Shine in the offseason with holiday lighting

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

Hanging holiday lights is harder than it looks but can be well worth the effort if done right.

Photo: Village Lighting

Whether your client is a minimalist who just wants a few warm white lights or a crazy Clark Griswold-type who wants to push the city’s power grid to its limits, most people would agree that it just isn’t the holidays without holiday lights. All those primary colors, blinking stars and dripping icicles festooning homes, city streets and businesses are as much a part of this time of year as frosted cookies or massive credit-card debt.

There’s money to be made helping homeowners, businesses and municipalities decorate for the holiday season. You may have heard about how profitable this service can be, and because of that, you are considering adding it to your company’s menu. Yes, it can be very lucrative, but you should know that it isn’t all candy canes and tinsel. There are some very important things you should know first.

Photo: Christmas Decor of Oakville

“People say, ‘How difficult can it be to hang Christmas lights?’” says Jim Mink, owner of Christmas Decor by Shining Nights and Precision Sprinklers and Outdoor Lighting LLC, Butler, New Jersey. “They’ll say, ‘I did it for my dad. I do it at my house.’” But that is not the same as doing it professionally and doing it right, he says. “That can be very difficult.”

Ed Rogers, co-owner of Holiday Decorating of New Jersey and Wetscape in Marlboro, agrees with that sentiment. “In my irrigation company, if I make a mistake on an installation in April, I can correct it in May. But the holiday season comes and goes quickly, and everything has to be perfect. Make no mistake about it, this isn’t an easy business. The conditions are challenging; you’re up on roofs and ladders on days when it’s really cold.”

And even though the sturdiness of LEDs has reduced the number of service calls, there will still be some. Customers want an immediate response if something burns out or breaks.

Should you go for it?

Not scared off yet? Good — because there are lots of great reasons for green industry contractors to get involved with holiday lighting. You already have the personnel and most, if not all, the equipment you’ll need to start doing it. And you already have a base of customers to draw on — yours.

Potential clients include the folks who are getting too old to climb ladders anymore but still want a festive-looking home for the season and the too-busy parents who don’t want to disappoint the kiddos. It’s a luxury service that people are willing to shell out good money for, yet is still within the means of middle-class folks. And yes — you can make a lot of money doing it.

No question about it, this sector is booming. “I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’m still seeing a 40% increase every year,” says Mike Marlow, vice president of Holiday Bright Lights, Omaha, Nebraska. “A lot of landscape companies are getting into it and starting to learn how to do the business correctly. You start by marketing to your existing client base and build from there.”

Photo: Village Lighting

He says that if anybody jumps into this game, they should at minimum have 25 to 35 jobs the first year. And if they’re pricing things correctly, they should be seeing margins as high as 40%.

“This is a premium, elective, white-glove experience and people are willing to pay for it,” says Brandon Stephens, president of the Decor Group, parent company of Christmas Decor, Irving, Texas. “Our franchisees are netting margins in the mid-to-upper 30s.”

Don McQueen is founder of Christmas Decor of Oakville, Ontario. He also owns an irrigation and lawn care business. “We were one of the first five companies in Canada to sign up with the franchise back in 1998. From there, it’s just been onwards and upwards.” His holiday operation is now “about 45% of our business — the same as our irrigation operation. If we stopped doing holiday lights today, we’d lose a sizable chunk of our overall revenue.”

Tony Fisher is general manager of landscape maintenance for Senske Lawn and Tree Care, Kennewick, Washington, a branch of Senske Services, a company that does lawn care, pest control, grounds maintenance and holiday lights in four states: Idaho, Nevada, Washington and Utah. The average spend for Senske’s residential clients is about $1,000 and for commercial ones, around $3,000. “Some of our commercial sites have gone as high as $100,000,” says Fisher.

Contractors who mine their existing client bases to find holiday lighting customers often find that business flows both ways. I asked Fisher if Senske’s holiday customers ever sign up for the company’s landscape services. “They absolutely do,” says Fisher. And McQueen adds, “Once we get a holiday client on board, then we’ll talk to them about the other things we do.”

More than one way to work it

Typically, contractors put up the lights, service them and take them down after the holidays are over. Some sell light strings to customers, others lease them. Contractors who have the space store the lights for customers as a courtesy that also helps the contractor. Strings that aren’t stored in someone’s garage or basement won’t be put up next year by someone else.

One way to get up and running fast is to sign up with a franchisor. Christmas Decor works on that model; for a fee and 5% of your earnings, you get a great deal of training and support. The company outlines exactly how to run every aspect of the business, giving you a blueprint for success — all you have to do is follow it, says Stephens. The company has five full days of initial training, plus additional online and video learning and technical support.

