Although it’s only mid-October, the countdown to the Christmas season is well and truly on for shops and attractions around the world. In the south west of England, one attraction has been hard at work for months ahead of its grand Christmas launch in early November.
Whitehall Garden Centre in Chippenham – a short drive from the UNESCO World Heritage city of Bath – has a proud festive tradition to live up to.
Only last year its Christmas displays won The Garden Centre Association [GCA] Winner of the Best Christmas Display in the South West and Wales 2014, while national television show This Morning also visited and named Whitehall’s Santa’s Grotto as the best in the UK.
So, how do Whitehall reach these impressively high standards?
Planning for Christmas
No sooner have we all packed away our Christmas decorations at home in January, the team at Whitehall are looking toward next Christmas. Planning begins that very same month. During the early part of the year, Director, Claire Self, and Visual Merchandiser, Ali Harding, head to exhibitions and shows across Europe.
They’re on the hunt for new trends and ideas, and perhaps most importantly, items that can deliver the wow-factor to guests that Whitehall is known for.
Claire says: “A lot of the inspiration comes from making that initial impact for the customer; what can we do to really make them go ‘WOW’?
“The ideas are always different as we like to try and do better each year. We also get a lot of the same customers that often only visit us at Christmas so we try and create the ‘wow factor’ for when they walk in. The process usually starts with an idea on colours and festive themes. From there it grows into the displays and everything else.
“We listen to suppliers but ultimately Claire and Ali have a good eye for what our customers and target market likes. We’re quite traditional with the products and we tend to put our own spin on key trends.
“The woodland theme is always very popular and so far this year we have seen that our ‘Royal Masquerade’ section – which includes lots of rich purples, blues and peacocks – is doing really well. The traditional section is always a best seller and so is the silver and gold.”
Whitehall Garden Centre try to make their striking displays special. Trying to compete with some of the leading department stores in the country isn’t easy, but with only one such store in the region, they are a premier Christmas attraction. They market themselves as just that, a Christmas attraction for all the family.
A Christmassy fun day out for the family
Although retail plays a large part for Whitehall, there is so much more to see, do and enjoy. An impressive ice rink complete with an icy glass roof allows up to 120 visitors at a time to effectively skate under the stars, while kids can visit Father Christmas in his Grotto. There’s a tasty restaurant and a festive farm, obviously complete with real live reindeer, as well as donkeys and goats.
“We are a destination centre that aims to provide families with a festive, yet affordable Christmas experience.” Claire added.
“We try to create a magical experience for all ages, no matter what the customer’s budget is.”
Getting all of this festive fun set up is no quick job.
Claire said: “The actual building work for the Christmas department starts at the end of August. This gives us just over a month to ensure we are ready for the grand opening at the beginning of October. Although it seems early, if we left it any later we would not have time to build and make the huge displays that we create.
“The ice rink construction starts at the end of October and we manage to get the whole area (rink, skate exchange, party room and café) built in just over two weeks. The Grotto build starts from the middle of October. “
Even with all of this work going on, the entire centre stays open throughout. Flexibility from the team of staff at Whitehall ensure everything is ready ahead of the big launch.
That launch event, named ‘The Magic of Christmas’, is set for November 7th and features Christmas
Card making, ice skating with Olaf (from the Disney film, Frozen) and a range of Christmas activities starting for just £1. It’s perfect for families, and precedes the opening of the Grotto on 14th November.
Between September and January, enough people will go through the doors at Whitehall to fill Wembley Stadium, twice. It’s estimated as many as 30,000 visitors will visit and go ice skating, while 12,000 children will visit the Grotto.
And as for the displays themselves?
Well, they’ve already had the seal of approval from some of the Garden Centre’s most loyal customers. A preview event on the 2nd October saw hundreds of people attend to see what Whitehall has lined up this year. Mulled wine on arrival, free restaurant buffet and of course, the obligatory mince pies, were all enjoyed by the happy guests. So much so, 1,000 mince pies were eaten on the preview night alone.
If you’re looking for a festive day out in the south of England this year, Whitehall Garden Centre is one to check out.
More information on the Christmas events can be found on their own website – www.whitehallgardencentre.co.uk.