More and more, landscape and maintenance contractors are adding winter services to their offerings to keep them working during what is traditionally considered the off-season. Some of those services are a natural fit. Snow removal comes to mind as a logical extension of a service you are already providing. But there is another lucrative service that will help keep your business doors open year-round. Welcome to the world of holiday lights.

As people’s lives become more and more complicated, and they have less time on their hands, some traditions fall by the wayside. When it comes to decorating their house with Christmas lights, it is often something that’s put off to the last moment, if it’s done at all! It’s not that people don’t want their homes beautifully lit up for the holidays. It’s just too time consuming, and it really is a chore.

Photo courtesy: creative Decorating

All that climbing up ladders and stringing of lights, often in the bitter cold. It’s enough to discourage even the hardiest would-be Santa. That’s why homeowners are increasingly turning to companies that provide holiday decorating services. Stringing all those lights is something a lot of people just don’t want to do, yet the last thing they want is to be is the neighborhood Grinch with no holiday lights on their house.

“Christmas lighting is contagious. The more people decorate, the more likely others are to follow,” says Blake Smith, president of Christmas Decor, Inc. a Lubbock, Texas-based franchise company that teaches seasonal companies how to tap into this exploding market.

“As a landscape company for over 15 years, our growth was dependant on four things: keeping and recruiting key employees; growing our customer base; increasing sales to existing customers; and generating positive cash flows to support this growth. Holiday decorating greatly enhanced each of these areas.”

Photo courtesy: Creative Decorating

The holiday decorating season typically begins at the end of October, and can last through the end of January. But according to Smith it can expand into a 120-day season as you acquire enough regular clients.
The key to setting yourself apart is to provide professional grade lights, greenery and other specialized decorations that consumers can’t buy at “big box” stores. Besides installation, your service should also include takedown, and the offering of storage.

Because you already have a built-in customer base, it will not be difficult to cross-sell another high-end outdoor service. And holiday lighting displays are a great way for good seasonal companies to gain exposure. “We have had thousands of stories printed about Christmas Decor franchisees with much of the story focusing on their core business,” says Smith.

For some, holiday lighting has become their core business. Brad Finkle’s company, Creative Decorating in Omaha, Nebraska, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. In that time, the company has installed over 10 million Christmas lights on thousands of homes.

In just the Omaha area, Finkle says the holiday decoration business has grown from just a handful of companies in the 1980’s, to more than one hundred. And for him, it all began as just a hobby.

As a teenager, he began lighting his parent’s house for the fun of it. That display eventually grew to 10,000 lights and 100 lighted plastic figures. When a neighbor offered to pay Finkle to help decorate her home, Creative Decorating was born.

“Within a couple of years, all her friends were calling and asking if I would put up their lights. I started with a dozen homes,” says Finkle, “and it’s grown to over 200 homes and businesses.” Several city parks also use his service.

In fact, commercial properties can be quite profitable. Christmas Dcor’s largest commercial property to date was a shopping center that spent almost $200,000 for exterior dcor.

“Commercial customers look to enhance their businesses with well-done installations,” says Smith. “They want to increase their advertising exposure while many also see decorating as a community contribution.” He adds that $10,000 commercial jobs are commonplace, while the average residential order is $1,100.

The start-up costs to offering holiday lighting as an add-on service is pretty minimal, just a couple of lights and some ladders and you’re on your way. But you may want to make sure you know what you’re doing before hanging your first light, or those visions of sugar plum fairies and endless profits will turn into coal in your stockings.

Photo courtesy: Christmas Decor

If you decide to go the franchise route, companies such as Christmas Dcor will provide you with a full range of materials and support services. These include an intensive four-day training program, operational manuals, marketing materials, uniforms and more. A toll-free telephone support and dealer-to-dealer on-line communication rounds out the franchise package.

For the landscape contractor wanting to offer holiday lighting on his own to an existing customer base, but wants to make sure he gets right the first time, there are companies willing to offer their expertise.

Creative Decorating offers a full-line of how-to manuals, along with training videos, to help demonstrate all the tips and techniques used in decorating. Since repeat business depends on doing a good job right out of the gate, this might be a good way to get a better understanding of not just the mechanics of hanging lights, but the principals of design.

Another good source of information is light manufacturers. For example, Village Lighting Company in Centerfield, Utah, offers a contractor lighting kit that comes with a DVD-ROM explaining the ABCs of holiday lighting and design. Many distributors offer some form of training, including courses and reading material. A good seminar will cover marketing, installation, sales, electrical calculations, design layout, bidding, and estimating.

It’s also important to approach holiday lighting like you would any other aspect of your business, with an attention to detail and practicality. A properly planned project will increase profitability. A haphazard job will lead to a quick demise of your service. So before you even launch your service, experts recommend starting with a plan. Know what you hope to accomplish, be it just keeping your core employees busy during the winter, or the development of another serious profit center.

Although what you’re selling is a holiday lighting service, that doesn’t mean you wait until mid-October to begin. Experts stress it is never too early to begin marketing your service, spreading word among your clients as soon as spring cleanup begins. And it is imperative that you consider your equipment and supply needs well in advance. If you wait too long to long to start buying lights and other supplies, you may find out the hard way that there aren’t any left.

The old adage “you get what you pay for” also holds true with holiday lighting. Experts recommend that you always use quality products. Having to go back and service an installation repeatedly will quickly eat away your profits. Quality lights will stand up to inclement weather and hold up under repeated use.

You should also consider whether or not you want to sell the lights to your customers and/or lease them. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. Selling the lights frees you of dealing with them, other than when they are being installed. But they’re also out of your control. Depending on how they are stored by the homeowner, you won’t know what condition the lights will be in, until you go back to install them next season.

If you lease them, you’ll need to decide whether you will box up the decorations, and let the customer store them, or store them yourself. Before offering to store them, make sure you have enough storage space, and that the profits will justify the added expense of the labor costs associated with storage.

Photo courtesy: Creative Decorating

Knowing how to price the job is a key component to turning a profit, and of your company’s success. There are several methods to choose from including assigning a price-per-foot charge that takes into account materials and labor. You can also decide on a total price after determining what the job will entail. Regardless of what method you employ, make sure you consider factors such as the size of the project, the manpower needed, the degree of difficulty, along with whether the customer is buying or leasing the equipment.

If the homeowner is buying the lights, breakdown the cost of the materials, along with the cost of the installation and takedown. Come next year, he will only pay for the installation and takedown, but there’s probably a good chance he’ll buy more lights.

And we can’t stress enough the importance of knowing what you’re doing before you start. Holiday suppliers offer seminars on everything from design to installation, and all point in between. Take advantage of the collected knowledge that is available. After all, you are dealing with electricity. And electricity can be dangerous. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s very easy to overload a circuit. Make sure you look and see where the electrical outlets are located and how many there are, before you begin the installation. You can’t learn this business in just a day, so don’t even try.

But once you learn the do’s and don’ts of installation, and you start to perfect your technique, you can apply those principles to all your jobs. “The service can be ‘systematically’ delivered in a high quality manner,” says Smith, “because the same products and installation techniques are used over and over for different properties.”

“New holiday decor clients,” adds Smith, “are ideal targets for core business services.” By adding holiday lighting to your business offerings, not only will you avoid cutting down on your workforce or eating into hard earned profits through the winter months, but you will turn what was once an off-season cash drain into a holiday money maker that will ultimately increase your business year round.

And that will make every day seem like Christmas.