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Three things to learn from the annual Christmas grotty experience

The Christmas period is all about tradition. The supermarket aisles filled with gifts and decorations, the Christmas TV ad battle and the traditional headlines about this year’s ‘Winter Blunderland’ Christmas-themed event.

Muddy fields rather than pristine snow; elves who are drunk, abusive or smoking; a ‘Polar Express’ which costs more, mile for mile, than the Orient Express; and a Santa experience which is more grotty than Grotto.

Year in, year out, the media reports on the heartbreak of those punters who have forked out £150 for a family ticket to feed carrots to a sad donkey wearing fake antlers before their 30 seconds with a Bad Santa. It seems like no matter how many disastrous Christmas theme parks are exposed every year, some people never learn.

I’m not just talking about consumers here: there are lessons that all of us who work in the experiential industry could do with taking to heart.

Here are just a few of them…

Location, Location, Location

There are very good reasons why the best Christmas experiential activations tend to take place in big department stores, shopping malls and transit hubs, not muddy fields outside Milton Keynes.

For one thing, it makes commercial sense, particularly for big brands. If you set up your extravaganza in a location which is going to see major footfall, particularly consumers in a shopping frame of mind, then it will directly impact sales.

It’s not just about how people get there or what state of mind they’ll be in when they arrive; it’s also about having enough space and resources on hand to deliver a great activation. Take shopping malls – they are already effectively retail theatres, with the infrastructure to allow you to deploy giant sleighs and chorus lines of dancing teddy bears.

Train stations and airports are other excellent places to run Christmas-themed events. Again, they have great facilities, good theatre-like spaces, doors and lifts which can handle large items of equipment, and lots of people who are going to spend the time waiting for their train or flight browsing the retail outlets.

Santa’s Little Helpers

Elves are supposed to be magical creatures who sing and dance as they make toys for good children. They’re not supposed to reek of cigarettes and booze, and they’re expected to be happy and cheerful no matter what the situation – not surly and abusive. The same applies to Santa himself, only more so.

If you think about it, though, professional, well-trained brand ambassadors are a key ingredient in the success of any activation, whether it’s a Christmas special, a Halloween Fright Night, an Easter Egg Hunt or sampling in a supermarket carpark.

The clue is in the job title: Brand Ambassadors. They represent the brand, which means they have to exemplify its values. Make sure the staff you deploy have been fully trained in all aspects of the brand and the product they will be promoting.

Check any requirements for staff with special skills – tech people, gymnasts and the like. And if there is going to be any contact with children, then make sure your ambassadors are CRB checked.

The true meaning of Christmas

One final point. Christmas is now a massive commercial opportunity and the biggest sales period of the year. But there are still plenty of people for whom Christmas has obvious religious overtones. That includes Christians but also people of other faiths.

Do not offend people by misusing religious symbols, by appearing to hijack the story of the Nativity to drive profit or by assuming that everyone you have contact with will be familiar with the story of Jesus’s birth.

You can still tap-in to the general feelings of goodwill that Christmas evokes in most people – just look at the current crop of Christmas ads. But whatever you do needs to be on-brand and genuine, not tawdry tat.