Grace Winery, Boutiques And Artisans Announced As Yuletide At Devon Vendors
Plus, The Story Behind The Story Of Yuletide At Devon
by Melissa Jacobs
Rob Bickhart was driving down Lancaster Ave. with his son Jes during an otherwise typical Christmas week. They passed the Devon Horse Show, dark and shuttered for the winter. “Jes said, ‘Dad, we should do something with it,’” Rob Bickhart remembered. “’We should produce something. Something big.’”
Entertainment – specifically being a producer – has been Jes’s passion since he was a child. “We went to see Narnia: The Musical in New York when he was a little kid,” Rob said. “I remember Jes holding my hand as we walked down 42nd Street. He looked up at me and said, ‘I want to do that.’ He didn’t mean acting. He meant producing.”
Now, the father and son who were captivated by The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe’s tale of Narnia, a land where “it’s always winter but never Christmas,” are bringing a new Christmas tradition to the Main Line. From Nov. 24 – Dec. 31, the grounds of Devon Horse Show will be transformed into Yuletide At Devon, a holiday market and entertainment festival.
Twinkling with more than 7 ½ miles of garland and lights, Yuletide At Devon will feature an enchanted forest with 800 Christmas trees and spectacular decorations from the company that creates Rockefeller Center’s winter extravaganzas. In addition to a wide variety of live musical performances from nationally-known performers, the festival will offer holiday-themed food and drink experiences. Yuletide will also feature a carefully curated collection of retail stores featuring small businesses and artisans.
Creating the winter wonderland is a $3.2 million venture for the Bickharts and their investors. Since it was announced several weeks ago, Yuletide has generated tremendous interest and support from the Main Line and well beyond.
But it also generated rumors. Can Devon Horse Show’s infrastructure support a 30-day festival? Is there a good reason why the venue has not been open during winter? Are all of the permits in place?
They are. During a 3-hour interview, Rob Bickhart answered every question and squashed a cornucopia of rumors, offering extensive details about the operations and management of Yuletide At Devon and the festival’s genesis.
The story starts in 2019. During that Christmas, the Bickharts decided to do something about their dream for Devon. They had breakfast with Henry E. Hill III, president of the Union League of Philadelphia, and Wayne Grafton, chairman and CEO of Devon Horse Show. Jes presented their idea for a holiday festival similar to European winter markets.
“Harry said, ‘If we made a dollar between the time dressage closes in Sept. and the horse show opens in May, it would be a dollar more than we make now,’” Rob recounted. “That’s one of the big things that’s not considered about Devon Horse Show. It doesn’t make money if it’s empty.”
Chris Le Vine agreed. The owner of Grace Winery is one of the first people the Bickharts approached to participate in Yuletide At Devon. Le Vine’s family has deep connections to Devon Horse Show; he sat on its committee for years. “There’s this wonderful venue right in the middle of the Main Line that’s empty but for 10 days in May and a few days in September,” Le Vine said. “Can’t we utilize this space for something else?”
But who would take on that challenge? The Bickharts seem like the perfect dynamic duo. Jes is a producer in Los Angeles with extensive connections in the entertainment industry. Rob produced events like the Pope Francis’s 2015 visit to Philadelphia, and he created THON when he was a sophomore at Penn State. Last year was the 50th anniversary of THON, which has raised $220 million to care for children and families dealing with pediatric cancer. “I’ve known Rob since he was an SAE brother,” Le Vine said. “What he launched with THON has truly changed lives.”
Boosted by those enthusiastic responses, the Bickharts moved forward with their concept for Yuletide. They asked about possible blowback from neighbors (there isn’t any) and investigated the electricity and plumbing aspects of the facility (which poses no problems whatsoever). “Wayne said that the biggest issue would not be from Devon Horse Show, but obtaining permits from Easttown Twp.,” Rob said.
That proved to be true. In fact, the Bickharts planned to open Yuletide At Devon in November 2022. “We were moving full steam ahead. Then, I got an email in July 2022 saying, ‘We’d like you to do this in 2023.’” Rob responded that preparations were already underway. “The email response was: “We look forward to talking to you in July 2023.’”
Stymied, the Bickharts considered taking their festival to different locations. They toured several options, but none of them felt exactly right. “Our vision was to have it in Devon, and to start over with the permitting wouldn’t make sense,” Rob said. “In the end, Devon was where we wanted to have it.”
The Bickharts finally got their permits in June 2023. And they inked a 3-year deal with Devon Horse Show. Just one problem: Easttown Township gave them only a one-year permit. “They want to see how it goes and I understand that,” Rob said. “This is a brand new venture. And since that happened, Easttown Township has been an incredible advocate for Yuletide At Devon.”
