I organize one of the largest holiday celebrations in the US - here's how we've adapted to run successfully during the pandemic

I organize one of the largest holiday celebrations in the US - here's how we've adapted to run successfully during the pandemic
A view of the 6,000 square foot ice skating rink at Christmas at the Princess.The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess
  • Teresa Thompson works as the onsite events expert at The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, a 5-star resort in Scottsdale, Arizona.
  • She oversees the organization and execution of the "Christmas at the Princess" celebration that runs every year during the holiday season.
  • This year, the event is running from November 20 through December 31. It features 5 million sparkling lights, a massive 6,000 square foot ice skating rink, a Christmas carousel, lagoons, trains, and a Ferris wheel. And of course, Santa himself makes a nightly appearance.
  • Here's what Thompson's job is like setting up this holiday extravaganza, as told to freelance writer Molly O'Brien.

I've worked at The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort for ten years, where I organize the signature events including Christmas at the Princess. It's been amazing to be a part of such a great creative team and connect with the local community.

We started Christmas at the Princess 11 years ago to create a "town center" that could become part of family traditions.

I organize one of the largest holiday celebrations in the US - here's how we've adapted to run successfully during the pandemic
Teresa Thompson (right) with her colleagues and Mrs. Claus during Christmas at the Princess in 2019.The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess
We wanted it to be a gathering place where people could come and see their neighbors and their friends. It's been a wildly positive success and has grown a lot: Every year, we increase about 10% in attendance. Last year, we had approximately 350,000 guests over the course of our six week event.
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I organize one of the largest holiday celebrations in the US - here's how we've adapted to run successfully during the pandemic
The Christmas tree lighting ceremony in 2019.The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess
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Guests who come to visit Christmas at the Princess traditionally include a mix of both out of town visitors and locals. Having been involved with this Christmas event for so many years I've even been able to watch local families grow up. The kids who used to come here 10 years ago are now in their 20s, and are bringing kids of their own.
I organize one of the largest holiday celebrations in the US - here's how we've adapted to run successfully during the pandemic
Ice skaters perform at Christmas at the Princess in 2019.The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess

This year, we've self-limited the event to 40% capacity, to make sure everyone has enough space to spread out and crowding and long lines. Arizona as a state hasn't implemented many COVID-19 restrictions, so we took this step voluntarily as a company.

I organize one of the largest holiday celebrations in the US - here's how we've adapted to run successfully during the pandemic
Face masks are required at this year's event.The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess
Masks are required in all areas of Christmas at the Princess including outdoor spaces, and we ask guests to remain six feet apart from anyone not in their group at all times. Highly frequented areas of the event are cleaned frequently, and ride surfaces are deep cleaned every 30 minutes. Given the limited capacity, we've also been recommending people book tickets beforehand.
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Guests who come to visit Christmas at the Princess traditionally include a mix of both out of town visitors and locals. Having been involved with this Christmas event for so many years I've even been able to watch local families grow up. The kids who used to come here 10 years ago are now in their 20s, and are bringing kids of their own.

The holiday celebration runs from November 20 through December 31.

We have everything from 5 million sparkling lights as well as a variety of festive activities such as a 6,000 square foot Desert Ice Skating Rink, authentic ice slide, Christmas Carousel, a Ferris wheel, and, of course, Santa himself who makes a nightly appearance. There's also the Princess Express Trains, which offer rides around the resort's lagoons and through a 17-foot long infinity tunnel with ever-changing hues of 256 million magical color combinations.
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I organize one of the largest holiday celebrations in the US - here's how we've adapted to run successfully during the pandemic
The Princess Express Trains ride throughout the event's grounds.The Fairmont Scottsdale Christmas

I love Christmas. It's a great time of year, and truly brings joy to so many people. I think the hard work with people on a team that's so talented is a favorite part of my pre-planning of the event. To get to be creative and bring all of this magic together - and then when the guests arrive and we have the tree lighting event - to see the reactions of all the guests enjoying the event and what we've created and imagined is a truly special feeling.

Successful planning and organization is the key for success for our event.

I organize one of the largest holiday celebrations in the US - here's how we've adapted to run successfully during the pandemic
Fireworks at the tree lighting ceremony in 2019.The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess

We have a five-year plan for Christmas at the Princess, meaning we plan each celebration five years in advance. Of course, there are some details that change from year to year.
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This year we had to recreate and reimagine the event with safety and cleanliness protocols. We developed a plan to spread out our guests and alter the flow of traffic, and have taken steps like adding twice as many fire pits in S'mores Land to accommodate social distancing.

I'd say the most challenging part of the whole process is maintaining effective communication within all of the teams. I work with a lot of spreadsheets, and use Trello as a communications and task list platform to stay on track.

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Typically the lighting starts getting installed just after July 4th - there are so many lights it takes a long time to hang them up.

I organize one of the largest holiday celebrations in the US - here's how we've adapted to run successfully during the pandemic
A pirate ship, whale, and mermaid made out of lights decorate the Lagoon during Christmas at the Princess.The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess

Then, all of the attractions and details come together about 45 days in advance of the opening date on a strict timeline. We plan everything using vision boards, and then bring all the teams and vendors together to figure out what we each need to execute.

We have a five person committee to plan the details of the event. Then, on the setup team we have about 40 to 50 people working on the grounds. We hire another 140 people seasonally on the operations side, and additional 120 people that work at the onsite restaurants and retail shops and do housekeeping.
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A special component of Christmas at the Princess is the original Christmas characters we have.

I organize one of the largest holiday celebrations in the US - here's how we've adapted to run successfully during the pandemic
Characters like TKTK are a special feature of Christmas at the Princess.The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess

For example, we have "Graham the giant s'more," "Selfie ELife," Princess Noelle, Peppermint Penguin, and this year we have a new character, "Twinkle," who is a Christmas light bulb. Just watching the kids interact with these characters is heartwarming. Another special part of the Christmas at the Princess event is the authentic ice rink. You're literally skating outdoors, on ice, in the desert. We also have a real ice slide.
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My job is all about ensuring the setup process runs smoothly.

We hold daily meetings each morning to make sure the setup is on-track.

Once the event is running, we look regularly at ticket sales and pacing, and touch base with everyone from the marketing team, to the design team, to our PR team. At the end of each night we have an operational team huddle to regroup and get ready for the next day.
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During the event, my team also does regular "property walks" throughout the entirety of the experience to make sure everything still looks good. We keep communication open between our engineering, front desk, events operations, and housekeeping teams, and at the end of each night we regroup and get ready for the next day.

I organize one of the largest holiday celebrations in the US - here's how we've adapted to run successfully during the pandemic
The desert ice skating rink at Christmas at the Princess.The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess

We work hard to create the "winter feeling" for our Arizona guests and visitors. Ultimately there's so much to do here, you could be from open to close each night of the season, and still have experiences to discover.

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