Holiday Central

Santas go to school to edge out the competition in Santa boom

Want to become a mall Santa? There's a school for that
Want to become a mall Santa? There's a school for that

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa school. Actually, there are several.

While anyone can put on a red suit and wear a white beard, it takes a little something extra to bring joy to children around the world with the true magic of Santa Claus. And to help want-to-be Santas tap those special qualities, there are schools dedicated to training Santa's many helpers.

The Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, Michigan, is described by one student as the Harvard of Santa Schools. It is considered to be the world's oldest Santa Claus school, founded in 1937 in Albion, New York.

Founder Charlie Howard knew a thing or two about Santa, having worked as the technical director on the original "Miracle on 34th Street" movie. His role was essentially a Santa consultant, guiding what Santa should be like in the movie.

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While just four or five students attended in the early years, the school now teaches around 130 Santas per year, with demand higher than the school can accommodate.

"Every year we have a waiting list, and we probably have 40 to 50 on the waiting list, and we already have people started for the 2016 that have already paid because they're so excited about coming," said Holly Valent, the assistant to the dean at the Charles W. Howard Santa School.

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Source: Noerr Programs

"We believe that a professional Santa can bring in all kinds of business and people and children," Valent said. She added, "A good Santa that knows how to handle families and knows how to listen to children. Certainly, it gives you a better perception of the store if you have a nice, professional-looking Santa, if he is educated and knows about the North Pole, knows about elves, knows about everything Santa should know about it."

The education begins on a Wednesday night with an open house at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, and then class begins at 8:30 a.m. and goes through 9 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It's not all classroom time, though. Valent said there are field trips, train rides and entertainment from professional singers — all in all about 45 hours — crammed into three days.

The school and traffic it brings to Midland every year has also been an economic boost for businesses in the Michigan city.

"When the Santa school's in town, it's great for business. It brings the Santas over, they have lunch with us, people see them, they all enjoy coming in and visiting with them. They're just great for the economics of downtown Midland," said Gus Wojda, manager of Pizza Sam's.

Noerr Programs in Arvada, Colorado, has held a "Santa University" every August for the past eight years as a voluntary four-day training for 75 men, who spokesperson Ruth Rosenquist said, "must have a natural beard, and a big heart."

Beyond its Santa University, Noerr Programs works as an agent-of-sorts for those wishing to employ Santa and his team. Noerr will hire, train and supervise "the cast" as well as bring along the digital photography and point-of-sale equipment to become a retail pop-up shop in malls across America for the season.

For some, it's a lifelong dream to be accepted into a Santa school. For the first time this year, there's a married couple attending the Charles W. Howard Santa School. They're training to be Santa's helpers in the Rochester, New York, area. The wife is from Midland, Michigan, originally and has wanted to attend Santa school for as long as she can remember. The couple worked together for more than 30 years at a dental office, and wanted to continue to work together, this time, as Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

The Santa economy

Behind the big red suit, is a whole Santa economy that's growing year after year.

"If we don't count the registration, it's $400 for a student and that includes your materials, some things you might need as a Santa, some materials you don't always have on hand, like Mrs. Santas get Mrs. Santa hats, and Santas get some equipment for their Santa outfits," said Valent. Some students save all year for the investment required to don the red suit, she said.

One of her students has been coming for 10 years, and cuts no corners when it comes to his attire. "To outfit a Santa, you can buy [a suit] off the rack and I think they run around $500. Mine are all custom made and they run anywhere from $1,500-$2,000," said student Lowell Hendricks.

Outside the suit, another student estimates the beard, the wig and the mustache run about $1,500. For those with natural beards, there's the expense of grooming, which can run about $50 every other week.

The Santa economy is insulated from downturns in the broader economy because it brings happiness and hope, said Terri Greenberg, president of Halco, a wholesaler of holiday costumes.

Tony Bianchi, the manager of New York Costumes, said about 10 percent of his business is tied to sales of costumes of Santa, Mrs. Claus and even Krampus, which is a new fad this year following the horror comedy film named after the European folkloric character that punishes naughty children at Christmastime.

New York City's effort to crack down on rowdy revelers during the annual SantaCon bar crawl, where partygoers dress as Santa hop from bar to bar, has dampened New York Costumes' business a bit, according to Bianchi. He also said some sales have also shifted to Amazon.

Christmas cash

But it's the Santa who brings happiness and hope to children and families who can drive traffic, and in some cases revenue, to malls and other outlets.

Indoor amusement park iPlay America in Freehold, New Jersey, employs one of Santa's helpers on the weekends during the holiday season.

"Santa is tremendously important to the traffic that we have here," said Jessica Schwartz, vice president of sales and marketing for iPlay America. "I think that maybe about 10 to 15 percent of our holiday business is derived from the fact that we have Santa here, and that we offer it as a complimentary service to our guests. I think they come in for the picture with Santa, but then they stay."

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And while we all know Santa's from the North Pole and he works for cookies, his helpers do get Christmas cash for their appearances. One of Santa's helpers said a mall-based Santa can make an average of $30 an hour.

Noerr Programs said the big man is more popular today than ever. The company will send Santa and helpers to 282 venues this year, up from 185 in 2010. Noerr has seen 14 consecutive years of sales growth, with double-digit growth over the last five years.

The company's typical contract with its Santas is three years, while Noerr's contracts with clients average five years. The goal is to keep the same Santa at the same location year after year. Salary is predicated on the total years with the program, experience and geographic market, Noerr Programs said.

This year, Noerr employed more than 4,000 Santas, photographers and helpers working at nearly 300 venues from shopping centers to individual retailers and hotels. The "cast" for each client will vary from five to 150. Mall owner Simon Property Group is Noerr's biggest client. Simon Property Group, General Growth Properties and the International Council of Shopping Centers all declined comment for this story.

But every one of the Santa's helpers we spoke to don't do it for the money at all.

Playing Santa can offer a break from the daily grind, according to Valent.

"There's attorneys and doctors and judges and heads of companies, and it's just a little reprieve from their everyday business life," he said.