For many years, Ann Botdorf and her mother made Christmas memories at Westroads Mall.
They'd walk through the state's largest shopping center and admire the holiday decor — a sure sign that Christmas was coming soon. As she aged, Botdorf's mother lost her vision, but the women continued to visit the mall before the holidays — sometimes to shop, sometimes to talk and walk — and Botdorf would describe the pink fabric bunting, ornaments and twinkling lights to her mom.
“It was something you could count on,” Botdorf said of the familiar decor.
Her mother died a few years ago, but Botdorf continued to visit the mall, her way of keeping up the tradition.
When she visited this year, the decor was different.
After 24 years and perhaps longer — no one kept exact track — the buntings were frayed and ornaments and lights were dated, said Westroads Mall Senior General Manager Jim Sadler. The Santa station — the centerpiece of any mall's holiday decor — was held together with baling wire.
It was time to replace the decor, the Santa station and the gold deer.
And, particularly for customers like Botdorf, it was important to choose wisely.
“I think like anything else, you want to make your customer feel comfortable and happy to be here,” Sadler said. “It just gets people into the spirit.”
An entire industry, as it turns out, is dedicated to getting Christmas shoppers (and office workers and sports fans and others who visit giant, high-traffic places) into the spirit. Several companies are devoted entirely to the design, production and sale of Christmas decor, among them the James Trogolo Co., responsible for the new decorations at Westroads.
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“The word we often use is 'magic,'” said Trogolo President James Espy.
Trogolo has been creating Christmas magic at amusement parks, cruise ships, shopping centers and the occasional Major League Baseball stadium since 1999. But mall decor makes up about 65 percent of his company's business.
Decor is particularly important at shopping centers, he said. People need to be in the holiday spirit if they're doing their holiday shopping, he said.
“It captures the feeling of the holidays the minute people walk in,” he said.
The exact feeling the decor captures depends on a variety of factors.
Some malls elect for sleek, modern decor. Others (like Westroads) opt for traditional wreathes and lights. Classic greens and reds are always big, Espy said, but other colors come and go. Lime green was big a few years ago but is starting to look a bit dated, he said. Bright, unconventional colors — pink, electric blue — come in and out of Christmas vogue.
“Christmas is fashion, and fashion changes,” Espy said
As their last decor was around for a quarter of a century, Sadler didn't want to try anything too fashionable with the new Westroads setup.
Sadler expects these decorations to be around for a while, too, as trimming a mall for the holidays is pricey (though he declined to reveal an exact cost).
After working with Trogolo for nearly a year to hash out designs and build the pieces, Sadler ended up with dozens of classic swags of artificial greenery adorned with red and silver bulbs, pine cones and red velveteen bows lining the corridors of the 44-year-old mall. There's also a plush new Santa station staffed by a Santa with a real white beard. These are known in the world of retail as “natural Santas,” Sadler said.
The swags, which appear to drape perfectly, are built around metal frames. Artificial trees, trimmed with old-fashioned red and silver bulbs, white lights and red bows line the escalators, as do real-looking silk poinsettias. Giant wreaths hang from the second-floor railing in the atrium. They'd considered hanging them from the elevators, Sadler said, but the atrium is so high that Sadler wasn't sure how they would install them. A huge artificial tree dresses up the food court. And, of course, there are plenty of twinkly lights.
Sadler is pleased with the result.
“I look at Westroads as a traditional mall,” Sadler said. It's indoors, anchored by big department stores and has more or less the same layout as it did when it opened more than four decades ago.
“We needed to maintain that classic look.”
An outdoor mall where trends come and go faster could get away with more modern decor, Sadler said. But Westroads is about tradition.
Many malls are going the traditional route, said Espy. He can't say exactly why, but he guesses it has something to do with nostalgia.
Decades ago, department stores and shopping centers were trimmed from corner to corner with greenery and ornaments and garlands. It's been decades since shoppers had that kind of experience, which, frankly, is expensive. But Westroads, like many malls, is trying, Espy said.
And a mall can dream.
“There's a bit of a movement now to do a bit more,” Espy said.
That is true of Westroads.
As for the old decor, it's still out there.
The mall donated most of it to the Omaha Children's Museum, and a few pieces to a volunteer group that puts on holiday shows at nursing homes.
Sadler also promised one piece to Botdorf, so she'll always have a piece of those holiday strolls through Westroads with her mom.
“It's just good memories,” she said.
Though she told Sadler she likes the new decor, too.
“It's very pretty, what you've done.”
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