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Best of NAMA 2022

Since 1998, the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), the trade association for Real Tree growers, wholesalers and retailers, has depended upon the staff of Drake & Company, Chesterfield, MO, to help promote Real Christmas Trees and increase industry sales — a goal the association management company has consistently achieved.

But asking your client to give away their product for free? That's a unique challenge for any trade association, but that's just what more than 250 Real Tree growers did through the 2005 Trees for Troops program, which was carried out in partnership with FedEx Corp. In the end, the association and FedEx received more in return than they could ever have anticipated.

"Organizing a program to provide Real Christmas Trees to military families is something that has been on NCTA's 'wish list' for a number of years. We just never had the resources as far as transportation to do so," says Steve Drake, CEO of Drake & Company and NCTA. "Partnering with FedEx was the key to finally making the Trees for Troops program a reality."

The Trees for Troops program was one of the first projects of the Christmas SPIRIT Foundation, the charitable branch of NCTA focused on helping kids, families and the environment.

The Christmas SPIRIT Foundation emerged out of a concern by the Real Tree industry over a decline in holiday activities and traditions among the American public. As a result, the Foundation was formed on Aug. 29, 2005, with the mission of advancing the spirit of Christmas. Just 50 days later, the Foundation was recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

And just a week after receiving IRS approval, the pieces fell into place for its first major project — Trees for Troops.

"Our offices received a call in October from Ketchum, the public relations agency for FedEx Corp., wanting to provide transportation for the White House Christmas Tree," explains Drake. "That need had already been filled, but we thought the Trees for Troops program might be a perfect partnership for our two organizations."

Meetings were quickly arranged between the two groups — and on Oct. 25, the 2005 Trees for Troops program became a reality, with FedEx Freight offering to donate shipping for the trees. While this approval was a welcome relief, it also meant that NCTA and FedEx only had 34 days to locate Christmas Tree donors, obtain approval from the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, develop routes, inform the news media and deliver the trees to troops and families.

To maximize resources, NCTA worked closely with state associations along both coasts and throughout the Midwest. In the midst of their busiest time of the year, NCTA members and Christmas Tree growers nationwide responded with overwhelming support. In all, more than 4,100 trees were collected, far surpassing the original goal of 3,500 trees. In many cases, volunteers at the state level donated countless hours of their time and thousands of miles in their trucks to help with getting trees to the pick-up locations.

At the national level, the staffs at NCTA, FedEx Corp. and Ketchum worked quickly to coordinate promotional and media materials, including banners for participating farms, media talking points, news releases, radio public service announcements, a Web site and more to ensure the program received the attention it deserved.

The program was launched on Nov. 16, when more than 175 trees from Ohio left the FedEx Express hub in Indianapolis bound for Qatar, where they were then distributed among overseas troops. On Nov. 28, the domestic Trees for Troops program kicked off on the West Coast. In all, NCTA and FedEx coordinated three transportation routes throughout the United States, with pick-ups at 17 locations nationwide, deliveries to five military bases, and more than 4,400 miles driven by FedEx trucks.

Steve Drake had the opportunity of following the West Coast route — an experience that opened his eyes to the true impact of the program. "Our experience at Camp Pendleton was inspiring," Drake says. "Marine officials told us that the first family had arrived at 7:30 a.m. just to be sure they would get a tree. When the FedEx truck pulled around the corner, the crowd started to cheer. And I watched as the families waited patiently until they were given the signal, one by one, to pick out their trees. It was truly humbling."

Similar experiences awaited members and association staff at the other bases. In most cases, the Christmas Trees were distributed to military families whose loved ones were serving abroad or who would most likely not be able to afford a tree for the holiday. One woman told a FedEx cameraman that her family had not been able to have a Real Tree for the past five years and she was so excited to get one since her husband was coming home the next Monday.

News media quickly picked up on stories like these in cities across the nation, from The Washington Post to Fox News. Four TV stations did live remotes from the tree pickup sites; according to Ketchum, the Trees for Troops program resulted in 18 million media impressions.

The public also helped to keep the story alive, as NCTA staff received numerous calls, letters and e-mails thanking its members for their contributions. One such call was from a woman in Hawaii who had read about the program in an online news story. The wife of an Army major, she was not personally in need of a tree, but she called to thank NCTA directly because she knew what a hard time of year it can be for military families.

The public also had the opportunity to lend their support by posting messages for the troops on the Christmas SPIRIT Foundation Web site at

Military officials also echoed their support for the program. "The support of our civilian community means the world to our soldiers and their families," said Command Sergeant Major Lonny Wright, the highest ranking enlisted person in the U.S. Infantry. "It reinforces their faith in our nation as they perform their duties to defend freedom for the greatest country in the world! This simple act touched their hearts in more ways than words can say."

Most importantly, the program reached out and made a difference with its intended audience — U.S. soldiers and their families. Notes and letters from military members — both here and abroad — quickly arrived at the NCTA offices.

"I am writing to say thanks for the Christmas Tree. Every little bit helps during the holiday season. If we had more people in the world like you, we wouldn't have the problems that we have." — SSgt Ryan C. Best, Camp Victory, Kuwait

For the members of NCTA, the Trees for Troops program resonated with the American media and the public, their consumers. The cause was one that all members could get behind, the program was coordinated quickly and efficiently, and the outpouring of support was overwhelming.

"Our military does so much for us," says Beth Walterscheidt, chair of the Christmas SPIRIT Foundation and a Christmas Tree grower in Elgin, TX. "They're protecting our freedom and allow us to be in business as growers. We wanted to give something back to them."

But how did the program affect the Christmas Tree industry? To measure the impact of the Trees for Troops program, NCTA included questions about the program in its annual consumer polling, conducted by Harris Interactive. And the answer came through loud and clear — 14.7 million households said they "read, heard or saw something about the 2005 Trees for Troops program." In addition, 25 percent of those households said it influenced their decision to purchase a Real Christmas Tree this past holiday season, which represents 3.7 million trees.

"We're already thinking ahead to 2006," says Drake. "We're working closely with our members and our partner FedEx on ways to improve the program and increase participation by consumers, such as sponsoring trees for soldiers or donating ornaments. We couldn't be more proud of our members and the industry, which truly answered the call to duty."

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