ended up doing the latter and it meant we’ll do a million less in revenue despite the fact that we are turning work away every single day.”

Dysert says this has caused his company to completely shift their marketing efforts to recruiting — something he’ll carry into 2021. He says that lawn and landscape businesses will need to remain focused on ways they can solve the labor crisis in order for the industry to forge ahead in the new year.

Facing 2021 with Cautious Optimism

At the end of the day, there’s no question that our industry is strong. That fact has been proven through recessions and now even a global pandemic. So, as we face 2021, many remain hopeful — perhaps cautiously optimistic, but mostly positive, nonetheless.

Photo: LandCare

“If I had to sum up our feelings, I’d say we’re upbeat and positive,” says Lee. “We expect things to remain mostly on par with where they are now. Though we are a commercial company and may face more challenges than some of the residential service companies, we still remain pretty optimistic about what the future holds. We’ll adapt where we need to.”

Hopkins says that in many ways the pandemic really has made their business better. It’s given LandCare the opportunity to evaluate partners, such as vendors, and determine who is best serving their business.

“Client expectations have increased more than ever so we’ve all been pretty ‘on’ 24/7, but we seem to be meeting those needs,” Hopkins says. “Yet, it’s interesting for us that we perform annual surveys and we’re seeing an improvement in customer satisfaction scores. You’d think that they would be worse right now when clients have their eyes trained on us with raised expectations and yet we’re meeting the challenge. So, we look forward to what 2021 holds.”

Dysert says that he’s looked at 2020 as a “reset opportunity.” It’s been a very tough year for Exscape with the loss of so many H-2B laborers, so Dysert is hoping to enter 2021 stronger than ever. He’s upgrading software, looking at ways to sell from the field, and finding opportunities to increase productivity. He says that the end goal is to provide the best-possible service to customers and knows that technology is a key part of the answer.

“We’re always looking at ways that we can improve but this has pushed us even harder,” Dysert says. “Because of it, we’ll start the new year even stronger.”

This article was published in the Nov/Dec issue of the magazine.