‘Tis the season—or it soon will be—when some landscape businesses go into hibernation. While once upon a time, there was more than enough revenue generated during the typical landscape season to sustain a company through the winter, with the slower economy many business owners have found that they can no longer afford to act like a bear when the weather turns cold. As the ground hardens and ponds freeze over, landscape contractors today are looking to find ways to keep their doors open, maintain a steady cash flow and avoid having to temporarily lay off valuable crew members who may not return in the spring.
Keith Rosser, owner of Landscape Lighting Pro of Utah, Sandy, Utah, was worried about these very challenges, when one day the proverbial light bulb went off over his head. And that bulb was attached to a string of holiday lights.
“I’ve been in business for more than 15 years, and I was just getting tired of having to lay off employees and then re-hire them again every year. So, in 2003, I started offering holiday lighting services. Now, my crews are working twelve hours a day, six days a week, installing lights from November 1 through December 10. Then we take a little break, and start working from January 2 until everything is taken down and stored. The new service definitely keeps us busy throughout what used to be typically slow months.”
Not only are the work crews busy longer, the profit margin on holiday lights has enabled Rosser’s company to remain solvent during what used to be their annual downtime.
For landscape contractors, the transition into holiday lighting is a fairly easy one. Ladders, trucks and other tools needed for installation are a landscape company’s staple, and finding holiday lighting customers is as simple as checking your database.
“If you’re a well-established landscape contractor, you already have a built-in client list, so you’re not going to have to spend a lot of time trying to drum up new clients,” says Mark Borst, president of Borst Landscape and Design in Allendale, New Jersey.
“I’d say that about 90 percent of our holiday lighting clients were landscape maintenance clients first.”
Introducing an additional service to existing clients begins as soon as the ghosts and jack-o-lanterns have been dispersed. For the staff at Top of the Peak Landscaping in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the day after Halloween, they begin calling everyone on their list, thanking them for their business and offering them their holiday lighting installation service. Well before that, however, the crews have been preparing to make the transition from landscape maintenance to holiday lighting.
“At the end of the season, as soon as we’re done trimming and cleaning-up, we immediately switch gears,” says Brandon Stegman, general manager. “My landscape crews load their trucks and trailers with ladders and lights, and they turn into my holiday lighting installation crews. We utilize the same employees to provide multiple services to both our residential and commercial clients.”
Part of those multiple services includes some marketing and promotion. Stegman’s crews in the field are required to put out five flyers for every install they do. “Our business has increased every year, in spite of the roller coaster ride of the economy,” said Stegman. “Every time we install holiday lights on one home, we usually end up with at least two new clients along the way.”
For some landscape contractors, holiday lighting may be a new concept, but Tom Snider knew the value of lights from the start. In 1999, he founded Snider Brothers Lighting and Landscape in Aurora, Colorado, with the intent of providing holiday and festive lighting to his clients, in addition to their landscape services. “We thought about doing snow removal service, but that’s a precarious endeavor. With lights, it doesn’t matter what the weather is, there is always work since. Over time, strings of holiday lights began appearing along rafters, roof lines, and porch railings of homes and businesses nationwide, and a new lighting market was born.
A number of years ago, it seemed that the preference for holiday lighting was turning to clear or white bulbs, instead of the traditional colored lights. Brandon Stephens of Christmas Decor in Lubbock, Texas, says that his clients like the clean, classy look of clear lights. However, recently, he’s been seeing a move back to colored bulbs. So he’s been putting more color into his lighting designs by adding strands of red or green patterns for the roof lines and rafters.
He’s also noticed a major shift in customers’ interest to add holiday greenery, so the company is going back to the factory and adding holly berries and pine cones, a trend that seems to be catching on with the landscape industry as well.
“We’ve been getting a lot of requests for a more traditional look,” said Borst. “Where a few years ago we were just hanging lights, now we’re installing wreaths and garlands with custom bows and ribbing. We’re installing decorative wreaths and garlands on the homes and in potted plants where we had planted annuals during the landscape installation.”
There are several different ways to incorporate holiday lighting into your landscape business. Christmas Decor offers a franchise opportunity. Brite Ideas Decorating offers bronze, silver and gold turnkey packages, and Holiday Bright Lights in Omaha, Nebraska, offers a membership program in various levels for landscape professionals.
Scott Heese, president of Holiday Bright Lights, started out as a landscape contractor more than twenty years ago, and then decided to enter the holiday lighting business full-time. “We began the membership program to help other contractors get started in lighting. We provide design software, a one day training class, DVD, training manual, and this year we’ve added estimating software to the packages.”
No matter what option you choose, it is essential that your crew is trained in all aspects of holiday lighting installation before you add the service to your company’s menu. It’s not enough to read a book, watch a video or attend a training class outside of your own area, where weather conditions may be vastly different from where you’ll be installing the lights. When it comes to outdoor light installation, hands-on experience in your own backyard is the best method for practicing to create the best visual effect and keeping your crew safe.
“We use our own houses for training—a ranch and a two-story. We want to make sure our crews are really, really safe when they go up, so we go through intensive safety protocols. It’s also a fun process, because everyone goes through training on how to do different things on different types of homes,” says Stegman. “Some days, we’re working in 30-degree weather on a roof with 25 to 30 mph wind. That’s pretty dangerous.”
The most exciting part of the process for Stegman is when he’s able to take his crew and their families on a nighttime city tour to the homes where the company has installed lights.
“We use these tours as a morale booster for our employees. We take them out at night with their families to show them the work that they’ve done. I take my wife and daughter and go around the neighborhood looking at all the lights, then go to the houses that we’ve worked on, and they always say, ‘Wow— this is what daddy does.’ It’s also great to have someone say they really like your work.”
“In our area, there’s a very large Army base, two Air Force bases and the Air Force academy. We have a large military population in our community and it’s a big thing for us to be able to provide landscape and lighting services to take care of our military customers,” adds Stegman.
Because of his service to one of the military families, last year Stegman received a very special long distance phone call. “We installed the landscape for a customer who was in the military, and was deployed in August. He called me from Afghanistan on a satellite phone to see if I would go and surprise his wife and hang the holiday lights because he wasn’t going to be home to do it. I had the guys out there the next day and they put up multi-colored LEDs all around the house before she returned home. When she saw the house all lit up with holiday lights, she was so happy, she cried.”
When contractors choose to add holiday lighting installation to their services, sometimes it’s for the revenue, sometimes it’s to keep employees together, and sometimes it’s just to bring joy to a family whose loved one is thousands of miles away, and to light the way for a safe journey home.
Photo courtesy: Holiday Bright Lights