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If you think any chubby guy with a beard who looks good in red can be a mall Santa Claus, Susen Mesco will soon set you straight. “You can’t play Santa,” says Mesco, director of the Professional Santa Claus School in Denver. “You have to become Santa. … We spend the first three hours getting the men into the mind-set.”
Department stores began hiring inhouse Santas in the 1860s, and the country’s first Santa Claus school opened in 1937. Now there are at least half a dozen Santa schools as well as Santa conventions, workshops, and festivals where people can to learn to play the big guy. Mesco, who also runs an event-planning company, started her school in 1983. This year about 30 would-be St. Nicks signed up for the five-day, $850 program around Labor Day. “We used to get truck drivers and bartenders and construction workers who were off-season,” she says. “Now we’re getting stockbrokers, realtors, and accountants.”
The men learn how to market themselves, set prices, and review contracts. There’s a five-hour session with a child psychologist and meetings with a make-up artist, a stylist, and a nutritionist. And, yes, they’re trained to work with reindeer. “The animals can be extremely dangerous,” says Mesco.
When Tom Valent attended the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, Mich., about 130 miles northwest of Detroit, in 1976, he was one of just three students. Today, as “dean” of the three-day program offered in October, Valent attracted 100 aspiring Santas and 10 Mrs. Clauses. For $390, the nonprofit offers students lessons in reindeer etiquette, beard curling (90 percent of the men are naturally bearded), the history and legend of Santa, and accounting and marketing. “Some are coming because they’re unemployed. I don’t ask about it,” says Valent, who runs a construction company when he’s not teaching the finer points of Santa-speak. “We don’t talk about wages, but returning students help the new ones with jobs.”
Mesco says mall Santas earn between $15 and $35 an hour and work 10 to 12 hours a day. The season can begin right after Halloween, and the only day off is Thanksgiving. “Their income partly depends on their stamina,” she says. And tips? “It’s very appropriate to tip Santa,” Mesco insists. (It’s probably not appropriate to do it in front of junior.)
Rick Hyman first attended the Howard Santa School in 2003 after retiring from a job in security in the foreign service. He’d already been a volunteer Santa for three decades. Hyman, who’s 66 and a biker, is booked for the season at a Bass Pro shop near Atlanta. Last year he met with 26,000 kids. “Most Santas will make between $8,000 and $12,000 a season,” he says. “I make more. It boils down to experience.”
The real Santa might shudder, but the main reason there are so many Santa schools is that mall owners realize—but don’t like to talk about—how much a guy with a big bottom can pad the bottom line. Simon Property Group, for one, arranges corporate sponsorships of the holiday experience; Gymboree and TV network ABC Family are among sponsors this year. So is a business called ScentSicles, which is supplying a Douglas fir scent for the sets where kids meet Santa.
There’s another business opportunity: photos with Kris Kringle. Simon’s Santa supplier, Noerr Programs, will offer photos for $20 to $50 at 180 of its malls around the country. “If anything, the harder economic times make it more important to have Santa,” says Les Morris, a Simon spokesman. “Maybe the family doesn’t have as much money to spend but they can go to the mall and get photos with Santa and talk to Santa.” This year, 146 Simon malls will also offer a night where animal lovers can have photos taken of their pets with Santa. “Of course, the more time people spend in the mall, the more likely they’ll shop and eat there,” says Morris.
Glimcher Realty Trust, which owns 24 malls in 15 states, uses a company called Worldwide Photography, whose Santas—like New York Yankees infielders—have multiyear contracts. They send one or two Santas (never to be seen at the same time) to each mall. This year, Glimcher will offer virtual queuing so families who pay for photos don’t have to wait in line. They can shop and be notified via cell phone when their turn is close. “It’s for those who are getting their photo taken,” says Jessi Fausett, director of marketing at Glimcher.
Noerr, the Arvada (Colo.)-based company that works with Simon, conducts its own Santa University each summer and is employing 265 Santas this holiday season, says spokeswoman Ruth Rosenquist. “Many of our Santas have been with us for a long time. You don’t just decide you want to be Santa one year on a whim,” she says. “You have to have the heart and the appearance.” That is, the beard, though not necessarily the girth. At Noerr’s four-day school, held for the past five years in July for men already employed by the company, Santas learn how to bleach their beards without losing any hair, how to talk to children and the press, and how to pose with pets.
Noerr is also working to make Santa a year-round franchise with its Be Merry Santa program. This includes a Facebook (FB) page where people can talk to Santa anytime and a website for kids that offers the chance to earn badges. “They can get a badge for sharing, caring, making a healthy choice,” says Rosenquist. At the end of the year, the kids bring their badges to Santa for congratulations—and entry into a sweepstakes contest.
Santa may be a business, but Mesco says some things are unacceptable. Santa, she insists, is in public relations, not sales. “At the most, I’ll offer to put together a coupon booklet,” Mesco says. “When we hand the kids a candy cane, Mom gets a coupon booklet. That way Santa doesn’t have to say, ‘Go to Macy’s.’ ”
The bottom line: Santa schools train bearded guys who can make $8,000 to $12,000 a season listening to kids’ holiday wishes. Reindeer etiquette is included.