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JINGLE SELLS: The business of Christmas — Holiday lighting

It was in the south of France, during the holiday season a decade ago, that Vladimir Lourie got a bright idea — a really bright idea — while strolling along a cobblestone street with his wife, beneath a canopy of light.

“It was beautiful, bright and festive,” recalls Lourie. He searched the twinkling canopy until he discovered a sticker that revealed its provenance: Blachere Illumination.

“I thought, ‘Oh my, it’s so good. Maybe I can do this thing in Canada.’”

He did. Two years later, in 2004, Lourie opened the Canadian branch of Blachere Illumination, the French company that lit up the Eiffel Tower for millennium celebrations.

The Canadian corporation is based in Markham, with a sales office in Montreal, and representatives sprinkled across the country in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. With annual revenue of about $ 3 million, it’s one of the larger companies in Canada adding electrified sparkle to the holiday season.

Made from energy-efficient LED lights, Blachere’s 3-D displays glitter throughout Toronto. Among the brilliant bedazzlers are 12-foot angels playing trumpets in Little Italy; a 21-foot chandelier at the CNE’s Princes’ Gates; a 42-foot tree of spheres in Yonge-Dundas Square; a 16-foot-long tiger in Korea Town; and a 50-foot blue tree sprouting alongside the CP Rail tracks on the overpass at Yonge St, near Summerhill Ave.

Remarkably, the man who has turned his attention to illuminating the Christmas season isn’t even religious. The tradition of festive lighting is something Lourie adopted only after immigrating to Canada.

Born and raised in Soviet-controlled Latvia, the 57-year-old says there wasn’t the custom of decorating public spaces as there is here. He remembers a decked-out “tree of life” in the main square of Riga, the capital, where he lived, but no big ornaments.

But after moving to Canada in 1993 and noticing the homes all lit up with Christmas lights, his family adopted the practice.

“I thought it was nice, joyful,” says Lourie. “Decorations make people feel good, everyone smiles, everyone’s happy.”

Now, thanks to the commercial-grade lights he gets through his company, Lourie exclaims, “I have the fanciest house in all of Canada.”

Getting into the lighting business was “an accident.” In Latvia, he worked as an engineer building bridges; then in Canada started a trading company importing goods from the former Soviet Union.

Then came the vacation to France in 2002. Lourie’s discovery of Blachere Illumination, a worldwide leader in festive lighting, came at a time when it was looking to expand into Canada. The timing was perfect.

When the Canadian office opened in January 2004, the timing was again serendipitous. That was the year Toronto’s Cavalcade of Lights festival expanded city-wide, with many business improvement areas (BIAS) brightening up their neighbourhoods with eye-fetching displays.

Since its launch, sales have increased fivefold, says Lourie, adding about 80 per cent of the company’s clients are cities, villages, towns, villages and BIAS. Lights adorn city halls, hydro poles, parkettes, fountains and public spaces. Other clients include private property owners, such as shopping malls, condominium buildings and one wealthy Albertan who has decorated the immense property that surrounds his home.

In Canada, its greatest competition is in Quebec, where there is still a strong religious tradition. In the city, its biggest rival is Display Arts of Toronto.

The strength of Blachere, says Lourie, is that the company makes its own designs, manufactures the structures and even supplies its own lights. The lighting displays may be seasonal, but selling seasonal sparkle is a year-round effort for Lourie, who travels across the country throughout much of the year.

Over the years, the appetite for traditional religious decorations, such as angels or stars, has diminished. So too has interest in green and red lights. Clients now opt for designs such as snowflakes and prefer lights that are coloured white, blue and light yellow.

Displays generally range from $ 30,000 to $ 70,000 and Blachere handles installation, maintenance and storage until the following season. Subsequent installations usually run between $ 5,000 and $ 25,000.

The colossal effort involved is evident during the recent installation of a 39-foot Christmas tree in downtown’s Berczy Park, between Wellington St. E. and Front St. E, next to the Flatiron Building. On hand are two bucket trucks, one crane and two flatbed trailers loaded with equipment. Over a period of about 10 hours, four workers assemble 42 aluminum pieces to make up the trunk and branches, which resemble giant snowflakes. They then painstakingly add 58,000 lights to the tree, and another 2,500 to its base.

Despite the thousands of light bulbs, it costs only about $ 4 a month to light the structure — thanks to the tree’s LED lights, which use up to 95 per cent less energy and last at least seven times longer than traditional incandescent lights.

“A custom project like this takes three or four months to make,” says Lourie, as he watches the installation. He observes that the biggest mistake customers make is thinking they can place an order a few weeks before the holidays.

The tree, dubbed “The Snowflake Tree” or “Sugar Tree,” was originally designed by Lourie for Berczy Park. But since its unveiling about five years ago, it’s become so popular that Blachere Illumination in Europe has sold it in about seven cities.

“The tree is wonderful — it feels magical,” says Al Smith, executive director of the St. Lawrence Market Neighbourhood BIA, which owns the tree. “Not only is it good for animating the area, but it’s also good for safety and security reasons to have lights, and eyes, in the park.”

Blachere has also decorated neighbourhood trees with big snowflakes and the BIA’s own streetscape co-ordinator Bob Kemp has also strung up lights in the area.

Resident Tom Beyer, who works as a special assistant to Mayor Rob Ford, looks forward to his evening walk home during this time of time of year.

“I’m amazed when I walk home every night — it just gets prettier and prettier,” says Beyer. “The St. Lawrence Market has got to be the prettiest area of town this year.”

And that, in part, is thanks to a leisurely walk Lourie himself took a decade ago, also admiring the festive lights of the season.

thestar.com – Living

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