All aboard: runaway success of Santa train brings Christmas cheer
Rathwood launched its Santa train in 2007, at the start of the recession. It's now a festive favourite with revenues of €5.5m and a new park planned
Christmas is the last thing you'd expect parents to have on their minds as their children head back to school in September. However, within an hour of the tickets for this year's Rathwood Santa train going up for sale, 22,500 had been sold, according to James Keogh, managing director of Rathwood. They went up for sale on September 1. By late October, Rathwood's Santa train was already sold out for the weekends and nights before Christmas.
The Santa train, which set off in November and runs until Christmas Eve, is one of the attractions offered by Rathwood, a furniture store and garden centre in Rath, near Tullow, Co Carlow.
About 50,000 people a year visit the Rathwood Santa train, making it one of the more popular Santa attractions in the country.
"We have more adults than children going on the train at the moment because you get everyone going - from the parents to the granny and grandad and so on," says James.
"It's really looked on as a day out. One booking we took was for a baby and 12 adults."
It costs €16 for a child to visit Rathwood - and €10 per adult. So a family of six faces a bill of €84 to visit Santa in Rathwood. In the early Noughties, a visit to Santa in Ireland typically involved a trip to his grotto in the local shopping centre with no charge for the parents and a fee of anything from €5 to €10 per child.
So Rathwood - and the other Santa experiences that have cropped up around the country in recent years - are clearly more expensive than before.
However, people are willing to pay for them.
"The idea of just going to a shopping centre and getting two minutes with Santa doesn't hold anymore," says James. "People are very much looking for an experience now."
There is plenty of competition in the so-called 'Santa experience' market. Other popular venues include Christmas Island in Co Wicklow, Castlecomer Discovery Park in Co Kilkenny and Glendeer Pet Farm in Westmeath.
The experiences vary depending on the venue but typically last for between an hour and an hour-and-a-half, include a train ride to Santa's grotto or 'home', a meeting with Mrs Claus and Santa's elves, a visit to Santa himself, and a gift. Rathwood's Santa train also includes a walk through a forest to Santa's 'woodland home', and the opportunity to see Rudolph and the other reindeer along the way.
"It's a huge market and it's a growing market," says James."The competition breeds a better standard of experiences and it makes you change what you offer every year. If people are willing to spend €15 or €16 per child for a Santa experience, the experience needs to be up to a certain standard. If you don't meet expectations, people won't come back. We have made some really nice improvements this year - we will be driving through the woods this year and children will also be able to able to visit Santa reindeer stables for the first time."
Rathwood was originally set up as a furniture and garden centre by James's parents, Patrick and Carmel, more than twenty years ago.
The couple were small potato farmers before they set up the business. Indeed, the Rathwood centre which stands today had originally been a 3,500 sq ft potato shed until Patrick and Carmel converted it into a 10,000 sq ft shopping emporium.
The business has evolved over the years. It now also includes a 300-seat restaurant, clothes shops, a chocolate factory known as The Chocolate Garden, an animal park and an online furniture business.
The Santa train was originally launched in 2007. It was a new departure for the business which had primarily been a furniture and garden store until then.
The dive in furniture sales during the recession was proving to be a huge challenge for the business at the time - and it was for this reason that the company decided to focus on the development of seasonal activities.
"People didn't have the money to buy furniture during the recession - and furniture had built the business," says James.
"So we needed to find a hook to bring people here. That's what the Santa train was all about. We went back to basics and attracted as many fivers and tenners into the store as we could."
It was James's father, Patrick, who came up with the idea of the Santa train.
"It didn't start off as a Santa train," says James. "We had a small train already there which was just a little train for kids to go around in. Dad liked the idea of having a train that could go into the Coillte woods beside us. It was when we started to do the train that we realised why a Santa train would work. And it was the Santa idea which really got the train going. It gave a spark to the whole thing."
Rathwood is also well known for its Hallowe'en train in October, which involves a ride through a 'spooky forest' and allows families to choose and carve their own pumpkin.
"We have activities for every season," says James. "We have a teddy bear picnic which runs all summer long. It includes a visit to Mammy Bear, Daddy Bear, Baby Bear and Goldilocks. That's very popular."
Other activities run by Rathwood include an Easter Egg hunt, a Little Bo Peep event in the Spring, and a Cinderella tea party in September. All of these activities incorporate a train ride on the 'Rathwood Express'.
The decision to attract more fivers and tenners back into the store by offering attractions such as the Santa train has clearly worked - the company expects its revenues to hit €5.5m this year.
In the early Noughties, revenues were much smaller, at around €400,000 a year.
In 2012, Rathwood won the Store of the Year at the Retail Excellence Ireland awards.
"For us as a family, that's a great memory as we had had a horrible few years before that," says James.
"We were coming to the end of the recession at the time - and that award gave us the courage to persist."
James took over the business in 2009 when he was in his early twenties. He had worked in Ulster Bank before that - after graduating from DIT.
"I originally thought that I wanted to live and work in Dublin," says James. "I always thought I'd go into banking and I always thought my parents worked so hard. But then after living in Dublin, I found that you've such a great lifestyle living in the country. My commute to work is only 10 minutes. I'm working with people I know. That's something you don't get working in the city."
At the heart of James's decision to move back to Tullow were the challenges faced by the business during the recession.
"It was clear furniture sales weren't happening at the time," says James. "To see the pressure my parents were under, I couldn't but help out. My parents were very willing to open up and let me drive the business forward. I keep looking back on that. It was great of my parents to give their son such autonomy so early on."
James's parents are still very much involved in the business as is his younger brother, Thomas.
Although James was very young when he took over Rathwood, he feels the background of growing up in a family business stood to him - as did the tough years of the recession.
"It teaches you that you have to be responsible - and that if you don't take responsibility, things won't go well, or the business could fail," he says.
"My dad always says that the recession was a good character-building thing."
The company hopes to develop a park over the next three years so that it can offer even better experiences and activities than it does just now.
"We recently bought some land and we've started to develop that," says James.
"Our long-term plan would be open Rathwood Park. That would give us a staging area and the venue to really bring these experiences alive. In the next three years, we hope to have Rathwood Park open."
This Christmas will be a very different one for James and his wife Ann-Marie as they welcomed their first child earlier this year.
"This will be our first Christmas going on the train with Padraig which will be lovely," says James.
Who knows? Maybe little Padraig will inspire some new ideas for next year's Santa train.
Sunday Indo Business