Want to 'spruce' up a Christmas vacation? Here's how
It may be simple to walk down to the end of your street and pick up a Christmas tree from a man selling them on the corner, but what about combining the activity with a weekend away with the family?
In Western North Carolina's High Country, "cut n' stay" packages have become vital for the region's tourism industry during the usually quiet winter season.
For your money you not only get bed and breakfast, but the chance to visit a nearby tree farm, choose your fir from among millions, have it cut down, ready to carry it home on the top of your car.
"On some weekends or evenings you'll see eight or ten cars in our parking lot with a Christmas tree secured on their roof," said Lorry Mulhern, the general manager at Green Park Inn in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, which runs a cut n' stay package that starts at $130.
She said the idea of spending a weekend away choosing your Christmas tree is a North Carolina tradition, but that she had noticed an uptick of interest in the activity in recent years.
It certainly makes sense for hoteliers in North Carolina's High Country to tap into their state's Christmas trees in order to keep up takings during a slow period. North Carolina ranks second in the U.S. for Christmas tree production – behind Oregon – with growers producing over 20 percent of the nation's holiday trees.
Furthermore, North Carolina's tourism business hits a lull in December. According to the state's Department of Commerce, the summer is the most popular season, comprising 34 percent of yearly visitors to the state. The winter season (December - February) was the least visited period with 20 percent.
The Department of Commerce states that North Carolina has over 300 tree growers with around 37 million trees spread across 32,000 acres. Frasier firs dominate and 12 North Carolina firs have been chosen by the White House in the past.
(Read more: Christmas tree sales boom may hurt procrastinators)
And what does this all add up to? In 2011, Christmas tree sales in North Carolina generated $75 million, with real Christmas tree sales across the whole country reaching just over £1 billion.
While the cut n' stay trend has yet to catch on in Europe, Christmas trees are nonetheless big business for growers and retailers, especially as the actual use of Christmas trees spread from Germany in the 17th century. Germany remains the continent's largest producer of trees, growing 22 million a year. Yet Denmark is the biggest exporter of them, producing 13 million Christmas trees a year and exporting 10.5 million.
In the US, however, the small Christmas tree companies are facing a dual threat: diminishing demand and the big box retailers. Christmas tree sale volumes have remained around the 30 million mark for the past few years but in 2012 there was a drop to only 24 million. Furthermore, while 33 percent of trees sold in the U.S. were bought in a "Choose and Harvest" farm in 2010, this dropped to 24 percent last year, according to an annual survey by the U.S. National Christmas Tree Association. Chain stores, meanwhile, like Wal-Mart and Home Depot have seen a steady rise in sales that has begun to compete with these farms.
Nancy Green, the shop manager at What Fir, which works alongside Mulhern's Green Park Inn, told CNBC argued that people came to the farm for the experience, not for the price, which may be cheaper elsewhere. "They also know they get the freshest trees because we cut them right then. Most commercial lots have trees that have been cut and baled, transported hundreds of miles, then put on an asphalt slab until they'll sold weeks later," she said. "Not a great environment for a live tree."
Tracy Brown is the executive director of the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority in North Carolina's High Country, took a different approach, arguing that some tree farms in North Carolina actually worked with larger retailers. "My thought is that many of the growers are in the wholesale business anyway, and that many of their trees will wind up at a big box store, depending of course on the size of their operation," he told CNBC in a phone interview. "For many of the growers, the choose and cut portion is just one part of their overall operation."
Still, Brown said that in the last decade his organization had worked hard to ensure hoteliers and tree growers were in touch and on the same page, and thus there had been an increase in the cut n' stay industry, which offers an "experience" that the large retailers or the local guy on the block corner don't offer.
"For so long folks were just driving down the street in the Piedmont of North Carolina, around Charlotte, and they were just driving to their local lot where one guy bought a bunch of trees wholesale and brought them down to their neighbourhood and sold from there," he told CNBC in a phone interview.
"When folks realized they could have an actual experience out in the mountains and choose their own tree, which started a whole new mind set. People started thinking about it differently up here, and we started to put some media dollars behind some marketing and coordination. I think we have seen – and hoteliers will tell you the same thing – an increase in visitation because of that."
It's not just the guest houses that have witnessed a boost from these packages. Nancy Green, the shop manager at What Fir, which works alongside Mulhern's Green Park Inn, said that so far this year sales were roughly up 8.5 percent. Green said, "We prefer working directly with our customers. Many families have been coming to our farm for over 10 years: It's become a family tradition. There's something magical about seeing everyone year after year, meeting new family members, noticing who has grown."
Brown said that places like Blowing Rock also have boutique shops that also cater to a family holiday getaway, with ample small businesses in the area to accommodate for Christmas shopping.
"Everybody wants to play together because they realise the economic impact," Brown continued. "It's important they have programs in place to entice people to come here. It's important in that it's such a narrow window, there's such a short time (four weeks) make that blip in the radar, they've got to make it happen."
—By CNBC's Kiran Moodley. Follow him on Twitter @kirancmoodley