Plugging into holiday lighting

Installing holiday lighting is a great way to keep your crews busy in the off-season and keep your cash flowing year-round.
holiday lighting

It’s September, and that means my holiday catalogs have already started arriving. That used to bug me, but now I appreciate the chance to get a jump start on that very busy season. There’s so much to do; shop for gifts, bake cookies, decorate, throw parties and make travel plans. Somewhere during that six-week time period, the holiday lights need to go up, too. That’s where you come in.

For landscape and irrigation contractors looking for an additional revenue stream, installing holiday lighting can be a big, bright package wrapped up in a shiny bow of profit — especially now that the economy is strong. In the colder parts of the country, it’s a great way to keep your best people working during the off-season, when you might lose them to other employment.

Who are your customers? Your own client list, for starters. It includes the too-busy modern families and single-mom households; the grandparents who don’t want to climb ladders anymore but still want the house to look festive for the grandkids; highend people with large estate homes; shopping malls; office parks and municipalities.

“It’s rocking”

Mike Marlow, vice president of Holiday Bright Lights, Omaha, Nebraska, says the state of the holiday lighting industry can be described in one word: rocking. “It’s going to be another great year because we’re starting to see all the early indicators of more commercial properties requesting holiday lighting as well as more residential-type customers.”

Mike Rentz, president and owner of The Perfect Light, Dallas, with branches in Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Denver, can attest to how profitable lighting up homes for the holidays is. “Our most expensive residential install ran just over $100,000. And it’s not uncommon for people to spend in the $10,000 to $20,000 range the first year they buy Christmas lights.”

While there’s plenty of money to be made in residential decorating, municipal and commercial decorating runs much higher. “There are some municipal jobs that are several hundred thousand dollars, some malls and things like that that are half-million dollar jobs,” Rentz says. “There are projects around the country that cost a couple million.”

Go it alone, or with a company?

Going with an established company as an affiliate or franchisee can be the fast track to getting on board the North Pole Express. That often comes with discounts on products, sales leads, help and training.

Certainly, you can do it on your own, says Brandon Stephens, CEO of Christmas Decor, Irving, Texas, noting that there are some excellent training programs available. But, as he puts it, why do it the hard way?

He compares it to starting your own restaurant or opening a McDonald’s. The latter comes with a framework already built, with replicable systems for doing everything in the most efficient way possible.

Holidynamics, Omaha, Nebraska, works with contractors through an affiliate approach. The company provides the contractor training. It also holds new product training classes “because a lot of it is moving toward the [more advanced] LED and RGB (red, green, blue) now,” says President and CEO Scott Heese.

“We just get you into our program and offer rewards. We have tiered discounts, because one flat price doesn’t serve everyone. For instance, there’s a contractor in Chicago who purchases over $80,000 worth of product from us every year. We don’t think he should get the same pricing as the guy who only decorates two homes.”

Rewards, in the form of trips, are offered to contractors who buy a lot from them — this year, it’s to Los Cabos, Mexico.

Christmas Decor works by the franchise model. In exchange for a startup fee and a yearly royalty, “we help the contractor get there fast,” says Stephens. “We teach you all the fundamentals in our five-day training, and after that, we have a full support team that will answer any questions you have.” The company also offers business software, territory protection and marketing help to its franchisees.

“Our job as a franchisor is to help you command the highest price for your jobs while operating at the greatest efficiency so it adds points to your bottom line.”

Arnie Arsenault, president and CEO of A. Arsenault & Sons Inc., Spencer, Massachusetts, has been a Christmas Decor franchisee since 1998. He originally signed up just to keep his landscape employees busy in the winter; now holiday lighting comprises 30 percent of his business. “I’ve met a lot of the franchisees throughout the U.S., and the system seems to work very well everywhere, especially if you follow it and don’t fool around with it or try to make it your own,” Arsenault says.

Village Lighting, West Valley City, Utah, and Holiday Bright Lights are manufacturers who sell to contractors either directly or via distributors. Holiday Bright Lights also offers tools to help decorators build their businesses. “We have an app for designers where they can take a picture of someone’s house and see how different lights would look on it,” says Marlow. “We also have an estimating program and a website with marketing templates for flyers and so forth. All a contractor has to do is put his own business logo on them, print them and send them out.” A training program is also in the works.

Pitfalls to avoid

Contractors sometimes go astray offering too many discounts to customers. “You really don’t need to do that,” says Marlow. “This is a premium service, and people expect to pay for it.” It’s a good idea, though, to set a minimum charge. Rentz’ is $1,000.

Marlow also warns against buying inferior quality lights from the local big-box store or online. The contractor-grade outdoor holiday lights will have thicker wire, sturdier bulbs and more reliable connectors, he says.

“There are some factories overseas that we just won’t deal with because they cut corners,” says Marlow. “We make sure all of our light sets are waterproof. They last seven to 10 years. We warranty them for three years, straight up. No questions asked, we’ll replace them.”

Systems, or the lack of them, is what Stephens says keeps some contractors from making money at holiday lighting. Instead of following a replicable blueprint, they reinvent the wheel with every new job. That costs them money.

Training in efficient, repeatable systems is part of what his company offers to its franchisees. “We break down every job into five different decorating techniques, roof lighting, for instance. Whether you’re lighting a 100-foot roof line or a 3,000-foot one, it’s the exact same technique every time. If you break things down into replicable systems, a two-day job can become a one-day job.”

Finally, before you start installing holiday lights, check with your insurer. You may not be covered for climbing high ladders, using cherry-pickers or climbing on roofs.

