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Some Santas getting creative to visit with kids amid pandemic

One local Santa isn’t taking any chances.

“I’m at an age where my health is more important to me,” said Chris Groeschke, 64. “I look at it this way: If I do four visits in a night, at the first house, I’m fine. Second house, I’m a contaminator. Third house, I’m a double contaminator. Fourth house, I’m a triple contaminator. By the time I’m driving home, I could drop dead. I don’t know what’s in the homes.”

Groeschke a self-described “365-day-Santa” who has portrayed Saint Nick since 2013, said he will be making only virtual appearances this year over Zoom.

Others are still doing in-person meet-and-greets but in a limited fashion.

Christmas looks different for Santas this year as coronavirus cases continue to spread. Many are getting creative to ensure kids can get their visits in, and securing their holiday income.

Gigs

Professionals that portray Santa Claus can make as little as $11 an hour or as high as $150 an hour, according to analysis by PayScale.com. The average hourly wage for a mall Santa in the U.S. is around $30.

But Santas that normally rely on the seasonal gig to supplement their income will have less work this year.

“With the pandemic, that’s going to be one of the hits over the next couple months … folks who portray Santas and elves,” said Steve Horwitz, an economics professor at Ball State University’s Miller College of Business. “But I think this will be a one-year deal. The moment that we’re past the pandemic and it’s safe to have Santas back at the mall or in your house, I think they’ll be back.”

Groeschke said U.S.-based Santas can make as little as $5,000 to as much as $150,000 between the two months. “It depends on their rate, what they charge and what they’re doing,” he said.

While he strays from the mall Santa gigs, Groeschke said that in previous years he makes between 25 to 75 home or corporate party appearances between Nov. 1 and Dec. 26. “People say I’m crazy, but I’m not in it for the money,” said Groeschke. “I’m in it for the children — just to make them happy.”

Groeschke declined to say how much he made over the last few holiday seasons but said that he’s expecting a banner year despite the pandemic.

Getting creative

Over the summer, he converted parts of his home into two mini-studios with tech upgrades like new web cameras and professional microphones. “I’ve got the best audio I can from the North Pole,” he said.

The transition to virtual appearances was clear when the pandemic meant no more close, in-person contact.

“In February, we saw the handwriting on the wall, saying this is not going to be like previous years,” he said. Groeschke had conversations with other Santas back in Feburary and said that he, with other Santas, will use Zoom to meet families this year.

Parents are given a contract to sign with an informational sheet for the children who will be attending so Santa can address their accomplishments and what they need to improve.

“In order for them to be on Santa’s nice list this year, which we’re assuming everyone is, that will be something that the parents will explain,” he said.

Groeschke said he has received hundreds of virtual bookings in late October. The Downtown Container Park asked Groeschke to host live, virtual meet-and-greets with customers at the shopping center on Saturdays after Thanksgiving.

“Compared to doing three or four visits on Friday and Saturday nights over four weeks, I can do a couple of hundred different visits in a few weeks,” he said. “The nicest thing is I don’t have to leave the North Pole in order to get on the road in my four-wheel sleigh to visit children.”

Corporate parties dip

Meanwhile, many Las Vegas companies that normally host holiday events aren’t doing so this year.

Charlie Bush, president of the Silver State Santas, the largest local Santa group in Nevada, said that he normally would have several events from hotel and casino properties on the Strip and other corporate companies lined up by now.

But not this year.

“We’re in November right now, and I would have already had dozens of phone calls, and these different corporations and hotels would’ve given me a date because they know I fill up pretty quick, but that hasn’t happened,” said Bush, who is also a Las Vegas real estate agent.

Bush, who declined to share how much he made in previous years, said he will do several in-person events with some companies that have reached out.

“What they’re doing is they’re putting me in a position with children. I’ll be up above, and the children will stand in the front. There’ll be no contact,” he said of one company’s plan to have Santa appearances.

“Another client, I’m doing with two chairs. I’m in one chair and the child in the other chair.”

He’s heard from members that the photography business — where children take photos with Saint Nick at a studio — is picking up extra business because there’s no competition from the mall appearances.

Virtual only

But some mall operators are finding ways to have Santa visits.

JingleRing is a virtual platform that partnered with Brookfield Properties, which operates Fashion Show mall, to ensure Santas have work.

Co-founder Walt Geer said the platform has hired more than 400 Santas, and at a premium.

Santas on JingleRing can expect to make two to three times more than what the average mall Santa makes, which Geer said was about $30 to $35 an hour, and meet with six to eight families an hour.

Geer, a tech entrepreneur who has been in the Santa business for more than a decade with another company that does holiday photography, created JingleRing in response to the pandemic.

He said the platform has hired hundreds of Santas after an extensive audition process: “We’ve never been in the same room together,” he said. “It’s been a Herculean effort.”

JingleRing has brought on Black and Latino Santas, a special needs Santa who knows American Sign Language and Santas who can speak other languages.

The company said Brookfield Properties conducted a focus group and found that children wanted to talk to Mrs. Claus, so JingleRing will have about 200 Mrs. Clauses.

“These are typically women who might be performers in theater, maybe they work in Disney, and they’ve been laid off,” Geer said.

And unlike the typical mall Santa, Mr. and Mrs. Clause will know something about each child before they meet.

“We realize that there’s a lot of limitations to Santa in the on-premise retail model,” Geer said. “We wanted to turn it into an experience and do things you can’t do at retail.”

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Contact Jonathan Ng at jng@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ByJonathanNg on Twitter.

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