This year’s holiday photos will have a decidedly pandemic feel: No more sitting on Kriss Kringle’s lap or whispering in his ear. Instead, venues are increasingly requiring reservations, masks and temperature checks. Santa is hosting drive-through events, attaching face shields to his hat and trading in his white cloth gloves for disposable ones to protect himself — and others — as coronavirus cases skyrocket to new highs around the country.
Although some retailers, such as Macy’s, have suspended Santa visits or moved them online, many others are forging ahead with extra precautions and backup plans, in hopes of getting customers into stores during a particularly fraught holiday season.
“Everything is different this year, but people are finding a way to keep that traditional Santa experience,” said Mitchell Allen, owner of the staffing firm Hire Santa, where virtual bookings have grown tenfold but still make up a sliver of the company’s total revenue. “It’s unexpected, to be honest."
The stakes are especially high. The pandemic has sent a number of prominent retailers into bankruptcy and disrupted every part of the industry, from supply chains to consumer behavior. Many retailers are still struggling to make up for lost sales from coronavirus-related closures in the spring. Another round of shutdowns just as the holiday season is kicking off, they say, could be devastating.
Santa, though, has become a symbol of retailers’ optimism, even as challenges abound. Santa-booking companies say overall appointments are down about 40 percent, and many Santas are dropping out of the workforce because of health concerns. Even so, store executives and mall owners have spent months — and tens of thousands of dollars — trying to reimagine Santa’s Wonderland for the coronavirus era. The goal, they say, is to spread holiday cheer (but not the virus).
“Santa can’t give out hugs or candy canes this year, but people still want to see him,” said Mark Brenneman, 70, who has been playing Santa for nearly five decades. “They want hope. They want normal.”
But normal can be difficult during a pandemic. Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., canceled in-person Santa visits this month after the governor issued an executive order restricting all social gatherings, indoors and outdoors.
Santas are also nervous. Many are in their 70s and 80s and have health conditions such as diabetes that put them at particularly high risk of coronavirus complications. Brenneman, who owns the booking firm Santa Claus and Co. in Phoenix, said about half of the 30 white-bearded men he employs are sitting the season out, and a few are doing only outdoor events.
But at least a dozen Santas, he said, will continue to work because they need the money. “A lot of these guys are living on Social Security checks alone, so it’s a tough decision for them to make — their health or extra income,” he said.
A Santa gig, he said, can easily bring in hundreds of dollars a day. Brenneman charges $200 an hour early in the season and as much as $600 an hour on Christmas Eve. Overall bookings are down about 40 percent this year, but the company still has at least 300 events on its calendar.
Brenneman and his employees are making more house calls, too. With most corporate events and school visits canceled, more families are inviting Santa into their homes to read stories, perform magic tricks or sing carols from a distance. Some are renting golf carts or horses and buggies to parade Santa and Mrs. Claus around their neighborhoods.
“We have to give people hope,” he said, “more today than any year in the past.”
‘Santa’s sanitization squad’
Bass Pro Shops began offering free photos with Santa during the 2008 recession, when the country was in need of a collective pick-me-up. It turned out to be an overnight success that helped drive sales and boost the company’s brand.
Now the outdoors retailer, which also owns Cabela’s, is hoping to re-create some of that magic, even if Old Saint Nick is stuck behind an acrylic shield and elves are pulling double duty as “Santa’s sanitization squad.” Demand has been brisk: 95,000 families stopped in for photos during Santa’s first week at 176 stores.
“A lot of our customers told us they want the event to continue,” spokesman Jack Wlezien said. “They said: ‘We’ve already had to sacrifice so much this year. We’d really like to be able to see Santa.’ So then the question became: How can we pull this off while also protecting Santa, our shoppers and employees?”
Photos are by appointment only, and all visitors must undergo a temperature screening. The company also has backup plans, such as moving the set outdoors, in case of new shutdowns and restrictions.
Other retailers are making similar calculations. Neiman Marcus has done away with its popular breakfast-with-Santa events and is enlisting the jolly old elf to deliver curbside orders to customers’ cars instead. More than 130 shopping malls owned by Brookfield Properties are offering their own twist on the North Pole, using oversize sleighs and fake campfires to keep visitors at least six feet apart.
Overall, Santa visits are expected to decline about 65 percent from last year, when more than 10 million families took their children to pose for pictures at malls and stores, according to GlobalData Retail. The majority of those people also spent money at nearby shops and restaurants during their visit, the firm said.
The SoNo Collection, a mall owned by Brookfield in Norwalk, Conn., is offering virtual visits this year for $25. But for those who would like to see Santa in the flesh, he’ll be greeting shoppers from inside an acrylic snow globe on the third floor.
“Santa has survived so many things — the Spanish flu, the bubonic plague — and I just couldn’t bring myself to tell my kids that he was afraid of covid-19,” said Kathryn Burgess, a Richmond-based photographer who designed the snow globe and spent $10,000 manufacturing it. “But we had to come up with a creative plan to protect him.”
Her acrylic barriers, which she sells for as much as $4,000, are being used by nearly 50 malls, schools and hospitals this holiday season.
What if Santa gets sick
Just about everything is bigger in Texas, Renee Davis said, and that includes Santa’s plans for the pandemic.
Davis, who owns events company Santa Express Central, recently spent $10,000 on a custom “hot rod sleigh” for Santa to drive to local parades, neighborhood events and hospitals. She is coordinating more outdoor events, including drive-throughs where children can drop off letters to Santa and take photos from their cars.
“It’s like re-creating the wheel with every client,” said Davis, who co-founded the company with her husband in 2002. “I’m working harder than I ever have in my life.”
The company is committing to fewer bookings this year and has backup plans in case Santa gets sick or has to quarantine. It has become more difficult to find qualified Santas with proper training and real beards who are willing to do in-person visits, Davis said.
There are more-practical considerations, too. Davis has spent months stockpiling hand sanitizer to last Santa the entire holiday season. And since masks ruffle his beard and muffle his voice, she has been buying up plastic face shields that connect to his glasses.
“We have to protect Santa, and we have to protect the child,” she said. “That’s the most important thing this year.”