Holiday Lighting...The Gift That Keeps on Giving

In the holiday classic, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” Chevy Chase nearly pulls his hair out trying to get his Christmas lights to work. He grows so desperate for a solution that he winds up checking each individual bulb, one by one, for a short circuit. In the end, the entire fiasco comes down to a single indoor light switch. And when he flips that switch, the light display is so fantastic that it shuts down half the city’s power grid.

Most property owners aren’t overly anxious to recreate that scene. Although they love seeing their homes and businesses all lit up for the holidays, they’d rather hire a professional. That’s where you come in. With your expertise, holiday lighting can be the joy of your clients’ season, rather than the bane of it.

Anyone in the green industry who lives and works in cold-climate areas knows that winter is not easy. While everything else seems to be wet and white with snow, your income seems to run dry.

Of course, in the warmer climates, the holidays also come around and the demand for holiday lighting is just as strong, but the landscape business slows down a little. During those slow winter months, holiday lighting might be just the revenue stream you’re looking for.

That stream could become a mighty river, awash with torrents of cash. When Waco, Texas-based landscape-contracting-firm-turned-holiday lighting giant Christmas Décor started offering holiday lighting, annual business went from $250,000 to more than $1 million in five years. “For us, one crew member produces, on average, $800 of revenue a day doing Christmas lighting work,” said Brandon Stephens, Christmas Décor’s president. “We see extremely high net margins, around 34 percent.”

To jump-start your new business, just look to your existing client base; it’s a rich source of familiar customers. Offer holiday lighting in addition to your conventional landscape services, which usually taper off in the fall anyway. Since you’ve already established rapport with your clients, they’ll likely hop right on board, especially if they’re tired of dealing with all the wires and ladders themselves.

New clients are equally important. But don’t look at them as strictly holiday or seasonal business. Although the initial hire is for holiday lighting, there’s no reason you can’t transition them into your regular schedule come spring. Use this opportunity to show off your talent and expertise. Then, when the snow melts and the lights go dark, let them know about all of the other services that you provide. Why not make their landscape experience seamless, with just one company for the job, all year ’round?

“You may sell a customer on a $1,500 lighting job, but then you can later sell them other services,” said Stephens. “The cross-selling of core business customers to holiday customers is about 25 percent of the opportunity.”

It’s also an opportunity to keep more employees through the winter, a season infamous for its layoffs. “Our enhancements crews work all the way through the new year,” says Daniel Gerdes, project manager at Chicago, Illinois-based Christy Webber Landscapes. “A lot of our other crews are laid off by Thanksgiving Day. Putting up holiday lights gives those crews a month and a half of extra work that our other crews don’t get.”

This can stabilize business, ease the difficulties of starting up again in the spring and improve overall employee morale. Back when his company was doing landscape contracts, Blake Smith improved upon the idea of selling holiday lighting when he founded Christmas Décor in 1986.

The stability of the holiday lighting service allowed him to retain his best employees, and hire good ones that had been laid off by other companies. “The feedback we get from our employees is that they enjoy the change of pace,” said Stephens. “They like being kept on year ’round.”

Best of all for conventional landscape companies, most of the infrastructure is already in place. The resources needed to install holiday lights, such as crews, ladders, trucks and tools, are already there.

“We didn’t have to buy any special equipment, except for extension cords and timers, when we started doing holiday lighting,” said Jim Berns, president and founder of Warren, Michigan-based Berns Landscaping Services, Inc. “Those all stay with the client once they buy the lights. All of our horticultural teams already have ladders.”

There was one tool that Berns’ lighting crew improvised. “We bought some long-handled pool skimmers, took the nets off the ends, and converted them to hooks. We can hang lights 20 feet up or more with one of those.”

This isn’t to say that holiday lighting lacks pitfalls. Unpredictable and harsh winter weather can interrupt work and cut into profits. Employee safety is also a huge concern when it comes to working on rooftops that colder, snowier weather can make slippery. “You’re putting a lot of people on ladders and everyone’s minds have to be on the right avenue for safety,” said Arnie Arsenault, owner of A. Arsenault and Sons, Inc., a landscape company that does holiday lighting in Spencer, Massachusetts.

It’s also a business that requires solid planning and determined effort to get right. The holiday lighting season is fully underway by October, even though most people don’t think about it until around Thanksgiving. And since it only comes around once a year, employees need to get back up to speed. Arsenault says all his holiday lighting workers, even the seasoned ones, go through a two-day retraining course at the start of every season.