Photo: Holiday Decorating of New Jersey

The formula has worked for Mink and McQueen, evidenced by the fact that both have stayed with the company for two decades. “They gave us great training and came up here to Canada to do it,” says McQueen. Christmas Decor set him up with direct mail marketing materials, flyers and brochures and showed him how to sell to his core customers and upscale homeowners. “And it just took off,” he says.

Companies like Village Lighting, West Valley, Utah, and Holiday Bright Lights aren’t franchisors, they’re product-based companies. But that doesn’t mean they leave you on your own to sink or swim. Rogers is relatively new to this game, having just started working with HBL last year.

“I went to a two-day seminar that they put on and got a good base of knowledge from that,” he says.
“My sales rep provided my team with on-site training and endless phone support. They did much more than just supply materials, they really helped me develop my business.”

Mitch Hendricks, Village Lighting’s vice president says, “We’ve been doing this forever and ever, so we’ve got a lot of training resources, manuals and books to help contractors.”

Sam Willmering owns Maverick Landscape and Design LLC in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He says Village Lighting has been extremely helpful all along, and still is. “They gave me a manual that explained exactly how to do everything. And any time I have a question I can always get Mitch on the phone.”

Lighting up homes and faces

People don’t generally burst into tears after you’ve spread fertilizer or fixed a sprinkler for them, but they often sob with happiness when they see how you’ve lit up their home the way Gramps used to. The emotions and memories holiday lights evoke make this an especially satisfying business. “The biggest thrill is when the young children see it the first night,” says Jim Mink, owner of Christmas Decor by Precision Sprinklers and Outdoor Lighting LLC, Butler, New Jersey.

All of the contractors in this story do pro bono work for deployed service members’ families, veterans and others. “We always give back to families with sick children and soldiers,” says Mink.

Every one of Senske Services’ locations in Idaho, Nevada, Washington, and Utah has a Decorated Soldier program. “The husband or wife is deployed overseas, and the family doesn’t have the time nor the means to decorate, so we do it for them for free,” explains Tony Fisher, general manager of landscape maintenance at Senske’s Kennewick, Washington branch.

“We’ve had some emotional times with several of those clients — they’re so grateful to us for bringing some brightness into what’s not a great time for them,” Fisher says. The company’s branches also decorate local Ronald McDonald Houses for free.


A good employee retention strategy

Many green industry contractors add holiday decorating as a way of keeping their best employees working in the offseason and hopefully keep them around for spring. That was Mink’s motivation. “We have an irrigation company and our guys have to be good mechanics,” he says. “When we have them, we like to keep them around. A few of my guys have been with me for 15 years plus because they know they can work all year.”

When it’s a lawn care-based business that kind of longevity can be a struggle. Just ask McQueen. “Our original business that we started in 1993 was centered on lawn care. In 1998, we had one set of workers April 1, totally different people on May 1 and a whole new group again on June 1.”

Photo: Holiday Decorating of New Jersey

He realized then that he needed to offer year-round employment if he wanted to keep good people. Holiday lighting solved that problem.

Rogers had a similar goal behind his foray into holiday lighting — keeping the employees of his irrigation and pavement maintenance operations around through the winter.

“Recruiting help is nearly impossible, so keeping help became the priority. Even if I do nothing more than break even doing holiday lights, I’ll still consider it successful because it means I can keep my key people,” he says.

Safety, insurance and fear of heights

Before you get into holiday decorating, it’s a good idea to call your insurance broker. Your existing policy may not cover you for work on high ladders, cherry pickers or rooftops.

Rogers set up a separate company and tax ID number for his holiday lighting operation to shield himself and his other companies from any negative consequences.

Mink had to purchase additional liability insurance for his holiday lighting operation. “We do things the way OSHA asks us to,” he says. “We have all the proper safety gear for our guys, like the type of shoes they’re supposed to wear on roofs.”

Photo: Christmas Decor of Oakville

Though your employees may be thrilled to have winter work, don’t expect all of them to be Sherpas, eager to scramble up on roofs. “We respect people’s fears,” says McQueen. “I’m afraid of heights myself, so I can empathize. People who are afraid, we’ll pair with someone who isn’t. One person can be working on the ground while the other is up on the roof.”

Electrical safety can’t be neglected either, even though it’s become easier to achieve with the advent of LEDs for both landscape and holiday lighting. “LEDs are much more forgiving in terms of voltage, and it’s harder to get overloads,” says Mink. “But you still can’t be sloppy.”

