Victoria Smith meets ‘Ellie the Elf’ from Suffolk’s hidden luxury retreat to talk about why she loves the festive season and what’s happening this Christmas at Retreat East.
Tell me about your role at Retreat East.
I’m the event manager so I look after all manner of events. So, we will host anything from weddings to private dinner parties and corporate functions and then recently we’ve introduced some Christmas workshops. So we’re going to do wreath making, centrepiece making and truffle making workshops. And my job is to bring lots of events in and get more people on site to enjoy all manner of events.
What are you working on in the lead up to Christmas?
We are hosting our first Christmas party nights this year – there are four nights in December. I’ve hosted Christmas party nights at other venues in the past but it’s a new venture for Retreat East which is very exciting. I love Christmas party nights, basically anything to do with Christmas, I’m there!
We’re also going to be running Christmas workshops from the 2nd December and they’ve been so popular that we’ve had to add an extra two dates. We’ve got a lady called Emma from The Suffolk Florist showing people how to make a wreath or centrepiece for their table and they get a two-course lunch with us and they get to take what they made home with them which is lovely.
And of course we’ve got Christmas Day and New Year’s Day events too – the big ones!
Have you been collaborating with other local businesses for Christmas?
The whole thing with Retreat East is [that] we try to get local people involved because that makes it nice and personable, so even with our food we try to grow our own food and use that in our kitchen. It’s all very personal to us. But we also love to get local companies involved, for example Emma from The Suffolk Florist we followed her on Instagram and then invited her in and discussed combining forces so we’re mutually benefitting from that.
We used to be a members only club up until three years ago and in the space of a year we’ve changed massively in terms of how busy we’ve got and how popular we are, but there’s still a long way to go. There are still people who show up every day who say they never knew we existed so our aim is to become more well-known so that we are on people’s radar, but be known locally as well.
What are you doing differently for Christmas this year?
Obviously this year is going to be completely different to last year when we were in lockdown. Last Christmas we only had about 16 people for lunch and that was our residents, but this year we’re already up to 55. So we’ll be able to have a nice buzzing atmosphere and it’ll be really lovely.
Normally we would only host people who are already staying here for our Christmas package which runs for three nights from Christmas Eve so it’s very personal to them, but this year we’re opening it up to non-residents as well so people who aren’t staying can still come and have Christmas lunch with us. We just want to be more inviting and give people that luxury that they don’t have to cook on Christmas day, they can come and have lunch here and they don’t have to worry about the washing up!
What’s involved in the three-night Christmas Package?
So because we want our staff to have a nice Christmas too, we aren’t hosting breakfast in the Great Barn on Christmas morning. Instead, we’ll take round a hamper to everyone’s barns so they can have breakfast in their barns at their own leisure. This means the guests can have a nice leisurely morning but the staff can also enjoy Christmas morning at home with their family and friends too, so staff won’t come on site until about 11am on the day.
And then people can come into the [Great] Barn from 12pm, enjoy an arrival drink and then a four-course Christmas dinner and they can stay until 6pm when we close the doors, again so our staff can clear up and then go home to have time with their families as well.
On Boxing Day, breakfast is served in the Great Barn and then the residents can go out for a lovely walk – we have 35 acres for them to explore. The spa will also be open so if they want to book in treatments or use the sauna, steam room and hot tub they can. It’s up to them how they’d like to relax and have a lovely time.
Why do you love the Christmas planning?
Because I love Christmas! I am all about Christmas ever since I was little. I love Christmas more than my own birthday, I absolutely love it. I’m 32 years old and I still wake up every hour or so in the middle of the night because I get so excited about Christmas. And I don’t think that’s going to change!
I mean I have Christmas in every single room of my little one-bedroom house. If I had it my way it would be the same here, I would go to town on every single little barn as much as I possibly could, like ‘Buddy the Elf’ would. But the budget doesn’t stretch that far unfortunately! We have a Christmas tree in every barn and we decorate them in rustic, farmhouse, cosy-Christmas vibe and the Great Barn will have the fire lit. It’s got to be twinkly lights, Christmas trees, everything!
How else are you decorating the site?
So, last year in the Great Barn we had twinkly lights and this year we’re going to have festoon lighting hanging down and then potentially some big paper stars and a garland across the fireplace. And on the farmhouse table we’re going to have a big centrepiece laid out with greenery and baubles and candles and all the other tables will have their own little centrepieces as well. Depending how bookings go we could potentially have the big Christmas tree in the Great Barn but if we sell too many places for Christmas lunch we can’t have a big tree inside so it would have to be outside. But we’ll still make a feature of it and it’ll still look beautiful.
Are you already planning next year’s Christmas décor?
Yes! The general manager is very keen to change the lighting so if we have a drop down festoon lighting for this year for Christmas, next year we’ll have a different sort of lighting. So it’s ever-changing. We get a lot of repeat-guests especially over Christmas and New Year it will be nice for them to not see the same decorations every time.
I want people to come in and feel wowed and feel happy that they’re here and that they can relax and have a good time.
Why do you love working at Christmas specifically in the hospitality industry?
It’s just such a lovely atmosphere to be around over Christmas because you’ve got all walks of life coming through the door, whether they’re having a bad day or a good day if there’s Christmas music going or nice cheery staff speaking to them it makes a world of difference. For me it’s about making the venue look Christmassy and just look WOW. And when you walk through the door you think, ‘I feel so festive and cosy this is amazing’.
Christmas is about your friends and family and it’s been a tough couple of years. If these couple of years have shown us anything it’s how important it is to make time to spend with your loved ones because you just don’t know what’s around the corner.
And ever since I was younger I’ve always said I’m never going to work Christmas I’m going to be with my friends and family but a few years ago I ended up working Christmas day and it’s shown me that it’s just such a nice industry to be in and you can make it enjoyable and it’s a nice feeling that you’re spreading that joy onto others. You’re looking after other people and making sure they have a nice time and that’s a great feeling.
Why is it you love Christmas so much?
As long as I can remember my parents made Christmas so magical – that’s what made it stay with me. And I just have such fond memories of being with my friends and family over Christmas and looking forward to that time.
We had our little traditions when we were younger like we all used to watch a Christmas movie on Christmas Eve night together, and then Christmas morning I’d wake up ridiculously early and have to be told to go back to bed because it’s way too early to get up.
It’s just those memories that I have but it’s also building new memories too. No Christmas is the same and every year I look forward to it, I just adore Christmas.
I love seeing how excited my nieces and nephews get and it’s just about passing that on, not only for children but for everybody. You just want everybody to have a lovely time and put aside the tough times they’ve had for that one day a year, if you can make it special and memorable for a good reason then you’re winning.
I should just be Ellie the Elf as my job! I have an elf outfit in the back of my car at all times just I case I need a change of clothes for a kids birthday party or something. I live for Christmas!
Now for the most important question…what’s your favourite Christmas film?
So, my number one Christmas film is Polar Express but I also love Elf, Home Alone 1 and 2 and Muppets Christmas Carol. I love so many Christmas films but those have to be my favourites.
I even love what I call the ‘crappy Christmas films’ that they put on Channel 4 on a Sunday, or even on Netflix there’s some right old cheesy Christmas films. I love watching them. They’re awful, like they’re so bad that they’re good if that makes sense!
And my favourite Christmas song of all time is Last Christmas by Wham, it’s my ringtone on my phone all year round!
To find out more about the festive events going on at Retreat East this Christmas season, head to www.retreateast.co.uk/packages