As the Arboretum anticipates its 30th anniversary in 2016, positive impact continues to grow on many fronts. Although we strive to provide exceptional educational and visitor experiences daily, underlying everything we do is a strategic interest in adding economic value to our community and state.

No other activity better demonstrates this than Winter Lights, the Arboretum’s annual holiday light show that concluded its second year in early January. Spanning 44 nights, the event attracted nearly 27,000 paid attendees hailing from 47 states, Washington, D.C., and five foreign countries – and 900 zip codes in North Carolina alone. Almost half of the tickets were purchased by people who live more than two hours away, providing a significant boost to local hotels, restaurants and merchants.

With a capable but small staff and limited resources, the Arboretum not only had to rely on ticket sales to make the business model work for the show’s second year, but also hundreds of volunteers and 21 seasonal employees. Contributions of more than 4,000 hours by 262 generous volunteers, some as groups from companies or neighborhoods, made this event feasible. The Arboretum appreciates the generosity of ticket purchasers and the great work of volunteers, as well as the dedication of permanent and seasonal employees.

Holiday Lights Bring Bright Opportunities

Winter Lights also recruited the services of local musicians, schools and choral groups to provide guests with live music each night. A weekly family night with reduced rates, an employee training partnership with Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina, new food offerings in the WinterLightsImpact_Chandeliergardens, a free craft station, and significant purchases of more light features all added convenience and service for this year’s attendees. The Arboretum’s Savory Thyme Café offered a wonderful buffet dinner each evening that was also a very popular option. By employing or contracting with local and North Carolina vendors, Winter Lights promises to be a sustained economic boost while providing a valued holiday family experience.

At a time of reduced state support, the generosity of attendees and volunteers not only assists the Arboretum in helping the community, but also improves the Arboretum’s horticultural and many other exhibits; grows education, conservation and natural products programs; and improves physical facilities and service to members and guests.

As the first major ticketed event offered by the Arboretum, Winter Lights has been an exercise in innovation, collaboration and adaptability. Displaying more than 300,000 sophisticated and animated energy-efficient LED lights over 44 days – with the unexpected challenge of having more than 11 inches of rain during the course of the event – and doing it so successfully is a tribute to the teamwork and skills of the Arboretum staff.

Looking Back and Ahead

As much as I enjoy seeing the economic and technical outcomes of Winter Lights, there are other memories that stick in my mind: the child breaking into a run at the first sight of the 50-foot animated tree…the young bride-to-be whose eyes glistened brighter than the “Will you marry me?” sign that was lighted during the proposal…the young lady on her grandfather’s lap eating organic cotton candy with colored lights in the stick…children learning the art of roasting marshmallows over an open fireWinterLightsImpact_firepit…gaggles of parents, grandparents, sons and daughters, and grandchildren enjoying the lights and each other. All of these warm visual images have the Arboretum staff anticipating how we might create more in 2016.

The combination of volunteer and attendee generosity, staff talent and commitment, venture funding by The North Carolina Arboretum Society, and expertise of consultants and contractors made Winter Lights possible this year. On behalf of the Arboretum, thank you!

Through these elements a new idea is born, a new tradition established. I can only dream of what’s to come for next year’s show.