Kate Freud meets the brains behind the magical Christmas world of LaplandUK
Any parent who’s ever visited their local Santa’s Grotto and come away feeling disheartened will understand what drove Alison and Mike Battle to set up LaplandUK 10 years ago. It was following yet another of these experiences, watching their young son perched miserably on the lap of a polyester-clad, fake-bearded Santa in the midst of a shabby grotto, that they realised there must be more to Christmas than this.
The couple – who have been together for 33 years and are parents to four boys – were aware of how fleeting childhood is, so always endeavoured to savour every minute. As a primary school teacher, Alison loved to celebrate all special occasions throughout the year, from Halloween and Easter to Chinese New Year and Christmas, but it was always during the festive period that things fell below expectations.
They tried to find the magic of Christmas everywhere from stately homes to garden centres, even splashing out a fortune to take the boys to Lapland itself, and though the scenery of Finland was something to behold, the rest of the trip was a sore disappointment. Father Christmas knew nothing about the children, Mike and Alison had to provide a present for him to gift them, and they had less than five minutes with the big man himself.
As they found their children on the cusp of losing their belief altogether, they had a light-bulb moment, and decided to create the fairytale themselves. Having worked in the city for years, Mike was looking for a way to express his creative side, and Alison was always full of ideas, so as they both turned 40, they took a leap of faith. “When we decided to go ahead and do it we were so nervous to tell friends and family, convinced they would think we were mad! But as soon as we made the decision people were nothing but supportive,” Alison explains.
It was February 2007, and not knowing where to start, their first port of call was the Forestry Commission, to find a suitable space to hold the event. Luckily the folks there loved the idea, and suggested the Bedgebury Pinetum, a stunning area of protected pine trees in Kent. That June, following a James Morrison concert held in the forest, the Battles arranged for hundreds of cards to be handed out saying simply, ‘Ssssssh… there’s a secret in this forest this Christmas’ with website details included. Before they knew it all 37,000 tickets had sold out.
Then the onerous task of actually organising the event began. They remortgaged their house, raising £1 million to cover the first year. “It was terrifying,” says Mike, “but we had absolute faith in what we were doing.” That said, it was a baptism of fire. “We always knew we wanted it to be a very personal experience for families,” said Alison, “so we started by making sure Father Christmas knew something about each child he saw, that they would get a great gift included in the price, and so on. But in terms of the scale of the rest of it – the journey to Lapland, the visit to the toy factory and Mother Christmas, it was a far less polished experience than it is today, with the film sets, artistry and actors we now have. At the time we really had no idea what was involved.”
The following year the Battles sold 50,000 tickets, and from then on it was a combination of pure determination and the extraordinary people they met along the way that has made LaplandUK what it is today. Mike explains, “We were sitting in a café in Ascot, admiring the décor and food, when we got chatting to the owner, a woman named Lisa Anderson. We told her about what we were doing with LaplandUK when she invited us to meet at her home that evening. When we arrived it turned out she had been executive producer at the Brit Awards for years, and had retired to run the café. She was full of ideas for what we could do moving forward and has been an integral part of the team ever since.” Likewise with Sonja Klaus (the name was not lost on them), a Hollywood set designer they happened to meet who helped them take the project to the next level.
Mike and Alison later found a bigger site at The Crown Estate near Ascot, and today up to 60,000 invitations are sent out for the event. They have since won awards, voted as Little London’s ‘Best Family Day Out’ two years in a row, and over the years have welcomed more than 100,000 families including everyone from Elton John – a regular visitor with his two boys – to the Beckhams, Paul McCartney and family, and the Royals including the Countess of Wessex and Zara and Mike Tindall. “The first year the Beckhams came it was just them and the kids, the following year they brought the grandparents, aunts and uncles, they loved it so much,” says Alison.
Today there are 20 characters, all with their own back stories and scripts to engage young minds. Each January, the Battles head to Nuremberg in Germany to the toy fair seeking inspiration for costumes and toys for the children to make in the workshop. It was also here they met a puppet maker whose creations were inspired by Grimms’ fairytales, with a mystical Northern European feel. The pair visited her at home – her cottage in the woods in deepest, darkest Bavaria – and she set about making puppets for LaplandUK that the Battles’ costume designer could copy at home. These include outfits for everyone from Whittle, head of the Toy Factory and Eeko, Mother Nature’s friend to Pixie Mixie, who makes the most delicious elven sweets.
When children are travelling through LaplandUK they not only meet these characters but have the chance to write letters to Father Christmas, they can ice skate, meet huskies and reindeer, and end their visit with a trip to see Father Christmas himself, a priceless memory that has brought many a tear to parents’ eyes.
Mike has two brothers, one who works in the city, the other as head of legal for ITN, and they both love nothing more than taking a shift as the man in the red suit each year. “There’s something life affirming about it,” Mike explains. “The world moves so fast, it’s easy to forget what’s important, but to see the look on those children’s faces when they meet their hero, it’s something you never forget.”
Alison and Mike have taken particular pleasure in being able to offer this experience to a broader audience through their ‘Superstar Days’, which are lower-capacity events for those with disabilities, military families and those from underprivileged homes. And each year after Christmas they take a well-deserved holiday before the process starts all over again. As Alison says, “We never set out to have a hugely successful company, we just wanted to create magic that our own children would love. And thankfully, it worked.”