The Secrets Behind One Of The UK’s Most Successful Seasonal Business
The Secrets Behind One Of The UK’s Most Successful Seasonal Business

The Secrets Behind One Of The UK’s Most Successful Seasonal Business

Mike and Alison Battle are the husband-and-wife team behind LaplandUK. A former primary school teacher, Alison was mother to four young boys when her dissatisfaction with Christmas attractions reached its peak. Together, she and Mike quit their jobs to launch their own Father Christmas-based event – and 17 years later, they’re still going strong. Here, Alison explains how they did it, the lessons they’ve learnt along the way, and the advice she’d give any aspiring entrepreneur…
Photography LUKE DYSON

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The idea for LaplandUK came from utter personal frustration. I’d spent about 20 years in the same primary school in Lewisham. Mike was working in the City, and we had four boys under five. We always saw Christmas as a seminal moment in our family – a time to honour the innocence of childhood – and we were able to do lots of wonderful things in our own home. The problem came when we left the home to go and meet Father Christmas. Everything seemed to go wrong.  

We tried so hard to give our boys this magical moment. We went to every stately home, every London store, even to Lapland in Finland, but every time we were frustrated. What should have been such a magical time was polluted by commercial agendas – it was all about footfall and getting people into stores to spend money. The final straw came when we went to see Father Christmas and he was wearing yet another cheap outfit, knew nothing about our boys, and the toy they were given actually sliced one of their fingers. I just thought enough is enough. 

From the outset we said WE WOULDN'T TAKE ANY EXTERNAL FUNDING. We didn't want any sort of capital to CORRUPT THE PURITY OF OUR VISION.

We didn’t know why somebody wasn’t doing something about it. Mike and I wanted storytelling, imagination and believability, so we turned the question on ourselves: ‘Well, why don't we do something about it?’ We knew what we wanted as parents, and from teaching I knew what children would want from the experience. Mike was slightly frustrated in the City – he’s a secret creative – so it just all came together at a moment. We decided to take a leap. 

From the outset we said we wouldn't take any external funding. We didn't want any sort of capital to corrupt the purity of our vision. Mike had this innate ability to measure and handle risk thanks to his background as a hedge fund trader, and I had the creative drive and the passion to really move this forward. We re-mortgaged our home, and borrowed money from family and friends – simple as that. Luckily, the first year was a sell out, so we were able to pay everyone back pretty quickly. 

Back in 2007, the first step was finding an authentic location. We went to the Forestry Commission and asked to rent a forest. We went to Bedgebury National Pinetum near Tunbridge Wells and told them about our idea. They were very supportive. After that, the priority became building the story of Father Christmas, crafting our own world with our own stories and characters. We now have 30 characters – I write the stories, the scripts, our own newspaper, everything. Creating a world was so important to help the children believe they've visited the real Father Christmas.

There wasn't really social media back then to get the word out and find the right suppliers. It was more a case of picking up the phone and doing our own research. We knew we needed log cabins and performers, so we did all the leg work ourselves, going to trade and craft fairs to find what we needed – we used to go to Nuremberg to the toy fair market. It was really about finding people who were aligned with our purpose and vision. The children who come to LaplandUK believe it's a real place, so you will never see an advertisement on the tube or a train station saying buy your tickets for Lapland because we want the children to receive a personalised invitation from Father Christmas himself. 

In that first year, James Morrison did a concert tour during the summer around different forests in the UK – including ours. Ahead of the event, we made old-fashioned postcards which said, “Shh, the secret is in the forest this Christmas” and passed them out to attendees at the concert. We sold 37,000 tickets off the back of that. We knew we could never do above-the-line marketing – it would destroy the illusion for the children if they saw ads on the tube or elsewhere – so we had to think creatively, and then rely on word of mouth for future sales.

LaplandUK is a seasonal business, but EVERYTHING STEPS UP AROUND MARCH. That’s when we launch our tickets for the following season, and they SELL OUT WITHIN HOURS.

