Homeowners bring a renewed glow to holiday contractors

Companies that provide holiday lighting services expect December to be both merry and bright.

Although budget cutbacks at some large businesses in the Truckee Meadows have impacted lighting companies and decorators, the residential lighting market remains strong, particularly in high-end and middle-class neighborhoods, lighting contractors say. Many companies that do holiday lighting, such as landscaping and electrical contractors, added the service to boost revenues during slow winter months.

Hanging Christmas lights provides additional revenues and gives employers a means of keeping key employees busy and avoid seasonal layoffs.

Signatures Landscapes branched out into holiday lighting when it purchased Reno Lawn and Landscaping in 2006. Business was booming until 2009, says Signature Landscapes Marketing Manager Steve Fine, and it's slowly recovering after a few down years.

"From big mansions on the hill down to small little homes, we have seen a lot of folks saving money," Fine says. "There really is no single aspect of the market that's taking a bigger hit, but we are seeing a lot of growth from smaller homes where people are busy working.

"It has been a challenge just to get new customers," he adds. "Our current customer base still is pretty solid, but folks are shopping around a bit now and that has made it tougher."

Fine says Signature Landscape's downturn in revenues from residential customers has been offset by an increase in commercial customers.

In most cases, holiday lighting companies contract with clients to provide all the necessary materials to deck out a house or business. Most companies use preferred brands of Christmas lights instead of the generic lights sold at big box stores because cheaper lights don't hold up well from year to year and can lead to a return visit for service, Fine says.

To streamline decorating for repeat customers, lighting companies usually store customer's lighting and decorating packages in large bins often with a map of how the residence or business was decorated to make return visits a snap for decorating crews.

And those return visits, where experienced crews can quickly hang lighting, help the business of holiday lighting become more profitable. Companies charge by the bulb by estimating how many linear feet of lights are needed and gauging that amount by how long it takes to hang a 100-foot string of lights.

Ian Callahan, owner of Calflex Window and Carpet Cleaning, got into holiday lighting in 2005 and found himself almost overwhelmed with the volume of work his first season.

Callahan, who does business as Reno Christmas Lights, says he's on track to double his revenues this year from 2010 in part because of a spike in his window and carpet cleaning business that allowed him to bring on additional employees.

Large homeowners in upper-crust neighborhoods Arrowcreek, Eagles Nest, Caughlin Ranch account for the bulk of Reno Christmas Light's clientele. Commercial accounts remain flat.

"There is no shortage of market share out there for us," Callahan says. "I had a plan this year to market to the middle class more and do some lower-end lighting packages, and I got lower returns on that than on my usual programs."

Callahan says revenues from holiday decorating are crucial to helping Calflex Window and Carpet Cleaning get through its slowest months, which are January and February.

Drew John, owner of AJ Electric, branched out this year into holiday decorating in an effort to keep his most valuable employees busy during winter months when work typically slows down.

As an electrical contractor, John already owned the equipment needed hang lights, and he made a slight investment in materials and also re-tooled his Web site to include a section on holiday decorating for marketing purposes.

"I decided to do this last spring," John says. "My company has been steadily growing, which is great, and I would like to try and create more business and branch out from normal electrical work. I don't have a whole lot of high hopes; I'm just testing the waters to see if the market is out there and how competitive I can be."

Scott Gescheider, general manager of landscape service for Moana Nursery, says the company's lighting services division operates a little differently from most lighting companies. Moana Nursery sells high-end Christmas lights to its customers and then installs and removes them annually.

Moana Nursery typically sells to high-end clients, Gescheider says, and business has dipped roughly 60 percent since the longtime Reno business ventured into lighting services in 2002. Much of that decline has been from commercial developers who are no longer in business in the area or actively selling homes, he says.

"We did model houses, the entryways to new housing developments, anything tied into commercial development," Gescheider says.

New customers have been hard to come by it's hard to rationalize spending several thousand dollars to light a house in today's economy, Gescheider says so Moana Nursery has focused on customer retention.

"We like to believe we have a great customer base that sees the value in the products they have previously purchased. We have lost customers because they closed down operations or sold their house, but we are confident that the business model is there."

Most lighting companies try to put up lights for repeat customers before Thanksgiving and focus on adding new customers in late November and early December. One of the busiest weeks of the year for lighting crews is after Christmas when the lights come down.

"It usually is freezing, there is snow everywhere and ice on roofs it is a big challenge to get all those lights off in the right time," says Signature Landscape's Fine.

Budget cutbacks and moving decorating duties in-house has stymied some designers who focused on interior decorating for the holidays.

Danett Michelini, owner of All Seasons Decorating, used to number some of the largest businesses in the Truckee Meadows among her annual clients, including Western Village Inn & Casino and the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino, Reno-Tahoe International Airport, Washoe Medical Center, Harrah's Reno, Carson Nugget and Ryder Homes.

Michelini typically made between $30,000 and $40,000 between November and Jan. 1 by erecting Christmas trees, wreaths and holiday lighting. However, one by one those large clients scaled back on their decorating budgets.

"A lot of casinos now have a designer in house and just hire temps to do the work," Michelini says. "They have so many floral pieces and other decorative items it is just easer to add that staff person."

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