One of Northeast Florida’s top holiday festivals, Jacksonville Beach’s Deck the Chairs, was born during the summer of 2013 when graphic designer Kurtis Loftus was on a morning run along the beach.
“The lifeguard chairs were there every half-mile, and I kept passing them. I just loved the simplicity of it, of what it stands for,” he recalls. “And I thought to myself that the chairs speak to us in a lot of positive ways. I thought, ‘What can we do with the chairs?’”
As a local businessman, Loftus understood that winter is traditionally a slow season for the tourism-fueled local economy. He also knew that the city had an underused venue in Latham Plaza, an expansive public park nestled on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the First Street business district.
Loftus talked to local business groups to promote his budding idea for reviving the neighborhood and attracting local residents during the holiday period: A colorful display of 9-foot-high lifeguard towers – or chairs – decorated by sponsors and benefiting one of the nation’s oldest volunteer lifesaving corps. “I would be talking to these groups and they’d look at me with this incredulous expression on their faces.”
Just five months later, the first-ever Deck the Chairs display opened in November, with 18 chairs decorated by 10 sponsors, including the nearby Four Points by Sheraton hotel, home accessories shop Sidney Cardel’s, and an independent senior-living center.
“We had the mayor come out the night we opened the exhibit, and by the time he was done speaking, there were about 200 people gathered," Loftus says. As Loftus was driving by to check on the venue one night, he noticed a family sitting out in the park picnicking. “I’d never seen that. It was either dark most nights or there might be a noisy music festival, but these people felt safe and secure out there on the grass.”
Four years later, Deck the Chairs grew into a full-fledged cultural extravaganza that expects to draw between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors during its five-week run. This year’s lineup will feature 40 elaborately decorated lifeguard towers and a full schedule of events backed by nearly 50 sponsors and other supporters, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, the city of Jacksonville Beach, Beaches Chamber, Dunkin Donuts, the regional Harley-Davidson dealership, nonprofit agencies, as well as many local and national retailers.
Families and volunteers alike will take selfies and holiday photos beside the 30-foot handcrafted tree and the 28-foot Sea Shell Slide in addition to many oversized displays in between activities such as Light The Beach Opening Night, Shine Hope & Peace Music & Light Spectacular, Night of Music and Dance, and other performances.
The event’s success can be credited to more than simply filling a void. It’s also about novelty, easy access and community spirit, says Deck the Chairs board member and local real estate agent Theresa O'Donnell Price. “It’s a draw for those holiday lights fans who enjoy driving through festive neighborhoods, except that [here] everyone’s walking among 40 tall lifeguard chairs that each have their own special quality.”
It’s easier to reach than events like Light Up Mt. Dora in Lake County (north of Orlando) and St. Augustine Night of Lights in St. Johns County (south of Jacksonville Beach), both of which are denser with limited parking options. “Not everyone is coming at the same time,” Price explains.
Event supporters have continually upgraded their displays year over year. “It’s not the same chair all the time," Price says. "Sponsors enhance their design and build upon it, so that’s been fun to see.”
Marketing the vibe
But perhaps the biggest draw of all is good will, she says. “There’s a really wonderful vibe in the space that can’t be duplicated." Retailers and other businesses don’t think of supporting Deck the Chairs as just a smart marketing move, according to Price. “It’s not active marketing, but almost a subtle ‘We love it and want to support it,’” Price says.
Sponsors have many reasons for participating. Bailey Rowland at Atlantic Pro Divers says the business supports DTC in honor of a previous owner who was a member of the lifesaving corps, and creating the display every year is also a great team-building exercise. Courtyard at 200 First Street, a nearby mixed-use complex, says DTC dovetails with its own marketing efforts, which include monthly art walks and its own holiday lights display.
“For us, it’s one more tie-in that connects us to the community,” says Kendra Robinson, director of North Beaches Art Walk. It's true that DTC sponsorship gets retail tenants, which include a coffee shop as well as gift shops and boutiques, “out there in front of a bunch of people.” The greater value, she says, is being associated with a family-friendly event in an area that previously had a less-than-stellar reputation.
Her tenants worked with a middle-school art teacher to create last year’s DTC display, for example, creating Plexiglas “shopping bags” with store logos. “Some previous, alcohol-related [events] got too out of hand” and had to be reined in, she explains. “To be able to team-up with middle schools in a volunteer effort is something different.”
Nearby dining and entertainment venues have seen a marked uptick in business. “They say [business] is over on Labor Day, but I get dinner business out of it,” says Vince McGuire, co-owner of Campeche Bay restaurant. “We’ve got whole families coming in and they’re hungry. On a cold night, they come in asking for hot chocolate, and I love it.”
Event sponsors benefit in multiple ways. Many popular chair designs promote businesses, such as Adamec Harley-Davidson’s motorcycle-pulled sleigh and Beaches Car Wash’s “bubble” chair. This year’s outreach is more inclusive than ever for sponsors, with “community chairs” being positioned in venues outside the event zone. In addition, DTC is dedicating two-weekend dates to “Meet Our Sponsors” efforts, where vendors can set up tents and provide staffing near their displays.
Loftus and Price are both excited about building on DTC’s success to ensure its burgeoning holiday-tradition status. Beyond transforming a darkened commercial district into a lively holiday attraction, they expect to grow the 20 percent of visitors who currently travel from outside the area and work along with sponsors to offer staycation packages to those within driving distance.
Local fans, meanwhile, are amazed "they can actually leave their neighborhood, get out and walk their park space where they typically wouldn't," says Loftus. "Our goal was to shift perception, and we have.”