Deck the halls


How to celebrate the holidays while including guests from all walks of life

by Fiona Soltes

At one five-star property in San Francisco, the request is that a team arrive the night of Thanksgiving to install an elaborate holiday display. It’s much to the delight of patrons still up and has been known to bring applause.

“People love the process of seeing it happen, of it all coming to life,” said Laura Burns Lambert, a sensory designer for Ambius, which offers interior landscape design for hospitality, retail, offices, health care, and other spaces nationwide.

Truth is, no matter the size of the property, expectations still run high for some extra “wow” at the holidays. Over the years, however, a few unspoken rules have emerged, not the least of which is sidestepping the religious aspects of Christmas to create a more inclusive experience. There might still be an element of Santa or decorated trees, but nativity scenes, angels, and, in some cases, even the colors red and green can be out.

The good news is that creativity in designing a holiday display or winter wonderland can help hotels differentiate themselves during the season. Lambert and Janice Nath, Ambius interior design consultant, compiled a look book of holiday ideas for 2019. Inside are fresh and unexpected color palettes. There’s also inspired use of branches, birch, florals, and greenery to highlight the season, as well as scents like peppermint, cinnamon, gingerbread, mulled spices, and pine to create a sensory experience.


Across the country, the prospect and process of decorating for the holidays can bring challenges. Properties of all kinds work hard to balance guest expectations, current trends, costs, and time, all the while delivering something unique.

Some properties, however, take on the challenge of outdoing themselves year after year – and in grand style.

At The Coeur d’Alene Resort in Idaho, for example, what started as a few lights out front in 1986 has grown into an ever-expanding display of lights, features, music, and more. Not only is there a performance by Santa, there’s also a souped-up sleigh complete with flaming afterburners, and a floating Christmas tree with lights set to Christmas music.

Tree and Santa aside, however, it’s still not considered a Christmas event.


“We have always referred to this fun family tradition as our annual Holiday Light Show,” said Cally King, marketing and public relations manager for the resort. “We want to be inclusive of diverse beliefs and traditions across the country.” Besides, King said, the display is up from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, so it encompasses those holidays in addition to Christmas.

“The show has continued to earn accolades year after year, and the reason is simple: It’s the best way to experience everything you love about the holidays in one location,” King said. “The show is always held to a high standard, in which we are proud to deliver a fun and quality presentation year after year.”

In addition to the holiday lights and displays, which are custom built in Portland, OR, the property offers Journey to the North Pole cruises on the lake and special packages. But the “extra” isn’t just relegated to the holiday season. Decorations at other times of year include fresh blooms in the spring, signature tango-red geraniums in the summer, and softer oranges in the fall.

At the Hilton Americas-Houston, meanwhile, holiday displays have gone up since the hotel first opened.

“However, three years ago, we made a commitment that we were going to have some of the best holiday decorations in Houston,” General Manager Jacques D’Rovencourt said. “We think we have accomplished that goal.”

In true Texas style of going big, the hotel has a larger-than-life sculpted chocolate rodeo display in the lobby for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

At the holidays, then, the sweetness continues. In 2018, Hilton Americas-Houston pastry chef Mahesh Weerasinghe and pastry sous chef Glenna Artripe worked with the hotel’s culinary and property operations teams to create a life-sized Santa’s Gingerbread Sweet Shop. It was made entirely of gingerbread and chocolate, but that’s not all – it was surrounded by full-color, hand-painted children made of chocolate, chocolate deer, a chocolate Christmas tree, and more. All in all, the hotel’s ‘Tis the Season display encompassed 2.5 tons – and 7.6 million calories – of sugary confections. That translates to 800 pounds of gingerbread, 990 eggs, 650 pounds of butter, 850 pounds of sugar, 300 pounds of royal icing, 1,000 pounds of dark chocolate, 725 pounds of white chocolate, and 1,850 person hours.


“You either do a great job with it or you don’t,” D’Rovencourt said. “They remember when it’s done well, and they come back looking forward to it.”

Even with all the seasonal cheer, D’Rovencourt said, “It’s not a Christmas event, per se. We want everyone to feel included and thoughtfully and purposely called it ‘holiday.’”


For some, holiday displays are far from extravagant, though no less meaningful. They might be as simple as bright poinsettias or as gentle as twinkling lights. Regardless of the size of the property, trees are still a popular choice for the ­holidays, though not necessarily in traditional Christmas-y ways. In some cases, the designers said, even using the word “Christmas” can be considered a faux pas. That’s not to say that there aren’t still properties that include religious themes; it may just need to be a more conscious decision, either way.

Lambert remembers one client who wanted a tree with lights but no decorations; it was an attempt to be sensitive, but it ended up missing the mark: “They got negative replies, with people asking, ‘Why did you put an undecorated tree up in the lobby?’”

Overall, when it comes to festive decorations, she continued, it’s best to go all in on the design choice and then own it.


One last note when it comes to design: For those considering whether to hand off the process to a professional, know that working with a designer means planning far ahead; Lambert and Nath say most properties will book as early as January or February for the following holiday season, allowing time for a true collaborative process.

In terms of other “holiday” displays, both designers have had clients highlighting Hanukkah – more as cultural tradition than religious one, perhaps – plus Kwanzaa, Halloween, Chinese New Year, as well as the fall and spring seasons.

The end of the year, however, still tends to take the cake… or, maybe, the gingerbread.

What to consider when designing for the holidays

  • Focus on cultural traditions rather than religious ones
  • Think outside of the red-and-green box
  • Utilize seasonal scents Plan ahead

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