Interactive experience at Hawthorn promises 'a different way to meet Santa'

The need for brick-and-mortar retailers to innovate is combining with a first-of-its-kind holiday branding effort at Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills.

"The Elf on the Shelf: Santa's Magical Photo Adventure" debuted Thursday on the main floor outside Macy's as a walk-through, interactive, photo-friendly experience.

"Nowadays, you can go anywhere and meet Santa. This is really an experience," said Jenna Velelekos, Hawthorn marketing manager.

It initially opened for two hours Thursday night with a $50-per-family benefit for Make-A-Wish featuring a reindeer petting zoo, hot cocoa bar and other activities.

Starting Friday, Santa will have regular hours through Dec. 24. The set and visit with Santa are free, but photo packages with St. Nick are available for purchase. Visit

"I like that it's interactive," said Christina Hanrahan, who was at the mall with her 3-year old son, Ethan, and got an unplanned preview. "Little kids don't like to just stand there."

Based on a popular children's book "The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition," the set features an oversize cocoa mug, sleigh, giant bookshelf and other diversions to give kids something to do while waiting to see the big guy.

"It's a different way to meet Santa," said Brad Reese, director of product development for Elf on the Shelf in Atlanta.

"We wanted to do pop-up Instagrammable moments. We wanted to make you feel like you're an elf," added Lauren Katz, owner and creative director of Agency808 an "experiential" marketing company based in Nashville.

"It's the first time Elf on the Shelf has done this," Reese said.

While the story has been told through a variety of media, this experience is new and billed as the first of its kind, according to Chanda Bell, the book's co-author.

"(This is) the mall thinking outside the box. You can't keep doing the same thing all the time," Velelekos said.

That's been the mantra of Dallas-based mall owner Centennial Real Estate, which has been planning a more than $200 million transformation of the mall inside an out, known as Hawthorn 2.0.

"Santa at the mall is a tradition, but right now we need to focus on keep giving people experiences," said Jeff Rutzen, Hawthorn general manager.

The first project taking shape is a $6.2 million revamp of the dated two-level interior center court to create a year-round, multiuse "central park" environment. The plan is to open that feature, which will include 60 & 21 Cafe and Wine Bar, on Black Friday.

"That's going to look cool, but that's just the first step in what's to come," said Mike Atkinson, Vernon Hills community development director.

Plans call for vacant anchors Sears and Carson's to be demolished and the space reinvented. Free-standing restaurants are planned along Milwaukee Avenue and, eventually, a boulevard flanked by retail, restaurants and residential uses will lead west to an outdoor plaza.

"Customers deserve to be shown Hawthorn 2.0 so they can feel it and they can experience it," Rutzen said.

For more on the redevelopment, visit

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  Ethan Hanrahan, 3, of Volo visits Thursday with the Elf on the Shelf on display at Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills. Mick Zawislak/
  Work continues toward a Black Friday opening of a revamped center court at Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills. Mick Zawislak/
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