Inspired by the mind of JR Tolkein and his Letters from Father Christmas, Emily Beckloff began penning her own letters of correspondence with Saint Nick in 2009 as a means of adding a little extra festive magic for her own family under the name the International Elf Service. By 2014, Beckloff had opened her own imagination up to the wider world, with the launch of the International Elf Service online platform, a means of sharing the concept with families around the globe.
Just last month, Beckloff and her International Elf Service, a personalised letter writing concept that allows children and families to embark on a series ‘of literary journeys with each other for family time to be treasured’ took home the Gold Award for Best Advent Calendar in the Independent Toy Awards 2020.
That, in a market becoming increasingly competitive and filled with a growing number of leading children’s IP and toy brands, is no mean feat, marking a win for the traditional independent whose name has been on the rise within the indie toy retail scene for the past six years. With the Award now sitting on the (figurative) mantle piece, Christmas peeking its head over the horizon, and plenty more to come from the International Elf Service itself, ToyNews decided it was time to catch up with Emily Beckloff to learn a whole lot more about the business.
Hello Emily, thanks for taking time to chat with us. So, to kick us off – tell us about the International Elf Service. Where did the idea come from and how did you see the business transition into what it is today?
I was curled up in front of our fire reading ‘Letters from Father Christmas’ by JR Tolkein, where he wrote notes to his children from the North Pole, when I suddenly thought: ‘I could leave our two very young children a note each day from the North Pole in their wooden Advent House. It would be such a lovely, experience-rich and chocolate-free Advent Calendar idea.’
They were teeny tiny notes at first: things like ‘Father Christmas has lost one of the buttons off his jacket! He ate nine helpings of Cherry Pie, and it pinged off and flew somewhere behind the Giant Lollipops in the Elves’ Workshop!’ Then as the children grew, the letters got more substantial, until they turned into one long Christmas story with a new ‘bit’ being published each day, like the pages of a book. And there, International Elf Service was born.
It’s a very charming concept, and congratulations on the recent award. What does the International Elf Service bring to the children’s market today? What does it mean to see the popularity of the company reflected in the award win?
We were so thrilled to win the Gold Award for Best Advent Calendar. When we heard we had won, we couldn’t contain our excitement. It’s so wonderful to be recognised for all the hard work and passion we have. We’re so happy that the judges love our products as much as we and our customers do.
We find that people adore the magical aspect of our personalised International Elf Service Christmas Elf letters, and that families can do as much or as little with the letters as they wish. The letters can mysteriously appear around the home, at the end of the bed, or enticingly tucked into the Christmas tree. They really are something that spark utter joy and magic, and with childhood being such a precious time, the letters enable families to make the most of that magical time in their lives, when children truly believe anything is possible.
Children also love nothing more than knowing something the adults don’t! They love these insights into the top-secret world of the Elves’ Workshop and the North Pole. And that their parents have nothing to do with it! The pleasure the children get from showing their parents these magical letters is priceless and really create special moment and memories that are treasured forever. We’ve had many messages from parents of children who have often refused to read, waiting with bated breath to read their next Christmas Elf Letter. And that’s exactly what these magical letters are intended to do – to ignite imagination and inspire children to read in the most exciting and magical ways.
Unlike other conventional creations, International Elf Service doesn’t focus on behaviour or a naughty or nice list. Instead, our Christmas Elf letters combine delightful storytelling and illustrations with the excitement of family traditions. International Elf Service is all about promoting family time, inspiring imagination, taking children and families on magical literary journeys and creating childhood memories to treasure forever.
Our Christmas Elf Letters are also brought to life with beautiful hand-drawn illustrations by our very talented illustrator, with each letter covered with splats, smudges, and splodges that you’d expect from busy Elves who make a huge amount of mess. We also unveil new themes, mysteries, pranks and adventures each year, so children can follow International Elf Service year on year, taking them to a world of Magical Wind Machines, Cinnamon Mines, and Emergency Pyjama Meetings.
Our Christmas Elf Letters are also created using 100 per cent recycled paper and renewable twine, with our eco-friendly personalised brown envelope bundles bound with rustic jute twine. We wrap each personalised collection of letters in beautiful, sustainable boxes, and sit the letters and envelopes upon natural wood-filler spirals which we source from pine and spruce excess from managed forests (or as we like to say…wood shavings from the Elves’ workshop!) We then complete the gift box with a bow of soft, cotton Candy Cane cord for an extra dollop of festive delight.
For us, International Elf Service and our Christmas Elf Letters offer a fantastic alternative to the traditional Advent Calendar. Our letters offer children and families a chocolate-free, experience-rich and plastic toy and screen time alternative Advent Calendar that really inspires and promotes important family time; encouraging children to be children and to enjoy reading as an escape to a magical world where their imaginations can run wild. And in years to come, together you can look back on your letters which create a stunning Christmas book in disguise and enjoy a treasured keepsake.
How do you think the award win and the popularity of the brand is reflective of current consumer tastes and trends?