Incandescent lights are pretty much dead these days, and that’s a good thing; LEDs are brighter, last longer and require fewer service calls. “In 2008 we transitioned completely to LEDs,” says Fisher. “We have a handful of long-term clients that still put up incandescents, but we don’t offer them to new customers anymore.”

A short window

Holiday lighting is an intense business; everything happens just before and during the six weeks of the holiday season. The more clients you install, the earlier you’ll have to start and the more crews you must run. Most clients want their lights up by Thanksgiving. “The window is so short that people have to be very organized and on their game,” says Hendricks. “They have to be good at training employees in how to do things and have everything dialed in.”

Fisher says Senske’s holiday lighting division decorates for about 1,800 clients every winter. Last year that effort involved 36 crews of two people each, three for larger jobs.

“When we start depends on what city we’re working out of,” says Fisher. “In Utah, it snows a lot, so we’ll go ahead and start those in September. In the Washington tri-cities market, we won’t start until the first part of October to mid-October.”

We’re going to let Hendricks answer the question we posed at the start of this article: Should you go for it? “If you’re doing it because you think it’s a business that you can make some money in, then yes. But don’t do holiday lights just because you think it’s going to be fun — even though everybody in this business has a passion for it. That’s why we’re here.”

Installing holiday lighting could become your passion as well, as it has for many contractors before you. Why don’t you try it and see?

The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at maryvillano@igin.com.

The lowdown on the latest

RGB stands for red, green, blue, the three primary colors from whence all others come. It’s the technology that allows LEDs to change color, something that was never possible with incandescent bulbs. It’s a hot trend in both landscape and holiday lighting.

When holiday lighting company leaders say “RGB,” they’re referring to the systems that have Bluetooth capability and app-driven smartphone controls that allow a home or business owner to easily change a display’s colors, animation and other effects. All the major holiday decorating companies have versions of it.

Mike Marlow, vice president of Holiday Bright Lights, Omaha, Nebraska, remarked “Everyone in the industry had been afraid of RGB” because it was new technology that required more training. It was also, and still is, a bit on the expensive side for the average homeowner.

But Marlow sees a big future for it. “RGB is going to be the new trend for commercial projects. A lot of decorators want to work with more business and city accounts and there are more requests for that every year.” He adds that while many holiday decorators will stay with residential work, putting up standard C9 strings, installing RGB “will take a holiday decorating company and make it stand out.”

“We’re getting a lot more requests for our RGB lighting that can change colors,” says Brandon Stephens, president of The Décor Group, Irving, Texas, parent company of Christmas Décor. “People are also looking for high impact photo-op pieces along with new technology.”

The company has also seen a lot of movement on the commercial side with large display pieces. “To compete with online shopping, traditional retailers are providing spectacles to bring people out and keep them engaged. It’s new territory for us. We’re bringing in a product line made in Greece with some pretty wild stuff, like a 10-foot-tall 3D snowflake and a 16-foot-tall ornament that has benches so you can sit inside it.”

Holiday Bright Lights has become a major distributor of products from Twinkly, a division of Ledworks SRI, Milan, Italy. “There are only three Twinkly distributors in the United States and we’re one of them, so that’s a big deal for us,” says Marlow. He explains that “Twinkly Pro, their contractor grade lights, use RGB technology to create lots of motion and other effects all run by phone app. That company has taken RGB and made it into more of a simple process.”

“We’re putting a major focus on inserting some of that technology into our wire-frame products,” continues Marlow. “We have a light set that can do 3D mapping — you can use your phone to plot out the position of every light that will be wrapped around a tree, actually draw lines on the tree using the phone.”

Village Lighting, West Valley, Utah, debuted Lightstream Pioneers, an RGB retrofitting product, last year. “We hit the market with it in a few key areas and it did really well,” says Vice President Mitch Hendricks. “This year we’re going to hit it hard, shooting lots of videos, creating marketing and doing events and trainings to get contractors excited about it.”

This product lets you reuse existing wire. Say a client has had incandescent C7s for the last 20 years. You simply take the old C7 bulbs out, put the new LEDs in their place, and plug it all into a controller that communicates with an app, and voila! The client can use his smartphone to change colors and patterns and create different schedules.

The company has also implemented a new database and merged it with its online sales. “It’s a lot more automated and has a lot more options for our customers to get freight quotes, all kinds of things,” says Hendricks. “It’s also more efficient on the back end assisting with getting shipments out faster.”