December 25, 2005
They deck the halls to build business
Special to The Seattle Times
KEVIN P. CASEY / SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE TIMES
Decking halls and trimming trees has been adding more jingle to workers' pockets this holiday season — and those in the Puget Sound area's Christmas-decoration business expect a sleigh-full of similar jobs again next season.
That's because local homeowners are increasingly hiring others for a variety of yuletide tasks from hanging outdoor lights to preparing personalized ready-trimmed Christmas trees.
At the same time, shopping malls and big businesses are calling on design professionals with grander and glitzier ways to keep city sidewalks dressed in holiday style.
To fill these tinsel and tassel demands, a wide range of employers are adding holiday decorating to their list of services.
The result: local interior designers, nursery landscapers, large-scale multidimensional design fabricators — even a Puyallup pest-control company — buzz with business in what would otherwise be a slow time of year.
Philip Sternola of Sternola-Brown Interiors has been so wrapped up designing and decorating his clients' homes that as of mid-December, "I still haven't even had time to do my own Christmas tree."
"I wouldn't call it snowballing, but it's growing at a pretty fast pace," Sternola says.
Four years ago, Sternola and business partner Jeff Brown added holiday decorating to their services. Today, their clients pay from $500 to $5,000 for interior Christmas-season design and decorating services.
Some designs were born on the drawing board up to six months ago. Today, those clients are opening gifts under trees ranging from toy and Disney themes to high-end Northwest art motifs.
This niche industry comes as no surprise to Alan Burke, co-owner of Classic Nursery & Landscape Co. in Redmond along with his wife, Julie Burke. He saw its earliest roots begin to take hold about a decade ago, and now offers holiday-decorating services.
"In landscape, typically work starts to slow down around Nov. 1, so for a nursery business, the transition to holiday décor as a seasonal aspect keeps the place from closing down," Burke says.
The Burkes buy ornaments in late summer that will cater to everyone from heirloom collectors to trendy-tree buffs. By mid-November, they're adorning wreaths and trees for a post-Thanksgiving, walk-through showcase to attract and entertain customers.
It's crucial, Julie Burke says, to be ready with the "hot" ornament and tree styles for the season — because tree-trend styles often turn over every two years.
"We offer more large trees and specialize in trees for homes with big, high ceilings," she says. "This season we're seeing people put up two trees: one with a more traditional look, and one with a more funky feel. We're seeing traditional colors, and kiwi or lime; not the traditional colors, with — believe it or not — copper and black."
Antique teacups, gourd, homemade and bird-type ornaments continue to be popular as well, she says.
Pink and apple green showed up on a lot of trees this season, too, Sternola says. But ornament colors are often here-today-gone-tomorrow, and this year's colors "might last about two seasons, maybe."
That, Sternola believes, is why Providence Health Systems' annual O'Christmas Trees — a holiday gala and fundraiser — attracts people who "love going to the 'tree-view' to get a sense of what the trends are."
Meanwhile, turning outdoor scenes into winter wonderlands has jump-started business for other businesses. At Whitworth Pest Solutions in Puyallup, becoming a franchisee of Texas-based Christmas Décor is "a way to keep from laying our people off," says general manager Belinda Bowman.
Customers typically pay $300 to $400 — although one Issaquah homeowner's project totaled $6,000 — for Bowman's team to erect outdoor holiday scenes, and install and remove custom-designed, gutter-hung lights.
Now finishing her second Christmas season with local clients, Bowman says the holiday-decoration facet of her business has "doubled if not tripled — and it's all from word-of-mouth or people finding us by punching in some key words on the Internet."
Her competition: roofing companies and freelance ladder climbers.
"It's as much about safety as it is about convenience," Bowman says of her customers' motivation.
Nationwide, Christmas Décor claims its 10-year-old franchise program now has 40,000 customers.
Still, none of these homes stacks up to the extravaganzas of holiday décor — and now performance — on display at popular shopping destinations.
To celebrate November's grand opening of Lincoln Square, next to Bellevue Square, Kemper Development Co. hired Displaymaker Productions of Seattle to design and choreograph "Snowflake Lane."
Now dimming its lights until next year, the nightly show featured a 40-foot tree with 184,000 glittering bulbs, 60 drummers costumed as toy soldiers perched on 3-foot-high drums lining both sides of Bellevue Way, and falling "snowflakes."
Plans for the $1 million show started in June, according to Displaymaker CEO Byron Trostle, and employed upward of 50 in-house planners, designers and draftspeople, plus a New York lighting company, and 100 installers. All this work, he says, was on top of their other regular assignments.
"We've not seen it done elsewhere, and we definitely wanted to do something different," Trostle says.
From the night before Thanksgiving to the morning after, his crews labored "straight through the night" to install all the décor.
"We worked a lot of overtime and a lot of nights," says Trostle, whose international display and event-production company has been around for 22 years. He wouldn't be surprised if Snowflake Lane becomes the benchmark for other shopping destinations.
Though Kemper Development Co. spokeswoman Anne Marie Peacock says it's still too soon to calculate Snowflake Lane's exact success and impact for retailers, attendance has been "quite impressive. Our customers really appreciate our phenomenal holiday décor. Our vignettes are the background to many families' holiday pictures."
"There is definitely some magic there," Trostle says.
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