Short window

One of the challenges of hanging holiday lights is that there’s not a lot of time in which to do it. Most people want them up before Thanksgiving and down after New Year’s Day. The more clients you have, the earlier you need to start. Leave some wiggle room in your scheduling to allow for bad weather days.

“It’s hard, because you do have a short window,” said Larry Jones, designer and lighting division manager at Wingren Landscape Inc., Downer’s Grove, Illinois. “Even though 98 percent of my clients renew every year, a lot of them don’t do it right away. Then they all want them up before Thanksgiving and that’s not possible.”

To make sure everyone gets their lights up on time, Jones offers incentives. “Those that sign up early will be the first to get them. But there’s a point at which you have to say, “I can’t do any more before Thanksgiving, sorry.”

Client preferences complicate this. Rentz says. “Some people think that putting a garland up before Thanksgiving lacks sophistication; others associate Thanksgiving with Christmas and kind of mix it all together.”

“That’s one of the most difficult things about this business — scheduling so that everyone gets what they want.”

Selling, leasing, storing

Some contractors lease lights to clients, others sell to them outright. Most prefer to store the lights for the clients, in labeled bins with the installation maps, extension cords and timers ready to go for next year and charge a nominal storage fee for doing it.

Cost of installation for the first year is often halved for subsequent years. The price includes a guarantee of free servicing and replacement of bulbs through the season.

One advantage of storing lights for a client is that he’ll probably return as a customer next year. If the lights are in a client’s garage, he can misplace them, damage them, call a different installer or have his nephew put them up.

Other holidays

Holiday lighting is expanding well beyond just the month of December, says Rentz. “There are many people in Houston and Dallas that celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. They want their lights up in early October.”

Companies are starting to offer Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Fourth of July and Halloween displays. There are even permanent lights that are durable enough to stay up all year long. The owner of the home or business can change the colors and motion to fit the season or mood via a smartphone app.

An emotional business

Should you choose to start installing holiday lighting, you’ll probably find it a satisfying business, and not just monetarily. You’re trafficking in nostalgia, in people’s precious memories.

One of Jones’ clients is a family with three girls.

Every year, he would put up lights and a 15-foot nutcracker for them. Then there was a divorce, and for one year, nothing went up.

“The next year, the mom called and asked, ‘Could you put up some lights? Here’s my budget.’” “I said, ‘We’re going to stick our necks out and give you a little extra.’ Well, we’ve done it for the past three years, and you should see the tears that come out of those girls’ eyes, even though they’re grown up now, as they see the lights going up on the house and the trees like they used to have.”

“Sure, it’s hectic. Sure, it’s hard work,” says Jones. “But I get to bring people joy. Even if we’ve been out there 12 hours for seven days in a row, putting a smile on people’s faces is what it’s all about. And that’s why I’m still doing it after 23 years.”

From spritzers to skating bears

Today, contractors have a large range of holiday lighting products to offer their clients such as strings of lights that change color, chase and strobe and drop lights that look like falling snow. Every year brings more goodies.

RGB (red, green, blue) LEDs are the newest wrinkle. From those three primary colors 16 million more can be made. “We can write a program for the RGB lights to make them dance, and we can add music to it,” says Scott Heese, president and CEO of Holidynamics.

That company also offers “spritzers,” big 3-D stars in multiple colors that flash, and “Artisticks,” lights in the form of wrapped presents and other objects, and lighted yard pieces such as ice-skating polar bears.

Mitch Hendricks, vice president of Village Lighting, says “We’ve got one product that I’m super excited about, an app-controlled C7 bulb. It’s a retrofittable RGB. If you’ve got C7s on your roof, you can simply unscrew those bulbs, screw in these and run them off a smartphone app. You can create themes, whatever you want — the sky’s the limit.”

Christmas Decor also has app-addressable RGBs. Company President Brandon Stephens has them on his own house. “I can turn them orange and purple for Halloween or make them do patterns and animations. They can ping-pong back and forth, fade in and out and change colors. One of the coolest things we have this year is a 30-foot RGB tree with over 12,000 bulbs. It comes with software that makes them dance to music.”

Yard figures add that extra touch of fun, whimsy and magic. Photos: Holiday Bright Lights

Incandescents: almost gone, but not entirely forgotten

Very few holiday lighting contractors these days deal much with incandescent bulbs anymore. It’s no surprise considering how much well LEDs perform now. They’re better and brighter (and cheaper) than ever, adding more dazzling special effects every year.

Earlier LEDs, particularly the clear white bulbs, were not liked by many people because they had a cold, bluish tone. That’s no longer true, and the clear LEDs come in a range of color temperatures to satisfy even the pickiest client.

Larry Jones, designer and lighting division manager at Wingren Landscape Inc., Downer’s Grove, Illinois, has just one client who still uses incandescents. “All my municipalities have converted to LED. We try not to sell anybody incandescents anymore because manufacturers don’t like to supply them; that window is going to close quickly and soon.”

Mike Rentz, president of The Perfect Light, won’t install incandescents for new clients. “But our existing customers who still want them, we’re not forcing to change. That’s about 10 to 15 percent of our customers.”

Another advantage of LEDs is their drastically reduced power draw. A standard incandescent C9 bulb draws seven watts of power; its LED equivalent, just 0.45 watts. They’re easier to install and last years longer. An entire design can be put on a single 20-amp breaker without fear of blowing a fuse.

“You can connect so many more strings together without using a ton of extension cords,” adds Jones. “And they have resistors and rectifiers so they don’t flicker.”

This article originally appeared in Irrigation & Green Industry magazine.
Mary Williams-Villano is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at

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