Christmas towns are celebrated for their celebrations. These cities and villages span the nation, from Ogden, Utah to McAdenville, North Carolina (which every season changes its name to "Christmas Town USA"). Proudly quaint and artfully nostalgic, they leverage history, spectacle, and commerce to delight souls and fatten fourth quarters.
With online holiday sales poised to outpace in-store sales for the first time in 2017, Christmas towns are among the relatively safe bastions for Main Street businesses. Merchants in these locations admit they've felt pressure from digital competition. But most say they've countered that--largely successfully--with distinctive products, exceptional customer service, and their own enhanced e-commerce and social media activities.
Mostly, though, these businesses benefit from clustering with similar high-touch stores in towns that heavily promote themselves as seasonal destinations and that provide ample entertainment and amenities to draw families year after year. And while some towns proclaim Christmas Every Day, for many businesses the biggest revenue drivers fall in other months, when festivalgoers flock and local theme parks sluice down their water slides.
For those of you arranging ugly sweater displays and laundering your staff's Santa hats, here's a look at the Main Street experiences in three of America's most holiday-friendly haunts.
Surprising and sophisticated: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Here's a novel approach to boosting foot traffic: Have a bagpiper march potential customers into your store.
Neville Garner thought that an excellent use of the piper hired to represent his business in Bethlehem's Live Advent Calendar. Every day between December 1 and December 23 at 5:30 p.m., as many as 200 people gather outside the 19th-century Goundie House in the city's historic district. A designated child knocks on the door. When it opens, performers emerge to play or sing a song. The owner of that night's sponsoring business passes out treats and promotions.
Garner's business, Donegal Square, sells sweaters, jewelry, and other items imported from Ireland and the British Isles. Consequently, he leans toward pipes and drums for his Calendar nights. (He typically sponsors two: one for Donegal and one for his second business, McCarthy's Red Stag Pub and Whiskey Bar.) "It's a great way to get out the message at the right time of year," says Garner, who opened Donegal 32 years ago to justify frequent trips to his native Ireland. "We say, 'We have unique products! Come visit us!' I have gone so far as to say, 'Follow the piper up the street and into my business!'"
The last six weeks of the year contribute around 45 percent of Donegal Square's annual revenue. In December business at his pub is usually up 25 to 35 percent. Those numbers are more or less typical for Bethlehem merchants' fourth quarters. "Businesses downtown pay their bills from January to June based on the commerce they do between September and the end of December," says Lynn Cunningham, vice president of Bethlehem Initiatives for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The Advent Calendar is among many creative, smoothly executed events that attract around 100,000 visitors to Bethlehem (population: 75,000) during the season. Founded by Moravian settlers on Christmas Eve in 1741, Bethlehem in 1937 proclaimed itself "The Christmas City" as a means to boost tourism. The 10-story-high electrically lit steel star atop nearby South Mountain is among the most popular ornaments sold in local gift shops.
Bethlehem hosts two Christmas markets. The larger one, Christkindlmarkt, moved from the historic district to the up-and-coming arts district six years ago, dismaying merchants in its old neighborhood. The Downtown Bethlehem Association (DBA) replaced it with a traditional German outdoor market comprising vendors in 30 wooden huts. Both attractions compete with Bethlehem's brick-and-mortar businesses, but merchants say the traffic they draw makes up for that. "My attitude is if you get me 5,000 people in town and I can't do business with them, there is something wrong with me," Garner says.
(For those who want to experience both markets and all of Bethlehem's stores, a free trolley ferries people between the two downtown districts during the holidays.)
Other activities drive potential customers directly into Bethlehem's businesses, about 95 percent of which are small and independent. Six hundred tickets for this year's Cocktail Trail sold out in eight minutes. Visitors receive passports and then wander among participating stores, enjoying a small tipple at each. The arts district's version is a Cocktails & Cookies Crawl.
For last year's Trail, spouses Warren and Derrick Clark broke out a cranberry mule made with local vodka to introduce their hybrid eco-friendly-and-vintage furniture store, Domaci, to the neighborhood. "We were the new kids on the street and wanted to get as many people in the door as we could," says Warren. During the holidays, he says, foot traffic doubles. This season the owners are in the midst of relocating to a larger space in the arts district. Although not ready to open there, they will repeat their Yuletide debut with a pop-up open-house on December 1, featuring Christmas-cookie-flavored popcorn from another local vendor.
