Tickets to the Holiday Traditions event, Filoli's major annual fundraiser, often sold out a month in advance. Daily merchandise sales totals sometimes surpassed $200,000. Volunteers say they sold $1.3 million in merchandise in 2016, with more than half of that profit.
When Holiday Traditions was over, the estate closed again until February, by which time the furniture was back in the house and the daffodils beginning to blossom.
Time for change
But as Filoli enters its second century, myriad changes are being put into place. Kara Newport, who became Filoli's fifth executive director in 11 years in September 2016, says the changes are necessary if Filoli is to be preserved to operate and exist for another century.
"The expenses were escalating, and the revenues weren't escalating at the same rate," Ms. Newport said in an interview. The goal, she said, is to bring in more people and elevate Filoli's profile, leading to more revenue and more contributions. "I think it gives you better tools to work with," she said, noting the century-old estate needs significant work.
Recent changes include extending operations from nine months to year-round, extending daily operating hours and adding more evening hours, opening a new self-guided estate trail, and revising marketing to attract more families and residents of a wider geographic area.
The property is also being marketed for event rentals, bringing in more than $400,000 in 2017, which is more than a 400 percent increase over the $25,000 event rentals brought in during 2016. The second wedding in the estate's entire history is scheduled for June, and Filoli now has a liquor license.
In addition, the way volunteers are used and managed has been completely revised. The estate has more employees and fewer volunteers than in the past, and volunteers have been barred from many of the jobs they previously performed.
All volunteers now need to pass a background check, and all were forced to sign a volunteer agreement containing a provision that is essentially the same as one that caused a fuss two years ago; in the earlier instance, Filoli eventually relented and allowed volunteers to cross out that provision of the agreement.
In 2015, before the controversial volunteer agreement was originally unveiled, Filoli said it had 1,300 active volunteers. The organization's tax forms say it had 1,442 volunteers in 2013. Today, there are 850. Ms. Newport says most of the attrition is due to inactive volunteers who have been removed from the lists, but many volunteers say they have left for a host of reasons.
A new tradition
One change that has drawn a major reaction is the end of Holiday Traditions.
This year, instead of closing in late October, Filoli remained open (except for Mondays, when it's always closed, and Thanksgiving Day) through Dec. 23. The furniture remained in the house, with the rooms decorated to reflect the history of the Bourn and Roth families who had lived there. Rooms that in previous years had been filled with voracious shoppers snapping up holiday gifts and decorations now had stanchions and velvet ropes to keep the public away from the exhibits. Display cards gave historic information about the Bourn and Roth families' Christmas celebrations.
This time, shopping was confined to Filoli's Clocktower gift shop, the house's back porch, and a tent set up between the house and the shop. The garden remained open, parts of it strung with white lights, and more family-friendly activities were scheduled.
The new event, called Holidays at Filoli, ran from Nov. 18 through Dec. 23, more than three times the length of the Holiday Traditions events, with three daytime admission periods every day but Monday, plus two nighttime admissions on Fridays and Saturdays. A bar was set up in the garden's teahouse.
The changes infuriated some longtime attendees.
Robert R. from San Francisco wrote on Yelp on the day after Holidays at Filoli opened about his "deep disappointment." The event, he wrote, had "lost all of the magic, splendor and festive elements that put us under its spell last year."
"Where were the rooms bursting with holiday treasures at every turn that you could discover and admire? Missing was the wonderful aroma of sweets, the popping of corks and bubbly libations and merry laughter drifting throughout," he wrote.
"We left disheartened, disappointed and saddened. The magical, enchanting and timeless atmosphere of last year was absent," Robert R. wrote.
"My mother, child and I have been attending Filoli's Holiday Traditions the past few years," wrote Pippi B. from Los Gatos on Yelp the same day. "We were expecting much grandeur, as in years' past. I'm quite the minimalist these days and no longer a big consumer of things, but we enjoyed strolling through the festive halls and spacious rooms which were filled to the brim with holiday-themed gifts in all shapes and sizes. It had always been a wonderful way to kick start the season!"
This year, she wrote, the visit on opening day was "very much a waste of my money."
"If you are planning to buy advance tickets to Filoli's Holiday Traditions, please know that it is absolutely NOT what it once was," Pippi B. wrote.
At least one reviewer said she had asked for and received a refund from her credit card company for her admission tickets.
On Nov. 26, Cathy C. from Los Gatos wrote on Yelp: "Coming to Filoli for their holiday celebration has been a tradition in my family for over 20 years and it was always wonderful until this year."
"The house was cold and empty. If I had known it would be like this, I would never had come," she wrote. "Filoli is too magical a place to be wasted like this!"
New format a hit?
Ms. Newport said, however, that the new format was a hit, drawing 24,217 guests during the 30 days it was open. She said 78 percent of guests had not previously been to Filoli during the holidays, and the number was far above the 10,618 who attended during the nine days of the 2016 Holiday Traditions.
"While certainly some people missed the old format, we had many, many more supporters of this new program which openly welcomed families and allowed visitors to see the beautiful gardens," she said. "Plans for next year are already underway with even more entertainment, expanded garden lights and more evening hours and new themes throughout the house," she said.
"Retail's changing," Ms. Newport said. "We were lucky we were doing as well as it was."
The Yelp reviews were not all negative. Julie M. from San Francisco wrote on Nov. 27 that she and family had made two trips this year to Holidays at Filoli and "absolutely loved our experience." She said they enjoyed the "kid-friendly activities like craft tables, Santa photos, and even ponies in the front of the mansion! Serious cuteness overload. We also got to stroll the gardens which, in past years, we were never able to do."
"Instead of a claustrophobic, over-the-top shopping experience (why on earth would you turn a historic house into Macy's on crack!?), they have presented the house the way the families who lived here would have had it which makes complete sense if you ask me!" Julie M. wrote.
"I can't wait to make this a new post-Thanksgiving tradition for my family each year," she wrote.
While the number of visitors was up from the number of those attending the much shorter Holiday Traditions event, it was far short of Filoli's goal. According to the Holidays at Filoli training manual provided to volunteers, the goal was 35,000 visitors — 11,000 more than the number who attended. The manual said it was possible that 50,000 people could attend in 2017, and that there is capacity for 75,000 visitors using the timed admission scheme.
Even the members-only evening event, with prices slashed, did not sell all available tickets.
Average daily attendance was 807 for this year's Holidays at Filoli, whereas at the nine-day Holiday Traditions in 2016, with shorter operating hours, the average daily attendance was 1,180.
The revenue goal for this year's event was $838,000, but on Jan. 4 Ms. Newport said Filoli still hadn't figured out how much money it had made.
While the changes in Holiday Traditions received much attention, so did some of the other changes that have taken place.
After closing for two weeks, Filoli reopened on Jan. 7 for its first-ever open winter season, with the theme of "Filoli Unlocked." Opening day was reserved for members only, with a show of black-and-white photos featuring images of gates, keys, doors and historic architecture at the estate, plus an evening of opera from First Street Opera in the ballroom.
Filoli is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. In January members can bring one guest at no cost each visit. Special tours, which cost an additional $10 each, will look closely at the garden's camellias (Thursdays and Sundays at 11 a.m.), Filoli's architecture (Friday at 11 a.m.), garden objects (Saturday at 11 a.m.) and the greenhouse (Sunday at 2 p.m.)
Coming next: More on the effects of Filoli's changes on its volunteers
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