The Seventh Annual Christmas tree-lighting event, held at the Terrace Theater Plaza. The event was free to the public. The event hosted by the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, featuring more than 150,000 twinkling lights, a fireworks display, a visit by Mr. & Mrs. S. Claus, musical performances from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday night. November 23, 2021. Photo by Stephen Carr.

After two holiday seasons of surges in COVID-19 cases and pandemic restrictions, Long Beach’s 2022 holiday season is slated for a strong comeback, with even more efforts to engage the local community, tourists and businesses.

Long Beach’s efforts reflect a nationwide trend. With the lifting of pandemic-related restrictions throughout the country, more marketing dollars are being placed behind tourism; coupled with pent-up demand, the push for more tourism is happening naturally across all destinations, according to Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau spokesperson Samantha Mehlinger.

“Right after the pandemic, we were focused on driving traffic and local area traffic, because that’s what our research showed was going to be most of the tourism,” Mehlinger said. “Now we’re certainly broadening that scope, because people are flying and traveling more.”

Long Beach’s tourism industry is largely based on its conventions and special events, with large events such as the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, Long Beach Marathon, Long Beach Pride and even the Fourth of July fireworks show being the biggest draw for tourists, Mehlinger said. The highlights of the holiday season in Long Beach, meanwhile, are the city’s annual tree-lighting and its New Year’s fireworks display.

Kicking off the season

The Downtown Long Beach Alliance will start its celebration of the season with a virtual scavenger hunt that will launch the first week of November and run through the end of December. The hunt will include 30 to 40 challenges, trivia questions and opportunities to collect points, according to DLBA spokesperson Michael Berman.

The DLBA estimates it will spend a couple thousand dollars in gift cards to local businesses that will be awarded in prizes to the scavenger hunt’s top participants.

“It’s a new effort to try to enhance the holiday experience in November and December,” Berman said. “We’re excited . . . we think a lot of people are going to participate.”

And of course, the DLBA has big plans for Shop Small Saturday, which is recognized every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It falls on Nov. 26 this year.

To highlight numerous local businesses ahead of the holiday, Downtown Long Beach will soon be replacing the signal wrap signs on Pine Avenue from First to Fourth Street with large photos of business owners and their stores, along with a QR code including a map to the location and additional information, Berman said.

While Shop Small Saturday is a national day that began in 2010 due to an American Express incentive, Long Beach is able to leverage it to support local businesses, Berman said.

“Our approach is going to be supercharging it,” he added.

The DLBA is currently reaching out to businesses to put together an online virtual holiday gift guide, not only for Shop Small Saturday, but for the entire holiday shopping season, Berman said. The guide will include locations of Downtown businesses, while also highlighting discounts, specials and promotions, Berman said.

Last year’s Shop Small Saturday was extremely successful, he said, returning nearly back to 2019 levels.

The main event

Arguably the highlight of the holidays in Long Beach, the eighth annual tree lighting in front of the Terrace Theater at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, will follow shortly after Shop Small Saturday.

Scheduled for Monday, Dec. 5, the tree-lighting event will be “bigger and better than ever,” Mehlinger said.

Mayor Robert Garcia initially pushed for the tree-lighting event following his first election eight years ago, and it has since become a tradition; prior to the pandemic, upwards of 5,000 people would attend, Mehlinger said.

Over the years, new elements have been introduced to be even more exciting to spectators, adding embellishments such as fireworks and snow, Mehlinger said.

This year, increased funding from the Long Beach City Council will allow for triple the number of holiday lights on the plaza, plus an even larger artificial tree that will stand at 67 feet compared to around 50 feet in previous years, making it one of the largest artificial tree displays in LA County, Mehlinger said.

“We are grateful to the City Council and city management for supporting this, as it will bring more people into Long Beach to enjoy holiday festivities and give our community something fun and festive to experience this holiday season,” Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau president Steve Goodling said in a statement.

While attendance was high last year considering the pandemic restrictions at the time, with around 1,500 people gathered, “it’ll be nice this year for folks to be able to actually explore, and take photos with their friends and family and feel more comfortable walking around,” Mehlinger said.

Beyond the night of the tree-lighting, the CVB this year is also introducing additional community engagement endeavors around the holidays, including encouraging surrounding buildings to participate in a holiday lights competition, for which there will be a prize, Mehlinger said.

The CVB will also host a scavenger hunt involving oversized, light-up Santa hats of different sizes and colors to encourage participants to enjoy the plaza and holiday display. That scavenger hunt will give prizes to three winners, Mehlinger said.

A holiday stroll, or Downtown walking tour, is also in the works in the form of a digital walking map, which will begin at the Terrace Plaza and lead to various Downtown Long Beach landmarks, Mehlinger said.

“It’s all to give back to the community and let people have some fun over the holidays,” Mehlinger said.

While the Christmas lights in Naples are always popular and draw crowds from all over, Mehlinger hopes that the enhanced holiday display and added activities will be another reason to attract tourists to Long Beach, she said.

Ideally, the extra efforts this year will lead to even higher attendance than last year—between Shop Small Saturday and New Year’s Day, 1.3 million visits within the Property Based Improvement District in Downtown were tracked by a third-party software provider Placer.ai, which distinguishes between visits and visitors, according to Berman.

New Year’s Eve alone attracted nearly 92,000 visitors to Long Beach’s waterfront area, compared to roughly 26,000 the year prior and nearly 88,000 in 2019, just before the pandemic hit.

Looking ahead

Longer term, the DLBA is examining ways to engage more locals and tourists in the Downtown area, by developing a “Perfect Day” campaign, Berman said.

The effort is meant to encourage people from throughout Long Beach and beyond to experience shopping, dining and activities throughout the city, all of which would make up a perfect day or perfect weekend in Long Beach, Berman said.

While the campaign would not be an itinerary, per se, it would offer options depending on the type of experience you’re looking for. It’s an effort that will support the holiday season and carry through the first quarter of next year, Berman said.

The campaign is necessary as Long Beach and its businesses are still in the process of recovering from the past couple of years, and many businesses are experiencing ongoing challenges due to staffing issues and inflation, according to Berman.

“From an economic recovery perspective, we know it’s going to take a while,” he said.

However, he added, data has pointed to an uptick of Downtown visitors and an interest in returning to community events.

“These are things that we can do along the way to kind of stimulate that growth, so for the DLBA, part of our strategic plan is to market the Downtown community and to support our businesses in any way that we can,” he said. “We want it to thrive, we want it to grow—in 2019 things were really hopping in Downtown Long Beach, and we want to not only get back to that, but to exceed that, to get back to the growth.”

“We’re hoping for a strong season and to help our local businesses have a good holiday season,” Berman said.