This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Kelly Fitzsimmons, owner of Light Up Your Holidays, a holiday decorating service in Chicago. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I have been running and operating Light Up Your Holidays in the Chicago area for more than 22 years. We decorate the exteriors of homes for Christmas and other holidays, like Halloween, which is becoming increasingly popular in our business.
I have a friend who’s a handyman who used to hang lights. He told me about how he’d get super busy in September and October because of holiday decorating. I found it fascinating, and the idea kept coming back to me over and over again for the next two weeks. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I think I’m supposed to do this.” I had no idea what it was, or how to do it, but I felt like I was supposed to do it. It was almost like divine intervention.
In 2001, I started my business out of the trunk of my two-seater car
It was a ridiculous endeavor. I got together with some friends, we passed out fliers, and I got 35 clients in the first year.
At the time, people didn’t know they could hire someone to decorate their homes for the holidays. I did all the installation with some day laborers I hired to help me. I was proud of my work, but it was so hard. There are a lot of logistics and moving pieces that need to be figured out in a very short period of time.
I cried every day, and I thought I was going to quit after the season. I was like, “I’m never doing that again.”
Then clients called me the next year to do some decorating, and I hesitantly said yes
It was sort of inertia at that point. I have a design background, a photography background, and a marketing background, so I decided to pull it all together and create this beautiful service.
It’s a notch above just having a contractor come out and decorate your house, or hiring a landscaper who just does decorating on the side. It’s a full-fledged service that’s design-forward with a very classic, clean, and beautiful look. Along the streets and streets of houses, you can tell which ones are decorated by Light Up Your Holidays.
To manage the company well, I had to run the business year-round
I graduated to that level once I had enough clients. Since it’s a seasonal business, the hardest part was creating an infrastructure that allowed me to ramp up in such a short period of time on a highly professional level. It involves removing the décor early in the year, organizing the business in the spring, beginning planning with clients over the summer, and preparing for installation in the fall.
There’s a ton of logistics involved, including getting the products — from extension cords and timers to garland and lights — to the client’s house and making sure the crew knows exactly what to do. We make sure that the power for the lights is distributed accurately to all the outlets the client has. I’ve also learned that this type of business is not usually run by women. I’m dealing with contractors, 40-foot ladders, six-foot wreaths, and a large warehouse.
The business has been a real labor of love
In some ways, it was a love-hate relationship until I got the help I needed. I have a reliable staff of five full-time people and a large seasonal team of about 30 people who help support the process.
From my own experience running a business and becoming a parent, I realized my audience is busy parents and professionals. Digital marketing with banner ads through Google and word of mouth are the most effective ways I find customers. I want the right people to find me so I can take care of them and become part of their holiday traditions.
I’m a geek when it comes to Halloween and Christmas
I’m always looking at fun new products, and I love it when my clients say they want to take Halloween to the next level with their decorating. I’ve found that in the last few years, people have started to become aware that you can hire someone to decorate the exterior of their homes for Halloween. Now, about 20% of my clients decorate for Halloween.
I’m also seeing manufacturers making cooler products that I want to install, like light up sugar skulls and spooky, green light up eyes. We decorate with amazing, unique décor you can’t find in stores. I work with many trusted vendors who, after all my time in the industry, now contact me with decor ideas and pieces.
Holiday lighting is a very small world, and I originally met my contacts through an electrician that mentored me. I’d also met a distributor who had conferences and workshops that I would go to and meet people at. I’m always asking my contacts to push the envelope in terms of design and creating something cool.
I’ve noticed that a lot of the decorations people can buy online or in stores are so delicate or cheap that you’re lucky to get one season out of it. I use items that are meant for commercial installation, so I know the products will be reliable and my client will have a successful season regardless of the rain or snow.
For Halloween, we can do gory or fun and spooky
The theme really depends on if the family has children and what their ages are. I think it’s funny that our culture can be prudes in so many ways, yet when it comes to Halloween, people don’t mind blood, cut-off heads, knives, and all those really extreme things.
I prefer not to dabble in that. If clients have that décor already and they want to hire me to put it up, of course I will, but it’s not what I curate and design. I’d rather have something that’s edgy and spooky and creative — not just blood and gore. I think clients appreciate that, even if their teenagers want gore.
We like to have all our Halloween décor installed the last week of September so our clients can have it up for an entire month. However, we’re seeing a lot of clients jump on board the first two weeks of October because that’s when they realize it’s a service they can hire for.
When I meet with a client, I create designs for their budget
I’ve had very large commercial projects that have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I also still decorate for a client who’s been with me for 20 years and has a very small budget. I make sure to have open and candid conversations with my clients because design can really expand or contract depending on style, budget, and the architecture of the home.
My job is to make clients feel proud and excited about their holiday home when they drive down the street and turn into their driveway. It can put a smile on their faces and feel magical. They can really celebrate with their family, their guests, and their entire neighborhood.
I urge people to relinquish the competitive spirit around holiday decorating. It’s important to remember that lights of all sorts — even if people are giggling at them — are raising the vibration and bringing joy to people.