Austin Trail of Lights, Robert F. Smith and Vista Equity Partners: Spreading the Holiday Spirit

Austin Trail of Lights has been gracing the Austin, TX, area since its conception in 1965. Bringing in over 400,000 people annually, the holiday-themed attraction is the largest community event of the season and the second largest of the year. Over two million lights and sixty displays are used every year to usher in the holiday spirit, in combination with food trucks and musical acts. In order to make the event possible, the Trail of Lights Foundation, which runs the event, accepts many private donations and the help of sponsors. Austin-based investment firm Vista Equity Partners, and their Founder, Chairman and CEO Robert F. Smith, have teamed up with Austin Trail of Lights to sponsor programs and displays of the event, including the STARS at the Trail Program, Santa’s Workshop and Candy Land.

STARS at the Trail Program and Santa’s Workshop by Vista equity partners

Since not all residents of the Austin, TX, area are fortunate enough to be able to attend this light extravaganza under normal circumstances, the Trail of Lights Foundation, joined by Vista Equity Partners, other sponsors, and individual donors, created STARS at the Trail Program. Since its founding in 2013, the STARS at the Trail Program, with Vista’s sponsorship, has been able to help dozens of nonprofit organizations, and tens of thousands of individuals, who would otherwise not be able to experience the trail. While the program was initially limited, in 2016, the STARS at the Trail was expanded to three nights and now allows more than 20 nonprofit organizations to participate each year. According to Leah Davies, Trail of Lights Foundation member and former president, “We identify that as an event by and for Austin, [we] need to do a very good consistent job of making [Trail of Lights] accessible for all Austinites. We thought the best way to do that would be to feature and highlight and give special access to those nonprofit groups.”

Over the years, numerous nonprofit organizations dear to both Vista and the Trail of Lights Foundation have been sponsored, including, but not limited to, African American Youth Harvest Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas, Communities in Schools of Central Texas, Down Syndrome Association of Central Texas (DSACT) and GirlForward. And, that generosity has not gone unnoticed by the community and organizations served. A member of DSACT went on the record by stating, “It was the VIP attention, from the transportation to the cookies and crafts, that [made] all the difference. Many of our members deal with sensory sensitivities so having the trail be a little less crowded and avoiding lines means everything to them and makes the whole experience that much more enjoyable. For a lot of our families, without Stars at the Trail, they would be hesitant to even go to Trail of Lights.”

A member of Communities in School of Central Texas also went on to say, “For those children and families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend, a special night hosted by Trail of Lights for them is a dream come true. We love to see the awestruck reactions as children ride the Ferris wheel and overlook their city. It is priceless and most certainly a highlight.”

While Vista’s partnership with Austin Trail of Lights has been mostly in conjunction with the STARS at the Trails Program, the pair have also teamed up on other projects to bring new and exciting festivities to the event. In 2014, Vista helped sponsor an interactive Santa’s Workshop in honor of the event’s 50th anniversary. The Vista-sponsored workshop is still a part of the Austin Trail of Lights today, delighting children and adults alike every holiday season. While a variety of activities are available at the workshop, the highlight for many families is creating holiday videos to share.

A “Resurrected” Trail of Lights and Candy Land With Robert F. Smith

Aside from his continued sponsorship of the Austin Trail of Lights through Vista, Smith and his family have been sponsoring the Austin Trail of Lights for years in other ways. In fact, he is considered one of the new-age founders, as his family “resurrected” Austin’s Trail of Lights in 2012. “It’s a much bigger thing with him. His philanthropy is very diverse and it’s very inclusive. The financial aspect of it is the symptom of the overall good that he tries to live by,” James Russell, Executive Director of Austin’s Trail of Lights Foundation, said of Smith.

Of all of the components of the Austin Trail of Lights, the Smith Family has been most involved with the Candy Land display. In 2012, Smith challenged the Austin Trail of Lights to create the ultimate candy destination for families throughout the area, and ever since, the display has been supported by the Robert F. Smith Family Foundation. Candy Land features live candy demonstrations from local candy makers, an interactive candy machine, and candy samples distributed by Santa’s elves. The goal is to have every child leave with a piece of candy and a touch of holiday spirit. In 2019 alone, 905 pounds of candy was given back to the community.

About Vista Equity Partners and Robert F. Smith

Founded in 2000 by Smith, recognized entrepreneur and philanthropist, Vista Equity Partners is a leading investment firm that invests in organizations specialized in enterprise software, data and technology. The firm is based in Austin, TX, with locations throughout the country, including New York, NY, Chicago, IL, Oakland, CA, and San Francisco, CA. Vista is dedicated to operational excellence making sure that every company in their portfolio, and those that they partner with, receive the highest quality services. To ensure just that, Vista’s team works closely with the leadership team at all of the companies that they serve to create a plan optimized to provide maximum growth and profitability in all sectors. The ultimate goal is to engineer real-world, customized solutions for each individual company that will help them solve their unique problems.

As indicated by their involvement with Austin Trail of Lights, Vista and Smith are equally dedicated to giving back to the communities in regions where they operate as they are to aiding companies in their portfolios. Currently, Vista supports several organizations. This includes the Akshaya Patra Foundation, Girls Who Invest, and Denver Public Schools. As for Smith, he is involved in numerous philanthropic efforts, including signing the Giving Pledge, committing to investing half of his lifetime net worth to charitable causes.

Learn more about Vista Equity Partners and the outreach programs that they support throughout the world.