Children pose for a photo with Santa Claus, who is sitting behind a plexiglass umbrella, in the Bass Pro Shops.
Source: Bass Pro Shops
It’s an annual tradition for many families on vacation: pack the kids in the car and wander to the local mall to visit Santa, so you can rattle off a vacation wishlist and snap a picture – one that may be on the lands christmas card.
But few kids will be sitting on Santa’s lap this holiday season, due to the precautions that come with the Coronavirus pandemic.
A holiday tradition that dates back to the 19th century is reconsidered by retailers, mall owners, and men and women who spend their holiday season playing the roles of Santa and Mrs Claus. Bass Pro Shops will place Santa Claus behind plexiglass shades Macy’s starts an online Santa experience. Mall owners including Macerich and Taubman get creative with their vacation schedule to drive traffic to their malls. One woman even started her own business selling inflatable snow globes to keep Santa and the children who visit safely safe.
This year “Santa” Stephen Arnold, President and Chief Executive Officer of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santa Clauses, says Santa’s experience will be “vastly different” for the roughly 2,000 members of his organization who receive work in malls, schools, hospitals, churches, and individual home visits.
Amid a series of changes, “virtual visits have exploded,” he said.
But shopping malls, arguably more than other venues, still need the lure of Santa and Mrs. Claus – maybe now more than ever.
The traffic outlook is grim for a time that typically draws a lot of customers, especially during key moments like Black Friday. According to a poll published in October by the International Council of Shopping Centers, only 45% of Americans plan to venture into a mall this holiday season, up from 64% who visited a mall last November and December.
“I have no doubt that Santa and Mrs. Claus have been a draw for the mall for the most part and in the past,” Arnold said. “And the mall has benefited from the people who come to take pictures, especially when a husband and wife can go and the wife is in line and the husband can shop and vice versa.”
Bass Pro Shops is a retailer known for its annual Santa experience.
From Saturday there will be a contactless visit with Santa Claus. The hunting and fishing products retailer, which also owns the Cabela chain, will put clear shields on all Santa Clauses this year. Reservations and temperature checks are required. And the company said it would use its parking lot to hold Christmas parades and serve hot cocoa.
“With tons of activities canceled and families experiencing added stress, it’s more important than ever to deliver free Christmas magic and help create precious vacation memories,” said Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops.
In the meantime, Santa won’t be visiting Macy’s department store chain this year – ending a nearly 160-year tradition. Every year, Macy’s said its flagship Herald Square in New York welcomed more than a quarter of a million visitors to Santaland.
This year Santaland will be virtual. Macy’s will Start the event on November 27th on their website for families looking for vacation activities at home.
Mall owners are also trying to get creative with their own programming.
“People are hungry for the things in life that feel ‘normal’ and comfortable to shop on vacation – places that have been carefully tailored to address today’s health issues,” said Olivia Bartel Leigh, executive vice president of portfolio operations and people at Macerich.
Macerich, who owns Tysons Corner Center in Washington, DC, is encouraging visitors to make reservations early to see Santa on local malls’ websites this year. The experience will be contactless, the company said and doesn’t provide any further details. All Santa Clauses are also asked to wear masks.
Los Angeles Beverly Center owner Taubman is taking a similar approach. In a dozen of its high-end malls, Taubman will offer reservations for prepaid photo ops with Santa in a socially distant manner as part of a partnership with professional photography company Cherry Hill Programs. It also states that Santas must wear masks at all times regardless of local mandates.
Mall owner CBL & Associates and Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield have also partnered Cherry Hillthe companies said to set up their Santa experiences. (Cherry Hill set up its first Santa photo op experience in a New Jersey mall in 1961 and has grown to become a leader in that service.)
In addition, for the first time, Westfield will be running vacation-themed scavenger hunts using augmented reality and QR codes at some of its properties to unlock special discounts at retailers. And for those families feeling particularly “grinchy,” Westfield said, a handful of its malls will have Grinch-themed backdrops for photo ops.
For families feeling extra “grinchy” in 2020, a handful of Westfield malls will have a Grinch backdrop for photo ops this holiday season, according to Westfield, the mall owner.
Source: Dr. Seuss Enterprises
“In general, there were big concerns: Was there even a Christmas party for Santa Claus when we could visit with children?” said Arnold from IBRBS. “Also beyond the money aspect for Santas, which is important because many of our Santas are retired and this income gives them additional money – in some cases rental money.”
Some Santa gigs can fetch up to $ 300 an hour, he said.
A professional photographer for eight years, Kathryn Burgess reflected on the upcoming Christmas season and how the pandemic would affect children’s visits to see Santa at the mall.
Determined to find a solution, she developed what is known as Snow Globe protective gear. With these exploding igloos, Santa can sit safely inside and still talk to visitors. On the Burgess website, a popup globe costs $ 549 and a larger version costs $ 749.
Burgess has also authored a book called “The Snow Globe Santa” which will be available for sale online and in some of Burgess’ Snow Globes this holiday season.
In the book, Santa returns to his home at the North Pole from vacation and finds his elves who make snow globes that show all of Santa’s favorite places. And when Santa Claus sees a globe of the North Pole, he slips in and catches himself. At the end of the book, readers will find out whether he can escape or not.
Former professional photographer Kathryn Burgess designed what is known as the Snow Globe Personal Protective Equipment (PSA) to save a vacation tradition.
Source: Kathryn Burgess
Brookfield Property PartnersThe owner of The SoNo Collection mall in Norwalk, Connecticut, will apply her concept and bring the Snow Globe Santa to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Inflatable globes have already been set up in Kentucky, Georgia, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Michigan and Texas, she said.
“Some people have said they will throw Santa Claus away,” Burgess said this season. “And I just believe this is such a disservice to Santa’s character. Santa survived everything from the Spanish flu to the bubonic plague. And he’s not afraid of Covid-19.”
The pandemic has changed the way people shop, and it looks like Santa and Mrs. Claus are also making a shift towards a digital experience.
“This is the beginning of an evolution,” said Arnold of IBRBS.
Virtual Santa companies like JingleRing and Santa’s Club, which offer real-time conversations with Santa, have become increasingly popular, he said. If the trend continues, it could certainly dampen longstanding family traditions. But maybe for the better.
“The Santa community will actually be able to reach more people through the virtual industry,” said Arnold. “It will take less time, you can make an appointment whenever it is right for your family … [and] It’s not just, “Oh, I have to take them to the mall and wait in line with them for an hour and a half and they fall asleep.”
– CNBC’s Amanda Lasky contributed to this coverage.