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Listowel’s Elf on the Shelf
Featuring Shane Van Allen—Owner, President, Elf on the Shelf, Van Allen Insurance
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Inquiring minds want to know: how did dressing up as Elf on the Shelf begin? Assuming this wasn’t your idea—or maybe it was?
Definitely not. It all started on a peaceful Monday morning in December 2018. I usually take off the first week in December to go hunting, so there I am sitting in a tree stand all by myself enjoying nature. By the way, I haven’t shot anything in years and don’t have a desire to, I just really like being out there. My phone keeps going off and I know it’s coming from the office, but they know I’m out here so I’m wondering what’s with the constant texts. I check my phone and it’s our office group chat. I see a message saying they’ve come up with an idea that I should dress up as Elf on the Shelf. I put my phone back in my pocket and hope the idea doesn’t stick. Not even an hour goes by and they’re sending me pictures of one of our staff wearing a red onesie. One of our brokers, Charlene, decides to go to Walmart and get some felt to make the shoulder pads the elf wears and grab a Santa suit. So the office schemed up this whole idea while I was off in a tree. Within hours the costume was made and ready to go. The only other thing needed was a pair of white gloves, which I happened to have.
So you’ve got the suit, then what?
Our team said, “Shane, you love marketing (I do) and you’re in charge of that side of the business, so you should run with this and turn it into a marketing tactic.” I figured they were onto something. We’ll get some laughs and raise awareness for our brokerage, which was my original intent. But it snowballed into so much more. We put insurance marketing aside and just went with Christmas cheer because, I kid you not, the response from the community was overwhelming.
It started with just me in the office in funny poses where I’d sit and watch over staff. Or they’d put me on top of the fridge—generally just me in awkward positions which we started posting on our Instagram page. From there we started branching out to local businesses like the gym, bakery, sandwich shop, library and arena. As it spread, people got excited about seeing a grown man around town in red tights. We had to come up with more and more creative ideas to keep the momentum we were building.
Now that it’s become so well known within Listowel, do people approach you?
I can’t go anywhere in December without receiving compliments. That’s what keeps us going—how can you not love that feeling? Eleven months of the year we barely receive a compliment because that’s just the way things are these days, then December rolls around and we feel the love. I’ll often run into people downtown telling me I’ve made their day, or I’ll have people whisper that they know who I am when I’m not dressed up, like I’m Spiderman and they’ve discovered my secret. One lady who runs the funeral home told me she looks forward to seeing where the elf is every morning when she opens her computer. I know she must have a very emotional job, so to hear I bring her this much joy made my day.
It's become somewhat of a full-time job—I’m booking time with local police officers taking photos of me in the back of their cruiser or getting a photo in a dentist chair since elves are known to eat a lot of sweets.
I’ve noticed your family’s begun to make appearances in these photos dressed as elves—did that take some convincing, or have they also embraced the elf lifestyle?
It surprisingly didn’t take much convincing. My son Wade loves it. He has cystic fibrosis so we visit Sick Kids every three months. It just so happened we had an appointment in December, so I decided to dress up. It’s a tough place to be for obvious reasons, but when people saw me walk in as an elf, the staff were ecstatic, and the kids loved it. One of the dads said, “That’s so great that the hospital hired someone like you.” I had to tell him that no, they didn’t hire me, I’m just one of those dads that runs around town in an elf costume. It provides so many smiles along the way.
What does your staff think of how popular it’s become?
They tell me they love it, but I’m not sure if they actually love it or just love seeing me humiliate myself in public. But they have a lot of fun with it and often come with me to take pictures. One year we had a new employee starting in December and I asked him to come out with me for a couple hours to take pictures. He’s with me in the middle of the field in my truck which is almost stuck in snow. I’m trying to get as close as I can to the Welcome to Listowel sign to take a picture with it. At this point he’s probably wondering what he got himself into because he’d only been working with us for about four days and here we are stuck in this farmers field while his boss is trying to climb on top of this sign in red tights, which I’m sure isn’t the most appealing view for him, and I’m like “Welcome to Van Allen Insurance!”
What’s one of your most memorable appearances?
Our local egg grading hall asked if I’d come to the breakfast program fundraiser at the school. I show up thinking they wanted to take a couple pictures. Keep in mind I was 275 pounds at the time in a tight red suit—not the most flattering. As I look around, I realize that Olaf, Elsa, Gingy, Woody and Shrek are all there and they want me to take pictures with the kids dressed as Elf on the Shelf alongside these Disney characters in proper costumes. It was hilarious and awesome.
This initially started out as a way to market the brokerage—have you achieved that goal?
It’s worked well. We all spend money trying to get our names out there. I find that ads work, whether it’s a billboard, print or radio—they all have a very strong purpose. But with something like this, you can’t really put a dollar-value on it because it’s about the effort you’re putting into it. People are intrigued enough to share our business page—it’s one of the best marketing angles we’ve ever had. It's taught me a lot, even about my confidence. I’ve learned to not worry about it not being flattering because at the end of the day, it’s all part of the fun.
VOLUME 21 | ISSUE 6
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