LaplandUK is a seasonal business, but everything steps up around March. That’s when we launch our tickets for the following season, and they sell out within hours. E-commerce is also quite a big area for us now. The most popular characters have their own merchandise, then there are costumes for the children, snow globes and so on. All year we're working on product development. We still go over to the trade shows, usually in Europe, and we've got our own publishing wing to publish our own stories. We have about six or seven books now which, again, support the world of Lapland. Last year we also launched the Elfcasts – a daily story from Father Christmas which actually went to number one on Apple Podcasts during the countdown to Christmas. 

One of the biggest lessons we learnt early on was about planning permission. We’d gone quite a long way down the development path during that first year before somebody said, ‘What about planning permission?’ It hadn't occurred to us because we thought, we're on Forestry Commission land – surely if they allowed us to operate there, that would be enough? That wasn’t the case. So, one piece of advice is to find out what your business requires as soon as you can. We were only granted planning permission the week before we opened, which was incredibly stressful and obviously created tension with the locals. Also, we had no idea about the cost of running events. It’s a hard truth but for some businesses, you simply won't know how expensive it is until the bills and the invoices start coming in. 

Finding the right people is another big challenge. In that first year, it was pure luck we found our event director, who we wouldn't have survived without. She’d been the executive director of the BRIT Awards for the previous ten years, had just retired to the village where we were, and said she’d love to be on board. It was pure chance, but it taught us that people are everything. It’s really just about knowing exactly what you're looking for, what the job spec is, and being honest about the person who best fits that. 

One of the most important things we did before opening was hold an imagination tour for journalists. We showed them around the site, explaining that there would be a toy factory here and Mother Christmas’s kitchen here. We ended up on the front page of the Telegraph, with other newspapers lauding us as the UK's answer to Lapland. It was key because it meant that interest was there from the beginning.

That first year we were open for 37 days straight. We didn’t have a closed day because we didn't think about that in the early stages. We were just trying to sell as many tickets as we could. But it was another lesson learned – you need the odd day to reset, clean up and possibly do some repairs.

What makes LaplandUK different is it’s a purpose-driven company. We came at this industry with a different set of values – we always wanted to honour this moment for families and children. We’re always striving to be better – last year for example, inspired by a trip to Bavaria, we saw the way that stories were painted on the outside of houses, so we had a beautiful toy factory built, with some of the stories we've written in our own books painted onto the outside.

Looking forward, it's largely about the storytelling now. We want to develop the characters, develop the world, and just enrich the experience for everyone, so we’re always at least one step ahead of our competitors. We use British and Bavarian artists and designers to create our characters. We use West End costume makers and Hollywood set designers. We really don't spare any expense in making sure it's authentic. For the children, it has to be believable, and for the parents buying the tickets, they have to love everything they see. 

If someone's looking to CHANGE THEIR CAREER, I'd tell them BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, believe in your ideas and DON'T TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER – just keep following your dreams.

What it’s like working with your spouse is a question we’re asked a lot. I'm sure we do irritate each other at times, but that's where the gold comes from, because there's nobody else I could really spar with in a positive way to come to the best conclusion. He's really creative and will come up with lots of ideas, but I sort of capture them, filter them and find the ones that I think will work for the families. The beauty of it is that we both have the same shared goals, we both have the passion and we both have the purpose. It’s the magical chemistry that makes LaplandUK work – and probably why we never tire of it.

We've had very exciting discussions about making our stories into a feature movie. We've been to the States a couple of times to talk to producers over there, and to talk about taking the live event all around the world. The Elfcasts will also continue. Finally, we've always been in the charitable space, working with organisations like Make A Wish, Rays of Sunshine and Little Troopers, but we feel we need to organise ourselves in a more formulated way in that space. Rather than just gifting LaplandUK day trips to those who request them, we want to explore outsourcing magic in whichever way we can. It’s something I'm very excited about in the future. 

If somebody's looking to change their career, I’d tell them there's clearly a reason for that. You're obviously not entirely happy with the career you currently have, or you want to reinvent yourself, or you've got this wonderful idea. So, the first question to ask yourself is why you want the change. There is obviously a motivation to do it, but is it strong enough? For us, it was a burning desire to put something right. Second, you have to be tenacious and grow quite a thick skin. I never had one in the primary school classroom. But once you're in the public forum, you're definitely going to get people who criticise you. Believe in yourself, believe in your ideas and don't take no for an answer – just keep following your dreams. Oh, and a good business plan and a bit of advance financial planning never hurts…

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