Many businesses create their own distinctive events. The Moravian Book Shop, founded in 1745, does about 60 percent of annual revenue during the holidays with a variety of seasonal and gift items, as well as books. Last year it debuted a Ghost of Christmas Past Tour. "It's a historical tour of downtown--not too spooky," says store manager Lisa Girard. "We hire tour guides who dress up in Victorian garb. It's candlelit, which people love."
Staff members wrote a script based on the book Bethlehem Ghosts: Historical Hauntings In and Around Pennsylvania's Christmas City. Participants can pick up a copy of the source material or choose from thousands of other titles at the tour's start and end point: Moravian Books. "The idea is they will come in 15 minutes or a half hour early and browse," says Girard. "Everything is to drive sales."
One reason Bethlehem's Christmas festivities are popular is that they are very well run. The city exercises its event muscle with roughly 20 major festivals each year, including Music, Celtic, Italian, Harvest, Photography, and Blueberry fests. The DBA meets weekly except during the holidays and works closely with the parking authority to prevent congestion.
"We have been doing this for so long and we do so much," says Cunningham. "At this point we are a well-oiled machine."
Faith and family: Frankenmuth, Michigan
It started with chicken and Christmas.
Two entrepreneurial families transformed Frankenmuth, Michigan, a small town of just 5,100 people, into a major shopping and tourist destination. The Zehnder clan's road to glory was paved with poultry. For almost 70 years the family's twin establishments--the Bavarian Inn Lodge and Zehnder's--have lured travelers off I-75 with their famous family-style chicken dinners. Between them they serve more than 2 million of those dinners a year and can seat 3,000 people at a time.
Christmas arrived by way of the Bronners. Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, known as the world's largest Christmas store, was founded in 1945 by Wally Bronner, a humble sign-painter and window-display designer. Every year 2 million people visit this tinsel titan, which occupies 27 acres. Fifty thousand turn up the weekend after Thanksgiving. Tour buses make regular stops. At year's end, the 250-person workforce triples in size.
"When you come to Bronner's you are surrounded by Christmas," says Carla Bronner Spelzer, Wally's daughter and a company vice president. "We have over 50,000 items to choose from. Six thousand ornaments," about a third of them Bronner's own designs. "In our parking lot we have a half-mile long Christmas lane with lights and displays. People just love to come here."
Speltzer estimates that as many as half of those people travel on to downtown Frankenmuth, where small businesses have sprung up to take advantage of the spillover. Many specialize in gift-appropriate products, although few try to trespass on Bronner's giant footprint. "We have had a couple of merchants that were specifically Christmas related--one that made Christmas cookies, for example," says Christie Bierlein, sales and marketing director at Frankenmuth Chamber of Commerce. "A lot of those other businesses have since gone. Bronner's was kind of overshadowing everybody."
Some small businesses--including close to a quarter of those at the German-themed outdoor mall River Place Shops--are owned by the Zehnders. Katie Zehnder, a granddaughter of the business dynasty's founding couple, William "Tiny" and Dorothy Zehnder, manages marketing for Calla Lillies (women's apparel), Woody's (leather goods), and Hello Cats and Dogs (pet products), among others. The family also operates five businesses at the Bavarian Inn, including a bakery, toy store, and candy shop. In season the hotel's restaurant is packed with holiday parties, which feed customers to the stores.
"A lot of our business is based on tradition," says Zehnder. "People who visit us come year after year. They come for a chicken dinner and to shop at Bronner's. Then they walk the shops on Main Street and River Place.
"We are a community of very good cross-promoters," says Zehnder. "All the restaurants and shops have big brochure racks. The goal is to move bodies."
