Chattanooga hotels, shopping centers amp up the ambiance with holiday decor

The Read House / In the Read House's grand lobby, dark woods are brightened with multiple Christmas trees adorned with white lights and gold ribbon.

With thousands of visitors passing through Chattanooga's hotels and shopping malls during the holiday season, these signature properties roll out an extra measure of ambiance to set a festive mood. Swags of garland, bowers of greenery and thousands of twinkling lights provide coziness in wide open spaces and selfie backdrops for social media.

Decking the halls to create that outsized ambiance is not unlike the burst of activity that happens at the North Pole this time of year.

"Installing mallwide holiday decor is a time-consuming task, especially when it's on top of the other daily responsibilities of the mall team, so we start installation in late October to ensure that's ready well before Santa arrives in November," says Stacey Keating, vice president of corporate communications for CBL Properties, which owns and manages Hamilton Place in East Brainerd and Northgate Mall in Hixson.

At two-story Hamilton Place, the centerpiece is a 22-foot Christmas tree that beckons visitors toward Santa's Village at Center Court, Keating says. Visitors also will notice that Santa has an oversized chair that can accommodate multiple people, "especially if parents have little ones a bit shy or fearful of Santa," she says.

The decor at both shopping centers is traditional, she says, with bright red, green and gold as primary colors. Elements include oversized gift boxes, Christmas trees and ornaments.

Keating says the vibrant color scheme is consistent each year, though pieces are refurbished as needed "to give them new life" and new elements are seamlessly incorporated to enhance the look.

"We want [the decor] to stand out against the backdrop of the mall and help customers get into the holiday spirit throughout their holiday shopping experience," she says. "The sights (decor), the smells (cookies) and sounds (holiday music) combined create peace, joy and a sense of community."

Also taking a traditional tour through the holidays is the Read House, with a collection of "classic, timeless decorations," says Kris Altman, vice president of marketing for Avocet Hospitality, which owns the historic hotel on M.L. King Boulevard.

The decorations span the public places of the hotel, he says, with the most attention paid to the grand lobby, the main hub of activity. Multiple Christmas trees dressed in white lights and gold ribbon rise up to meet gold beaded chandeliers. Old World Santas stand sentinel near doorways.

A $27 million renovation completed in 2019 put a shine on the architectural features of the 150-year-old hotel. Special attention was given to restoring the public areas to retain the hotel's historic nature. All of the plaster and silver leaf in the Silver Ballroom was redone. The original Russian walnut in the grand lobby was restored, stripped, cleaned and polished. Holiday decorations only serve to enhance the property's period charm.

Unlike retail's quickening of the holidays, the Read House aligns with a more traditional read of the calendar, installing decor right before Thanksgiving and removing it just after the new year, Altman says.

Guests are treated to special events throughout the season, including a Holiday Jubilee on Dec. 9 that features visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus and an elf-led craft workshop, as well as Breakfast With Santa on Dec. 10 and 17. A Roaring '20s New Year's Eve Party will usher in the new year.

Altman says these seasonal events, as well as themed room packages, complement the decorations. Guests love the added features, he says.

"The staff gets comments all the time about the decorations and the ambiance it creates," he says.

If the Read House offers a revival of its 1920s heyday, Chattanooga's Moxy hotel on King Street celebrates time and place in the here and now.

Though its contemporary vibe could be attractive to any generation, the Moxy brand is designed with millennials in mind -- those born from 1981 to 1996.

"Our target demographic is millennials, so the decor is pretty progressive," says Kacey Swindell, director of sales at the Chattanooga location. "It's almost like set design. We want our interactive spaces to be Instagram- and photo-worthy."

Selfies posted to social media figure prominently into how the Moxy operates, she says. So the vibrant, playful colors found at any time during the year are simply amped up for the holiday season.

"These are not Olan Mills family photos," she says. "We have textured wall fringe in orange, pink, green and black. It's joyful and fun."

Moxy lobbies are designed as not only public spaces but communal spaces where guests will want to hang out and engage with each other. A digital sign near the front desk is a signature selfie spot at check-in. During the holidays, it might include a cheekier message than guests might encounter at more traditional lodging.

"We might do something like 'Santa, I've been good. Maybe not. Never mind. I'll buy my own presents,'" Swindell says.

Swindell says the decor changes in tone and color scheme each holiday season, though disco balls have been a recurring element the last two years. Front of mind, she says, is always, "How do you thread that needle between what's festive and holiday appropriate but not something you've seen at Target or in a storefront window?"

Though she has complete freedom to determine what works in the local market, Swindell says she operates by the Spider-Man maxim: With great power comes great responsibility.

"Our space is highly decorated and curated every day," she says. "Adding too much on top of that can be overwhelming. For the holidays, we utilize the same color and texture but pull out that extra sparkle."

Except for perhaps a small treat in a card or stocking for guests staying on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, the hotel's holiday efforts don't extend to private rooms.

"The idea is that guests wake up with the standard experience in 54 hotels globally," Swindell says.

It's not until they enter the public spaces that they get a feel for the city they're in.

"The effort to do the decor is part of our extended marketing effort," Swindell says. "The idea is that someone might see us tagged in social media and think 'I want to go take a picture there. That looks like a fun night out.' It helps extend our messaging."