With the permits in hand, the Bickharts went full steam ahead with executing their plans. Jes booked all of the entertainment, Wayne Art Center’s Nancy Campbell agreed to curate Yuletide’s art gallery, and Calvert Collection’s Maribeth Moore managed Yuletide’s retail area, selecting vendors that will provide a variety of shopping experiences for visitors. The Shipley grad and Bryn Mawr resident is well respected for her excellent taste. “Maribeth started the process six months ago because she wanted to be selective,” Rob said. “We have vendors from New York and Nantucket, and also a wide variety of local stores.”
Le Vine signed on immediately. Grace Winery will have a bottle shop at Yuletide and offer wine tastings inside its holiday bungalow. In fact, all of the wine served at Yuletide will be from Grace Winery. “I’m shoulder to shoulder with Rob and Jes on this,” Le Vine said. “It’s going to be a magical experience for everyone who visits.”
Le Vine’s enthusiasm doesn’t negate the real world challenges posed by the small businesses that will be vendors at Yuletide. Staffing will be an issue during what is already a busy holiday season for retailers and the hospitality industry. “That factored into our decision making,” Le Vine said. “We will deploy some employees who are not busy when the vineyard is closed. And if we have to get more employees than that, we will.”
Melissa Sini, owner of The Blue Beret in Wayne, faces a similar situation. “Our college students don’t come home until mid-December, but we have great employees who are willing to pitch in and work so that we can staff Yuletide and our boutique in Wayne,” she said.
Alicia Eger, owner of Coco Blu boutique, is also calling on her contacts to help. “I will be there most of the time, but I have friends who live in the area who will help me out,” Eger said. “We think it will be fun. Work, but fun.”
Yuletide marks Eger’s return to the Main Line. Her beloved Wayne boutique closed two years ago in the wake of the pandemic. Her 13-year old Stone Harbor store is thriving, but Eger misses her Wayne clients. She plans to stock her Yuletide store with clothing, jewelry and accessories that are unique to Coco Blu. Sini will have “holiday merchandise, fun, seasonal clothing and décor, and giftables. It’s going to be fantastic and special.”
Sini and Eger confirmed details of the vendor deals. Vendors pay $1,000 for their spaces, and Yuletide takes a 15% commission on sales. Sini said the commission was originally 25%. “That was not appealing, so I’m glad they lowered it,” she said. “But $1,000 for 30 days is very reasonable.”
Both women grumbled about Yuletide’s unusual point-of-sale system. Sales at all retailers will go through Yuletide’s Shopify system. Vendors will get a weekly payout, minus that 15% commission. The problem, Eger and Sini said, is that Yuletide’s system doesn’t sync with their inventory management systems. “It is an unusual situation,” Eger said. “I have my own POS that automatically takes items out of inventory when they are sold. I’m going to have to deduct things manually.”
Rob Bickhart stood strong on Yuletide’s POS. “We want everyone on the same platform,” he said. “Everyone gets an iPad for transactions. They take it in the morning and return it at night. I don’t want to do cash and I want seamless transactions.”
He also thinks the parking will be seamless – or not any more difficult than during May’s Devon Horse Show. The Bickharts hired the same group that does parking for the horse show. Rob ticked off the number of parking spaces available: 450 at the horse show, 500 behind the barns where the trailers usually are, 250 spaces at St. John’s Church and two lots on Berkely Road. Then, there’s the unofficial parking spaces offered by homeowners who charge $20 for access to their driveways. “It’s a tradition,” Rob said with a laugh. “People can make some good Christmas money that way.”
That raises the issue of the ticket prices. At $35 for adults and $23 for kids ages 3 – 8, one-day admission is steeper than for Devon Horse Show. Rob said that season passes – $60 for kids and $90 for adults – are the best value. “The entrance fee includes entertainment and rides – and photos with Santa – so your only additional expense is food and drink,” he said.
Rob feels confident that his operations and management team will produce a top-notch festival. From security to a holiday-themed children’s library stocked with 15,000 books to upscale cuisine provided by one of Philadelphia’s best (and Black-owned) event caterers, the Bickharts seem to have thought of everything.
But there is an elephant in the room … and it’s a snow white elephant. Winter weather could have a huge impact on Yuletide. Small plows will remove snow from the areas with shops and rides. But the ovals cannot be plowed. “We can tamp down the snow, but we cannot plow the ovals and risk damaging them,” Rob said. The Bickharts have an insurance policy for more than ¼ inch of rain and if the state or local authorities declare states of emergency because of snow or other weather systems. “That’s all we can do,” Rob said.
Le Vine, Eger and Sini aren’t dwelling on the potential hazards of bad weather. Eger said she’s used to tricky weather at the Jersey shore, while Sini said that rain usually dampens at least one day of the Devon Horse Show. As for Le Vine, he says cold and snow can be part of the fun. “Imagine walking with your friends and family through that winter wonderland filled with lights and music, bundled up against the chill and sharing the holiday spirit,” he said. “It will be magical.”
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