But with this magic, in many parts of the country, comes cold weather. Snow begins to cover turf, ponds are frozen over and landscape contractors shut down for the season. If you’re a small businessman, how can you generate some revenue during the winter months? Such was Kevin Lipscomb’s predicament 12 But with this magic, in many parts of the country, comes cold weather. Snow begins to cover turf, ponds are frozen over and landscape contractors shut down for the season. If you’re a small businessman, how can you generate some revenue during the winter months? Such was Kevin Lipscomb’s predicament 12years ago. His San Antonio-based lawn maintenance company, Outdoor Decor Inc., had no money coming in and he was practically broke. Still, it was the holidays, so he and his wife tried to make the best of it. They were watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation one night when he was struck by a moment of inspiration.
“We were laughing at the scene where Chevy Chase comes out with that big web of Christmas lights and he’s sitting there trying to untangle them,” says Lipscomb. “My wife turned to me and said, ‘Hey, you ought to try doing something like that.’
”Not only did Lipscomb start untangling lights—he went about installing them. By November of the following year, he was putting holiday lights on his clients’ rooflines and around their trees. In the subsequent years, he had developed enough business that he found himself starting the installations as early as September. Each consecutive season, Lipscomb’s business grew. Today, he has a nice business and his profits have risen to five times what they were 12 years ago. Once strictly a lawn maintenance company, Outdoor Decor now specializes in outdoor lighting.
“There’s always been the guy doing the lights for shopping centers and malls and stuff like that, but back then, no one was offering that service to the residential market,” says Lipscomb. “It was completely untapped. I saw a great opportunity there.”
At around the same time, Lipscomb’s friend and fellow landscape contractor, Blake Smith—who is now the president of Christmas Decor and Nite Time Decor in Lubbock, Texas—had the same idea. “I’d tried several things to keep work steady during the winter,” says Smith. “Firewood, Christmas trees, snow removal, fall cleanups
. . . I tried everything to not lose my staff. I remember I started having a few customers come up to me and say, ‘We’re short on lights; can you come and put some up for us?’ Well, that’s what I started doing.” For landscape contractors, catering to the holiday sentiment can be a life-saver. It’s a practical way to keep your business steady and your crew on board, and, it seems, more and more contractors are catching on.
“The addition of holiday lighting has added sales at the time of the year when we’re unable to use these crews for any other landscape work,” says Mark Borst, president of Borst Landscape and Design, Allendale, New Jersey. “It basically has extended our season to generate additional revenues.“
Now’s the time
With gas and energy prices spiraling and less consumerism this year as a result, are people really willing to spend their extra bucks this holiday season to turn their households into light shows?
“I’ve been in this business for more than 20 years,” says Smith, “and one thing I always see a major shift in is when we get into tough economic times, I’d see my landscape business suffer. But I never really saw that in the Christmas season. That’s the time people say, ‘You know what? It’s the holidays!’ That’s when they let their hair down.”
In fact, you might have an advantage over other industries this season; airlines can expect to take a financial beating as the cost of travelling goes up, but as more people stay home this holiday season, businesses that offer lighting services should see an increase in revenue.
“I don’t want to say we’re in a recession-proof industry,” says Scott Heese, president of Holiday Bright Lights in Omaha, Nebraska. “But we find that when people stay home over the holidays instead of traveling, they’ll spend their extra money decorating their homes with lights.”
Installing holiday lights isn’t as difficult as it might seem. You already have the trucks and the personnel. With some training, you should be ready to venture into holiday lighting installation.
Companies that sell holiday lights and distributors offer courses aimed at educating contractors in holiday lighting installation. These cover the steps behind installation, take-down, storage, bidding and estimating, software, and some might even include onsite field work.
Classes can also be taken online, but perhaps the most practical way to keep your crews up-to-date on the techniques of installing holiday lighting, year after year, is to purchase an instructional DVD. “Our DVDs are the same as the classes we offer,” says Brad Finkle, owner of Creative Decorating in Omaha, Nebraska. “You can keep them and every year, prior to the season, review them with your employees.”
For Borst Landscape and Design, the transition into holiday lighting installations not only came easy, it felt like the next logical step. “It wasn’t necessary to convince Mark (Borst) to get involved in lighting,” says Gail Tunis, who joined the firm eight years ago as a garden designer. “He wanted something to keep his crews busy during that time period. With holiday lights, the demand was definitely there.”
“The property owner has less time these days and is looking for somebody else to handle putting up and taking down the lights,” says Tunis. “Also, a lot of these clients are getting older, so they can’t climb up in trees, but they do have the income to spend and that’s where we come in.”
How to market
The first year Steve Walker began offering holiday lighting services through his Denver, Colorado-based company Back Yard Plus, he barely broke even. It was in the years that followed when he started to make a profit. “It was about what we expected that first year,” says Walker. “Most training manuals will pretty much tell you the same thing. Our attitude was, ‘Well we’ll be in it for the long haul.’ Now we see about a 20% growth each year.”
The key to building your new-found holiday lighting service is to start with your existing client base, as Walker found out. Marketing is as easy as picking up the phone and calling your clients, or you might also try mailing them flyers early in the year. Offering discounts to your longtime customers is a great way to sell your lighting services as well as strengthen existing relationships.
Even if many of them say no, all you need is that first batch of installations. Once a light display is up, it will advertise for you. Don’t be surprised to receive calls from your clients’ neighbors, asking you to jazz up their households even brighter so they can be the top dog of holiday spirit on their block. Software is another handy marketing tool. There are numerous programs available now that allow you to create elaborate lighting designs with the point-and-click of a mouse.
Try taking a digital photograph of a nearby commercial property in August, well before the lighting season starts. With design software, you can build a virtual light display on top of the photograph. You can then print it and show it to the property owner. If he sees how wonderful his property looks on paper, there’s a good chance he’ll be enthused to see how magnificent it can look in reality.
When to say no
The beauty of installing holiday lighting is that it is a 100-day business (mid-October to mid-January). In this time frame, when your landscape business begins to slow, you can generate additional revenues with margins of approximately 40%. Holiday light installation can indeed be a practical and profitable way to stay busy during the winter.
As you grow this segment, it is wise to begin installations to your repeat clients in September. This will allow you to promote to other customers as it gets closer to the holidays, and you will still have open time to do their installations. Weather conditions are a crucial factor in determining the efficacy of a lighting service. Snow and ice can make for very difficult, not to mention unsafe, work conditions, and the last thing a contractor needs is one of his crew getting injured.
Knowing what kinds of jobs you’re signing up for is of the utmost importance. “You will burn yourself into the ground if you take on a whole bunch of $500 jobs,” says J. Jared Hendricks, director of marketing at Village Lighting, West Valley, Utah. “If you try to be the cheapest man on campus and promote to these people, you’re not going to make it, but if you have a clientele that allows you to spend money in maintenance, you’re much better off because you know they have the budget and you’re more liable to bring a profit.” It pays to take into account the budget your potential client has to work with.
There are all sorts of styles that can be dabbled with when it comes to holiday lights. You can have a variety of color or you can keep it simple and stick with a classic yellow-white color. Lights can spiral down trees, hang randomly in shrubs or wrap around branches. Residents can go all out and install their own projectors, such as those offered by Bliss Lights, and cover their yards in a swarming nimbus of stars and rays of rock-star light. And as we’re seeing with such projectors and LEDs, the more technology pushes lighting further into the 21st century, the more it is an art form.
“Establish a brand that plays up your creativity,” says Smith. “If you’re artistic with it, then there’s a whole different perception of what your services are. If you know the system, your clients will think you’re a Picasso.”