'It's Not The Year To Cancel Christmas' — Pandemic Pain Isn't Stopping Property Managers From Decking The Halls
This may have been the year of widespread illness, social isolation, economic hardship and overall uncertainty, but property managers have made one thing clear: Christmas is not canceled.
Whether it is elaborate outdoor lighting, lobby decorations or interactive displays, property managers across all asset classes nationwide have still worked to deliver some holiday cheer even as they struggle with balance sheets and occupancy.
Holiday decoration planning and budgeting for commercial properties tend to happen in the spring, to allow plenty of time for new items to be manufactured, built and delivered. That period coincided with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, but many owners and property management firms like Midway still went ahead with their plans.
“I'm sure there's probably owners that have thought about [how] that would be a cost-saving measure for this year. But if I'm being honest, it really didn't cross our mind as something we would consider. So we just did not,” Midway Senior Vice President of Property Operations Micah Hart told Bisnow.
Hart said the biggest change was eliminating many of the usual holiday-themed events that happen at its properties, including the flagship CityCentre mixed-use office and retail development at I-10 and Beltway 8. Midway has rolled out its usual Christmas-themed decorations, but with a new, interactive addition for shoppers: a singing tree that lights up in response to sound.
“We're trying to make things more experiential this year, versus just kind of the traditional things that we've done in years past,” Hart said.
Retail foot traffic is down across most of Houston’s shopping centers, and malls, office buildings and hotels continue to face low usage. Occupancy at multifamily properties has remained high, but mingling in common areas is generally discouraged. With so much distance between people right now, property managers say it’s more important this year to stick to decorating.
REIS Associates Senior General Manager Aj Coffee said that prior to the pandemic, the company was planning to refresh its holiday decoration package for outdoor shopping center Rice Village. However, the property management team thought the new decor might encourage crowds, so in the interest of maintaining social distancing, the firm opted to keep the same decorations this year, with a few extra interactive elements.
“We tried to think of everything we [could add] so that people could comfortably social distance yet still not lose the holiday spirit,” Coffee said.
The new additions include multiple photo opportunities around Rice Village, including reindeer and gift boxes that shoppers can pose with. REIS also added a “Jingle All The Way” backdrop that can be used for family photos or even Christmas cards. Coffee said that Rice Village owns the majority of its decorations and that the additional purchases remained within the firm’s budget for the holiday season.
Many of Houston’s office buildings remain at low capacity, but the majority of owners have still opted to feature some kind of holiday décor, according to Transwestern Managing Senior Vice President of Asset Services Steve Ash.
“It really varies from project to project. Some tenancies could be in excess of 60% of occupancy, while others have around five to 10%. So I think that really the decision for most owners was to carry on the normal holiday approach,” Ash said.
Ash said the budget for holiday decorations remains fairly consistent each year, and he hasn’t seen much deviation across Transwestern’s portfolio of office properties. The biggest missing element has been holiday-themed events that would typically encourage large gatherings of people.
Holiday décor packages are often leased by commercial property owners for a period of three or four years, though some may opt for a combination of owning and leasing, as Midway does for CityCentre. In Houston, one of the biggest providers of holiday decoration services is Always In Season, which has worked with REIS, Midway and Transwestern.
Co-owner Don Langston said that in general, business leading up to the holidays has remained stable, and most customers have taken an approach consistent with prior years.
“Most people have had the attitude that it's been not the greatest year, but it's not the year to cancel Christmas or ignore the holidays,” Langston said. “So for the most part, most people kind of soldiered on without much issue.”
Always In Season provides full holiday décor packages, including design, installation, takedown and storage. Retail makes up a large portion of the firm’s customer base, but other customers include the owners of office buildings, hotels and master-planned communities. Langston said that the company also provides decoration services for both of Houston’s airports, as well as the Houston Downtown Management District.
Some hospitality-related businesses have chosen to scale back their holiday decorations this year as a result of the pandemic, opting for minimal décor. However, hotels make up a relatively small part of the firm’s overall business.
Langston noted that although manufacturing activity in China was hit by the pandemic in the early months of 2020, Always In Season had already ordered its décor-related materials, and their shipping containers were either on the way or ready to ship. As a result, they had no shortage of decorations to provide to their customers.
“We've already put our orders in for next year right now,” Langston added.
Coffee said that a big part of decorating this year is simply trying to inject some normalcy in what has been a difficult time for a lot of people.
“You don't have to do a whole lot. But it's just helping people feel better in a time of a pandemic,” Coffee said.
Ash said the overarching feeling for most owners in the marketplace is that there’s a desire to create a warm holiday environment at the end of a very rough year.
“It's a bright spot for those that are returning to the office and I think, sends the right message of, ‘We made it to December, onward and upward,’” Ash said.
Hart said Midway is already talking about its holiday plans for next year. Assuming that the vaccine becomes widely distributed and it is safe, the firm is thinking about going big with its celebrations.
“We've talked about just doing some large, fun, celebratory events next year,” Hart said. “We're probably like everybody else; we are ready to get back together. And we are ready to probably do it in a very big way.”