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Glitzy business

Holiday decorators provide elegance, convenience

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Landscape specialists with Utopian Landscapes prepare to hoist an 8-foot wreath over an entrance at the Harrisburg Mall. The Dauphin County-based landscaping firm, a Christmas Decor franchise since 2008, offers holiday decoration design and installation. Photo/Amy Spangler
Landscape specialists with Utopian Landscapes prepare to hoist an 8-foot wreath over an entrance at the Harrisburg Mall. The Dauphin County-based landscaping firm, a Christmas Decor franchise since 2008, offers holiday decoration design and installation. Photo/Amy Spangler

Bill Russell was looking to decorate the Harrisburg Mall for the holidays in a high-quality way that showed off the many changes the mall has undergone inside and out this year.

So Russell, the mall's director, called Christmas Decor by Utopian Landscapes in Lower Paxton Township, which is providing installation, maintenance and storage of the decorations.

He said it's an ideal arrangement.

"Some of the decorations we're putting up you don't typically see on a private residence," he said. "As a result, it has to be professionally installed and secured to make sure it stays put and isn't buffeted by the wind. It's very important that it's installed properly so it won't be a safety issue."

Utopian Landscapes and York Township-based The Strawberry Shop are among midstate businesses that provide holiday decorating services for residential and commercial clients. They handle all stages of the decorating process, from consultation to installation and maintenance.

Customers hire a holiday decorator for convenience and quality of decor, agreed the owners of both businesses. Judy Brillhart, who opened The Strawberry Shop in 1983, previously decorated the governor's residence in Harrisburg and said those hiring her to decorate their homes simply do not have the time.

"Everybody is busy, very busy," she said. "But they want (their homes) to look professional and beautiful when their family is there for the holidays."

Nikos Phelps, owner of Utopian Landscapes, said his company also keeps a large inventory and will provide decoration storage from year-to-year.

"Ultimately we're a service-based business," he said. "We take care of creating a design for a display, a concept. From there we take care of any décor, colors, greenery, whatever it might be."

And don't worry about climbing onto the roof if one light blows out, Phelps added.

"Most normal maintenance issues, we come back and we take care of it. A strand of lights goes, instead of running out to Home Depot and trying to find a match, we take it out of our inventory and replace it," he said.

Brillhart starts with free consultations. Customers can discuss ideas in-store or even show her what they want decorated by texting or emailing photos. The Strawberry Shop advertises "beautiful, affordable luxuries," she said, and elegance is the direction she strives to take.

"We use more of a contemporary look, not primitives or country," Brillhart said. "For someone that's very traditional, we do Christmas in every color but make it Christmasy by adding glitz and glitter in those colors."

And to get more value, some customers choose more of a snow and ice motif that can last until spring, she said.

At Utopian Landscapes, pricing is done on a line-item basis, but many packages start at $500.

"For a commercial business that might get an 8-foot wreath, there's more cost and logistics in that versus a 30-inch wreath on a home," Phelps said.

His customers usually find it worth the price, he said.

"A lot of people, once they have it done, they get it," he said. "Not having to worry about it, that everything is spaced just perfectly, that everything has a clean and tasteful look. People understand what goes into it."

Holiday decorating is not being sacrificed to the downturn in the economy, Brillhart said. Like many others, she has had to deal with overall business issues such as rising insurance prices, but the holiday work has remained steady.

"There's enough people that really like our services and what we do," she said. "We hand-create everything, so it's not like walking into a big-box store that carries only pre-mades. We have a really small niche that people can't get anywhere else."

The weather is the "biggest enemy," Phelps added.

"We lost a week with Sandy. We could have been out of business for two or three weeks if we'd gotten the 15 inches of snow they predicted in that October storm last year," he said.

After doing his research and settling on Phelps' company to decorate the mall, Russell's only fear was that he was too late in the game.

"I figured I would call and hear, 'Are you kidding? It's November,' " he said. "They were so responsive. They met with me within two days of my request."

Phelps and Brillhart might not encourage late-season calls, but both said they can and will handle them.

"Some people hire me a year ahead, then some it's like, 'Can you get there next week?'" Brillhart said.

Year-round work

Business does not end for Nikos Phelps and Judy Brillhart on the 12th day of Christmas.

Utopian Landscapes is a landscape contracting company specializing in landscape management, design and building. Phelps began landscape work part time during high school and college. After graduating from Penn State in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in landscape contracting and entrepreneurship, he turned the business into a full-time venture.

In 2008, Utopian Landscapes became a Christmas Decor franchise. Based in Lubbock, Texas, the company has approximately 400 franchises nationwide. According to its website, the startup cost for a franchise is $5,000-$7,900, and the company provides training, software, product and sales and marketing assistance.

Brillhart founded The Strawberry Shop, a floral and gift shop, in 1983. The business does fresh and silk floral arrangements for events as well as interior design. The store also carries wall décor and handmade jewelry. Customers can browse in-store or employees will decorate on location.

But Brillhart’s favorite is the holiday business.

“I love it. If I had room in my shop, I’d have an area to do Christmas year-round,” she said. “There’s nothing compared to it.”

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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