I believe we are going forwards by moving backwards in some ways. We’re embracing older and more traditional family values. That doesn’t mean we aren’t embracing future, technology and social advancements, but we are choosing enriching experiences that bond us closer as families. Being more aware of our children’s mental health and how we can raise strong healthy children that will love this earth a little more than we have.
This year has changed everyone’s thinking and lives. How can we not embrace the positive movements, whether it be the pandemic forcing us to engage, listen and be present with our families, or the difficult conversations and positive messaging with our children as a result of what they are seeing in the news.
International Elf Service is all about giving children and families a reason to take time out of our busy schedules, slow down, and be present, reading and engaging with our children and allowing them to immerse themselves in magical childhood experiences that every child should have the chance to do.
Creativity is clearly at the heart of the business, whether that’s storytelling or arts and crafts. What’s your background and how has this influenced the direction of the business and the community around it?
I grew up in the countryside, and would spend all my time submerged in books, crafts, music and nature. I’ve always been so Christmas-mad that I drove my parents potty. I constantly wanted to be making or doing something ‘Christmassy’, and I wanted, more than anything, to know what life up in the North Pole was really like!
I’ve never really warmed to the big brother concept that ‘Father Christmas and the Elves are watching you’, because to me Christmas magic is for everyone, no matter what. It isn’t related to behaviour in any way, and it’s there to be enjoyed and experienced by all. I’ve always been an avid reader, devouring piles and piles of books as a child – often reading several at once! I loved being inside the different worlds and the riches that reading can give. I’ve always wanted to pass that love on to others, and write stories that children really want to read and immerse themselves in.
What does a typical year look like for the business? When does activity start ramping up for you guys?
It’s Christmas all year round for me and for International Elf Service. I write the letters from January to March, working closely with my fabulous Editor who lives in Italy. Then my amazing illustrator, who lives in France, works away at creating the bespoke designs and illustrations for each individual letter – so each one is different every year.
We then ‘tweak and perfect’ and then the boring tech-side kicks in – stitching everything together and putting it all in to the backend of the website, ready to have the children’s individual names added to every personalised letter and envelope. We make fun and magical new videos, and take new photos each year (one featuring our obliging and much-loved Christmas mouse!). Then we source our recyclable, eco-friendly materials, wood spirals and twines, make sure we have enough materials for the orders and off we go.
The orders usually start coming in from around July when the new annual Edition becomes available. Then It ramps up to dizzying heights in November ready for International Elf Service Elfie’s Christmas Letters Ultimate Story Bundle Advent Calendar to make it into people’s houses on time for the first letter to arrive on 1st December.
What have you guys got in the current portfolio?
International Elf Service is all about taking children on unforgettable, magical literary journeys to both the North Pole and Fairyland. All through handcrafted, personalised letters. We offer a range of magical letters for all children including giggle-inducing Birthday letters; themed fairy letters covering a range of big feelings or experiences that help support children’s emotional wellbeing and development; and enchanting letter bundles from the Tooth Fairy.
New for 2020, our International Elf Service Personalised Christmas Memory Box Tradition and International Elf Service Personalised Baby’s First Christmas Memory Box Tradition boxes enable you to preserve 20 years of special Christmas Day family memories, by recording key events on 20 beautiful personalised pages. We have a lot more to come too so watch this space – our Elves and Fairies are very busy right now…
What plans have you got to continue to build the portfolio over the months and years?
We have some very exciting 2021 plans and some really exciting new literary options coming for older children and newborns. Mother Christmas also suggested that lots of elderly people (much like herself) also love to read the news from the North Pole. So, we are working closely with her to help spread Christmas magic and cheer… not just to our younger audience, but to everyone who loves to transport themselves to magical worlds and immerse themselves in the magic of literary journeys.
How have you seen the arts and crafts market evolve in recent years? How are you guys tapping into the changing space? What’s the next step for the International Elf Service?
Yes, we’ve noticed that there is a huge movement and a lot of requests about how we ensure we are a sustainable company. I love writing back with our sustainability values as it’s one of our core values and so important to us.
Consumers are more demanding that ever today and want assurance that the products they buy for their children and families add value to their household, are eco-friendly and are making a positive contribution to the health and wellbeing of our planet.
We’ve recently moved all our clear packing to compostable packaging, and we love hearing stories of children digging them into their veggie patches!
We’ve also noticed a significant change in consumer behaviour. They are focusing on ‘less is more’ today, looking for more meaningful gifts and teaching children the benefits of reading and power of the pen.
We are also constantly evolving our products and listening to our consumers, asking our Elves and Fairies what they think too. We’ve had huge demand for more family keepsake traditions, which is why this year we launched our Personalised Christmas Memory Box Tradition and Personalised Baby’s First Christmas Memory Box Tradition boxes for families.
Anything you’d like to shout about?
We are overwhelmed with the number of messages telling us how much our letters have affected the way siblings interact with each other in such a positive way. And we hope to share the magic of International Elf Service with as many families as possible.
Why not grab a hot chocolate, get cosy and join us at https://internationalelfservice.com/ to escape with us to a world of magic, adventure and the perfect literary gift for any occasion?