Alison and Mike Battle spend the whole year, every year, thinking about Christmas. That might be your definition of heaven or hell, depending on your attitude toward the holidays, but for this couple, it’s certainly paying off.
This year, their holiday-focused business is on track to generate about $30 million in revenue.
In 2007, the couple launched Lapland UK, an immersive Christmas experience for families set in an English forest for six weeks each winter.
Over the years, they recruited Hollywood set designers, hired acting troupes and carefully created dozens of Christmas characters, each with their own detailed story, to host four-hour tours of “Lapland” that included ice skating on ice, toy making and, of course, a meeting with Santa Claus.
Since its first year, Lapland UK has welcomed over a million guests, including royalty and A-list celebrities such as Elton John and the Beckhams. Tickets for this year’s extravaganza, which cost between £59 ($72.50) and £149 ($183) each for anyone over the age of one, sold out months before its opening doors on November 11.
The Battles came up with the idea for Lapland UK after Alison, a former primary school teacher, became disappointed by the poor holiday experiences offered to her four sons during what she calls their “wonder years”.
“I was very passionate about giving our sons many magical moments that they could cherish and remember,” she says. Fortune. “During our boys’ years of belief we visited just about everything there was – department stores and steam trains and stately homes and everything in between – but we never found anything that, my opinion, corresponded to the importance I attached to that moment. .
“It was always very trivialized and commercialized, and I didn’t understand why this moment that was so precious to us as a family wasn’t really respected and honored for its true value.”
Alison and Mike have dedicated their lives over the past fifteen years to filling this gap in the market. From the start, they wanted young children to truly buy into the illusion that Lapland UK is a real, magical place that is home to Father Christmas and his elves.
The initiative saw them scouring antique markets for props – the couple say they “don’t make plastic” in an effort to be sustainable and preserve their “creative integrity” – to post in-depth storybooks about the residents of British Lapland and spending weeks in rehearsals each year to ensure visiting children can’t unravel the magic.
They send a personalized wax-sealed invitation to children before their ticket arrives, while parents are asked to secretly fill out a questionnaire about their child before the visit so Santa can talk to them in detail about his tastes and hobbies.
While it might seem fair to assume that all of this came naturally to Alison – who says she loved her job as a teacher so much that she “couldn’t believe someone was paying me to do it” – l Mike’s former professional life was very different from Mike’s. fraternize with toy manufacturers at the North Pole.
Before founding Lapland UK, he spent years working in the financial epicenter of London. But despite a “reasonably successful” career as a stock trader – a career that saw him headhunted by Goldman Sachs (an offer he declined) – Mike’s real passions lay elsewhere.
“As a child, I was always very talented in art: I knew how to paint, I knew how to draw, I was creative,” he explains. “But coming from a traditional family, my father kind of sent his son to the city to make money, so all that was put aside.”
Although his heart wasn’t 100% set on the financial industry, Mike says he’s grateful for the experiences he gained on the trading floor, which were “extremely helpful” in his second career.
“I had a great career in the city. I started working in different banks, I went down to the stock market, I became an independent trader,” he says. Fortune. “One of the things I learned was how to risk large amounts of money, and how to accept and be at peace with that. »
Mike adds that in his past life as an investor he became “very vision-driven”, which helped him “see what could be possible before we got there” with Lapland UK.
“But what was really special to me about my own journey was that all the creativity that I had put aside and bottled up, once the cork was removed, I found myself running the show, through the retelling of the stories that Alison told. and I write together, and anything and everything,” he says Fortune.
“It’s a risk, but you can change your life”
His passion for the project, however, did not prevent him from questioning the advisability of taking the plunge.
One of the major challenges the couple, especially Mike, faced early on was convincing others – and themselves – that what they were doing was worth it. When they shared their vision with people, they remember being met with skepticism and bewilderment.
“When I gave up the adult work I was doing, I wondered if I had gone crazy – I thought I had lost the idea of doing this, even though in my heart I believed this subject was worthy much better than it was,” Mike says. “But I looked in the mirror and wondered if I had gone crazy and I didn’t even know I was crazy.”
Alison remembers being embarrassed to tell her next-door neighbors about the business when they first had the idea.
“I was almost afraid of the reaction we would get because it felt like you had gone to join the circus, in this very trivialized sense. But we were, from the beginning, really passionate,” she says.
“People were like, ‘You’re giving up this great career and money and all these smart things you’re doing to go work with Santa and try to create a great experience for kids.’ Is this true, Mike?’ », adds Mike.
But he describes replacing the purse with stockings and Santa as a “return to my origin story.”
“I’m more myself than I’ve ever been, and I’m better and happier because of it,” he says. “It’s a big risk, a big jump off the cliff, but it’s doable. You can change your life, and some of the skills you probably learned in a previous profession can certainly be of value in a new one.
Part of this risk involved refinancing their home and borrowing money from friends and family to fund the launch of Lapland UK.
Although they received offers from potential investors, the Battles chose to keep the business firmly within the family and continued to reinvest profits into the business to ensure that remained the case.
“I always look at money as a person, and they say, I want this and I want that, and that may not be aligned with what’s best for the business,” Mike says. “For me it was more or less, leave me and Alison alone. Our program was aligned: we just need to make it brilliant. That was our agenda.
Alison agrees that not compromising on their vision is a big part of what has made Lapland UK successful.
“Don’t compromise: say no to most things, because saying yes will compromise access to your North Star,” she advises budding entrepreneurs. “We said no to virtually every approach along the way because we didn’t want any pressure to compromise.”
Mike highlights that sixteen years later, Lapland UK is still a 100% family business and two of the couple’s sons now work full-time within the business, working on brand management and digital development.
“If you have an investor, they will tell you: we want our money back in three years, and we want this and that, and your exit strategy,” he says. “We own everything, and there’s complete integrity, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’re so appealing to the public – because there’s real integrity in what we’re trying to do. actually do.”
Looking ahead, the couple see a big future for their business in Lapland, including possible international expansion and wider adoption of the Santa Claus tale told in their books.
“Our goal is to honor childhood together,” says Alison. “We do it with families, not with families – we make this world easier for them. So I think our future is just getting the story out to as many families as possible.
For now, that means welcoming 170,000 people into their hidden world of Swinley Forest by the end of December.
“It should be the most amazing celebration, you’re laying down these memories that you’ll keep for the rest of your life,” Mike says. “We need to change the game – it can’t be just a little bit better than what anyone has done before. We want to be the iPhone of Christmas experiences.