Tourists also come for Frankenmuth's holiday events, including a candle walk that starts at River Place Shops. Christkindlmarkt, featuring holiday and traditional foods, gifts, and activities, takes place at the Frankenmuth Farmers Market, whose marketing coordinator is Dietrich Bronner, Wally's grandson. Despite the town's entrepreneurial underpinnings, festivities here are weighted toward God rather than Mammon. Black Friday isn't much of a thing. "We have a very strong Christian heritage. People put crosses in their yards all the time," says Bierlein, who points out Wally Bronner's powerful faith. (He tucked religious tracts into all his correspondence.) One popular event, sponsored by a church, is a Nativity play performed out in the woods.
Close to 70 percent of Frankenmuth's economy is tourism-related, and that holds steady much of the year. Like Bethlehem, Frankenmuth is a prolific producer of festivals. Another major draw is Splash Village Hotel and Water Park: a 50,000-square-foot indoor attraction with a retractable roof. It is a Zehnder family production.
"We have a lot of attractions that we didn't have before," says Bierlein. "But a really large number still come for chicken and Christmas."
Small and spunky: Santa Claus, Indiana
In peak season, Santa's Lodge, in Santa Claus, Indiana, is packed, and the staff swells to 100 people. That would be in June, July, and August.
Santa Claus comes alive in summer when more than a million people swarm to Holiday World Theme Park & Splashin' Safari Water Park. The attraction opened in 1946 as Santa Claus Land. Today Yuletide-centric rides occupy just one section of the park.
"Really the reason the hotel exists is because of the theme park," says Carrie Berg, the hotel's general manager and a second-generation member of the owning family. December, which contributes about 5 percent of annual revenue, "is just kind of an added bonus for us."
Still, Santa's Lodge makes the most of that secondary seasonal bump. The hotel is festooned with trees, lights, and ornaments year-round. Its Christmas packages include, among other things, dinner with Santa plus one elf, Christmas crafts, a pass to the Land of Lights show at nearby Lake Rudolph, and a network access card so kids can enjoy a virtual North Pole experience at Santa's Candy Castle, billed as the oldest themed attraction in the United States (1935).
Santa Claus, Indiana, is the tiniest of the well-known Christmas towns (population: 2,500) and has the most endearing origin story. Nutshelled: The town was originally called Santa Fe, but in 1856 its application for a U.S. post office was rejected because a city with that name existed. Santa Claus was chosen instead. As a result, thousands of letters from dreams-intact children are directed there each year and answered by volunteer "elves" organized by the Santa Claus Museum. That post office remains among the most popular seasonal spots, along with the Candy Castle, the Land of Lights drive-through display, and the annual Christmas parade.
"The activities and involvement in the community continues to grow," says Melissa Brockman, executive director of the Spencer County Visitors Bureau. "More and more people are getting on board with having something to offer these families with a visit in December."
The town's two Christmas-themed stores see their biggest earnings in December. Although the Santa Claus Christmas Store is not on the scale of Bronner's, it fully covers the festive waterfront. General manager Julie Korn says November and December are the busiest times--July, too, given the store's proximity to Holiday World. Santa is in attendance every day after Thanksgiving. The store shuts down January 1 through May 1. During that period, "we pretty much redo the entire store with all new decorations so that our customers see something new and exciting every year," Korn says.
Anyone panting for Santa tree toppers in February can cross the parking lot to the Evergreen Boutique & Christmas Shop, open full-time year round. "They are more commercialized," says Evergreen owner Tammy Heckel of her large competitor. "We are more home-y and boutique-y." Evergreen is also half apparel, which buoys sales in the non-holiday period. Still, December is Heckel's best month, accounting for 25 percent of annual revenue.
When Heckel bought Evergreen 10 years ago, July was the peak month as water parkers snapped up beach ware and souvenirs. Since then, the visitors bureau has doubled down on the town's North Pole identity, energetically promoting Santa Claus as America's Christmas Hometown with special events unfolding the first three weeks of December. The town's website touts Evergreen's in-store activities, such as a combination wine tasting and art class, whose participants walk out with a painting of a snowman. Heckel is stocking additional holiday inventory to meet growing demand.
Still, Santa Claus remains a small town, not a shopping mecca. To make Christmas a big a draw as Holiday World the town must keep up the marketing push. "The name of the town and the history bring people in," says Heckel. "Once you start explaining things to them they realize, 'Yeah, I can spend a few days here. There is enough to do.'"