All I want for Christmas is to make a small fortune

We go overdrawn, they get rich. INGRID KENNEDY meets this year's festive entrepreneurs

CHRISTMAS TREE LAND

Diane Rainford knows so much about spruce she has been described as a tree anorak. With her husband, Richard, she runs Christmas Tree Land, one of the largest retailers of Christmas trees in the North-west. The rest of the year they are farmers.

Richard started selling trees in his parent's farm shop, which gave us the idea for something bigger. Our vision was to create a unique display of trees in a large field - a forest effect rather than having them all bunched together. We started out with just a picnic table to sell from but we now hire a huge marquee with a small indoor display. It seems to impress the customers - when they first see the forest of 4,000 trees the normal reaction is "Oh, wow".

We provide a lot of trees to local businesses like Granada Studios, so from the beginning of November we are out delivering and erecting trees. The retail side kicks in from mid-December and then it's flat out until the 24th. It's great fun most of the time - you see people having the funniest arguments over what tree to buy and some even bring picnics. On the downside, it can be physically demanding, particularly when we have bad weather.

The business has expanded every year since we started about 20 years ago. We now make three times as much from Christmas Tree Land as from the farm. People are spending more - the average in 1999 has been about pounds 30 per tree compared to pounds 23 in 1998. This year we have gone on-line to a tremendous response, particularly from London. We've even got a tree in the Royal Mews.

By Christmas Eve I'm ready to shut myself away and not see anybody. We tend to take time off in January - this year we are taking the children to Disneyland, otherwise we head for some winter sun. In February we start preparing the farm for spring. When you run your own business you can't really afford to take too much time off.

I think Christmas is all about money now. I tend to be a bit Bah Humbug about it, but it can also be a lot of fun. We now have our own grotto with Santa and two real reindeers.

Christmas Tree Land (tel: 01744 885099; www.christmastreeland.co.uk)

THE MINISTRY OF FUN

James Lovell and Julian Pearson are both professional entertainers - a former clown and magician, respectively. Five years ago they started their own entertainment agency, the Ministry of Fun, based in East London. It is now one of Britain's main Santa agencies.

In our second year, one of our clients asked if we could provide a Santa. Naturally, we said yes but we didn't have any on our books so we put an ad in the paper and held auditions. Luckily Julian had done a bit of Santa-ing before so he knew what was required.

We now provide more than 500 Santas to department stores, shopping centres, openings and Christmas light ceremonies. Demand kicks off in November. Our Santas are mostly older male actors, although there has been the odd request for a Mother Christmas. There is more to it than just putting the costume on - it's a performance and Santas need to have charm and twinkling eyes. Sadly, these days you also need to make sure they have all been police checked. We aim to offer a very professional service and you won't hear stories of our Santas getting drunk or running riot.

We now do about a third of our business during the two-month run-up to Christmas and we could probably live off the money we make then. Demand gets stronger every year. Last year we had a shortage of Santas so this year we took a proactive approach and set up a Santa school. We auditioned and trained 18 new Santas, taught them everything from how to put on make-up to how to deal with difficult children.

For the rest of the year we provide all sorts of entertainers from stilt walkers to human statues. This year our biggest job has been a contract for Butlins.

In our experience it tends to be parents who fall for the hype of Christmas. Most of the children ask for the usual gifts like dolls, action men and computer games.

The Ministry of Fun (tel: 0171 407 6077)

GREEN GUIDE FOR CHRISTMAS

This year the first handbook for an environmentally friendly Christmas has been published by Green Guides. Managing director, Gavin Markham took over the original London Guide in 1997 and has since expanded the business to eight publications.

The idea popped up in August when I was looking at ways to develop our green handbooks. Christmas has become a time of over-indulgence, excess and waste and we seem to have got away from the traditional values. Publishing Green Guide for Christmas seemed an ideal way to get back in tune with nature and to show people that you can be green and still have fun. It's now possible to have a completely organic and environmentally friendly Christmas, from presents to food.

This year has been hectic. Although some of the entries for the Christmas guide came from our existing database, we wanted to tailor it specially. We have included farmer's markets for the first time to encourage people to shop locally for traditional seasonal products grown in their area. Cutting down on deliveries and foreign imports helps to reduce pollution. We put the guide together in just over four weeks.

For the rest of the year, I've been busy growing the number of regional editions we produce, as well as updating and improving the information. By the end of next year I hope to cover the whole country with our guides. We have also launched a web site this year that will provide a variety of news.

Christmas is no longer the time of magic I remember from my childhood. We are constantly encouraged to spend and consume more and more. Green Guide for Christmas looks back at the history and traditions of Christmas, but it's also meant to get people back into the spirit of Christmas again. Being green doesn't mean we have to give up anything, we just consume it in a different way.

Green Guides (tel: 0171 354 2709; www.greenguideonline.com)

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