Work has to be lined up right away to ensure the service is profitable. Getting holiday lighting customers can take time, particularly when it comes to commercial establishments. “With a larger company, you may find that you are approached and start the process months and months in advance, but they won’t get back to you until fall is starting,” said Arsenault. He’s had instances where large companies started the process as far in advance as the previous January.

Starting early is important from an equipment standpoint as well. Contractors need to at least have a general idea of how much business they will be doing that season. That way, they can stockpile the appropriate amount of lights and decorations. Driving to all the local supply stores on a cold winter night quest for contractor-grade lights is not a fun situation to be in. And it won’t look very professional if the customer notices it, either. Also, don’t forget that lighting distributors charge premiums the closer it gets to the holidays.

When it comes to the actual lights of the holiday lighting business, most contractors favor LEDs over incandescent bulbs, although some still use both. LEDs are much more durable, while using 80 to 90 percent less power. That efficiency can really pay off, for you and your customers. Use the lower power bill as a selling point. Not only will LEDs cost less, but the lower power draw makes it less likely that your lights will trip a circuit breaker.

“If you’re using incandescent lights, and you don’t know what you’re doing, it could become an absolute nightmare when something doesn’t work,” says Stephen Lisk, president and CEO of Stephen Lisk Landscape Management in Mt. Ephraim, New Jersey. “Sometimes you just can’t figure out what the problem is. You can waste a lot of time taking the lights apart and switching them around.”

Nevertheless, some customers will insist on using old-school incandescents, so it’s advisable to have some handy. Whatever type of lights you use, they should be contractorgrade. Cheap big-box store lights burn out easily and will cost money in service calls to replace them. Test all your lights before you install them. Setting up a whole display, only to realize afterwards that a light or strand of light is not functioning will also increase labor costs.

Sometimes a customer may have certain old favorite light strings that he’ll insist on using. But in general, you should avoid using lights that the customer already owns; odds are they’re not contractor-grade. And they’re probably not LEDs, either.

A better business strategy is to sell (or lease) the customer a new set of lights, and offer to store them for him post-season. That way, you’ll know they’ve been maintained properly, not just thrown in a box or chewed by someone’s dog. (Storing the lights also guarantees repeat business.)

“It just makes it so much easier when we go out to a job,” says Berns. “We’re not waiting around for a customer to get home, or worrying about him possibly misplacing or losing some of the items.”

Variables like the age of the lights and how the wires were maintained can create liabilities for your crews. “It’s not worth it,” Arsenault said. “You could expect your crew to be at a jobsite for two hours, but with a customer’s lights, it could be four. It’s just unreliable.”

Don’t forget basic safety considerations. If you’re going to have your people climbing on high ladders or using aerial lifts, give your insurance agent a jingle first. You may not be covered for such things, and a personal-injury lawsuit makes a nasty holiday gift.

Keep track of the total number of amperes you’re drawing. This is a common mistake people make when using LED strings. Yes, LEDs draw less current, so you can use more strings end-to-end, but don’t exceed the safe number of amps coming out of any one outlet.

And whatever you do, don’t plug incandescent strings into LED strings. The voltages are completely different. The same is true of strands of different-sized LED bulbs, so don’t mix minis with C7s or C9s, for instance. Keep like with like, mind the totals, and you’ll be okay.

Price carefully, too. Holiday lighting is typically a full-service business. A customer doesn’t want, and shouldn’t have to do anything more than write a check. If there are any difficulties or callbacks on a job, that cost will come out of your pocket. If a customer calls about burned-out bulbs, someone will have to be sent out to fix it for free, even if it’s just one. A buffer should be built into your pricing so that such complications don’t eat up all the profits.

There’s also the option of buying into a franchise. Big ones, such as Christmas Décor, have large support staffs and training programs to help their franchisees navigate the industry. “We have a five-day training class for the landscapers who we bring into our franchise,” Stephens said. “We have all sorts of field training available at our facility.”

“We do dozens and dozens of webinars every year,” he adds. “We have support reps assigned to different areas of the country. Our job is to make sure our franchisees have access to the information resources they need to do their jobs. They can come back and redo the training course, or come to our conference every year, where they can exchange experiences and information.”

Next winter, if you’re stuck feeling empty-handed, and perhaps a little frostbitten, maybe it’s time to “see the light.” Adding holiday lighting to your menu of services might be just the thing to keep your bottom line shining bright all year long. Give it some thought. It just might provide the jolt your business has been needing.