SRU students organizing community festival around newly installed Christmas tree


The tree being assembled

A 35-foot artificial Christmas tree was installed at Memorial Park in Slippery Rock for the Festival of Trees event organized by students in Slippery Rock University’s resort, recreation and hospitality management program.

Nov. 19, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — A towering Christmas tree that last stood in the entertainment district in downtown Orlando, Florida, has found a new home in Slippery Rock thanks to the collaborative effort of a Slippery Rock University faculty member, student volunteers and multiple community partners. The 35-foot, artificial Christmas tree is the main attraction for a new event called the Festival of Trees that organizers hope will draw more people to Slippery Rock during the holidays.

"Having a tree like this can be a game-changer for a community," said Mary Jo Ross, SRU associate professor of hospitality, event management and tourism. "We're hoping this is the start of something new that adds to what the community is already doing, and this also gives our students an opportunity to organize an event on their own. Our goal is to get more people to come to Slippery Rock, generate more foot traffic for businesses and support the event through sponsorships."

The Festival of Trees will be a recurring event at Memorial Park, located at the corner of South Main Street and East Cooper Street in Slippery Rock, on weekends during each holiday seasons. The event will feature Christmas trees, live entertainment, craft and food vendors, horse-drawn carriage rides and more. The event is in addition to the community's annual Light the Rock event, which will take place Nov. 22 this year, when street decorations and a live Christmas tree at Gateway Park are lit. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and safety precautions to limit public gatherings, this year's inaugural Festival of Trees will consist only of a one-time lighting ceremony, 5:30 p.m., Nov. 29. The lighting will be live streamed on the festival's Facebook and Instagram pages.

"We want to generate interest now so that next year we'll hopefully be able to have a whole month of activities that will give people another reason to come to Slippery Rock during the holidays," Ross said. "Getting the tree here is a big deal because it can be a destination point for people to have a holiday photo taken."

Ross is a Butler native who spent most of her career as an event producer in Orlando before joining the SRU faculty in 2019. She acquired the tree from the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress hotel in Orlando in 2015 to use for a Boys and Girls Club of America holiday celebration in the Church Street District of downtown Orlando. The tree has not been used since 2018 and Ross decided to donate the tree, consisting of metal hoops and accompanying decorations, to Slippery Rock Development, a nonprofit community organization that also organizes the community's annual VillageFest.

The Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau provided a $22,500 loan to add LED lighting on the 158 branches and to have it transported to Slippery Rock on a box truck. Ross estimates the value of the tree, with recent upgrades, at $80,000. Slippery Rock Borough Council accepted the donation on behalf of Slippery Rock Development and the borough will store the tree in the offseason.

Student decorating the tree

   Amanda Herr, an SRU junior resort recreation and hospitality management major, is
   the Festival of Trees event coordinator.

"We didn't want to lose the opportunity for this fantastic gift that we're hoping draws people into Slippery Rock during the holiday season," said Tom McPherson, executive director of Slippery Rock Development. "The tree looks really nice in the center of the park, and you can see it coming up and down Main Street."

SRU student volunteers from the resort, recreation and hospitality management program, particularly from Ross' Meeting Planning & Tournament Structure class, are soliciting sponsors to help raise funds that will pay for the Festival of Trees expenses. Proceeds will be split between Slippery Rock community partners and an SRU Foundation, Inc., fund for the Hospitality, Event Management and Tourism Department that supports student scholarships, travel expenses and conference and membership fees for professional organizations.

"We're all planning to work in the hospitality industry and this is a hospitality event, so through this we can see firsthand what goes into event planning," said Amanda Herr, a junior resort recreation and hospitality management major from Wexford. "This is a great event for us to gain experience and understand all the details that go into it. There are hiccups throughout the process, especially now with COVID-19. We wanted people to attend the lighting ceremony but we had to have a Plan B. This is a prime example of how event planners have to be ready to adapt."

Herr is the event coordinator, while Kelsie Hutsko, a senior resort recreation and hospitality management major from Cranberry Township, is responsible for marketing, public relations and creating a logo; Jaley Cravens, a junior resort recreation and hospitality management major from Butler, is handling sponsorship sales and community relations; and Megan Cordell, a junior resort recreation and hospitality management major from Canton, Ohio, is helping with event VIP hospitality and reception.

"You can't teach event production on Zoom," Ross said. "When it comes to planning an event, it's all about rolling with the punches, and the challenges with COVID is an example that these students are learning from."

Other student volunteers assisted with the tree installation, including Emily DiSanti, a junior resort recreation and hospitality management major from Slippery Rock, and Jacob Trone, a junior resort recreation and hospitality management major from Aliquippa. Eddie Gonzalez and Efrain Santiago of Lowe and Behold LLC, an Orlando-based event design firm, transported the tree to Slippery Rock and led the installation process. Additional support for the installation was also provided by Slippery Rock Borough employees and the Slippery Rock Volunteer Fire Company.

The Nov. 29 lighting ceremony will feature remarks by Slippery Rock Major Jondavid Longo and Jack Cohen, president of BCTCB.

"The tree is the focal point that we can build a holiday experience around," Ross said. "I hope we can also use this as an opportunity to further build relationships with the borough, Slippery Rock Development and the community, while getting our students involved in the development and execution of events."

For more information about the resort, recreation and hospitality management program at SRU, visit the Hospitality, Event Management and Tourism Department webpage. For more information about the Festival of Trees, visit the event's Facebook page.

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