It's an annual tradition for many families during the holidays: Packing the kids in the car and trekking them to the local mall to visit Santa for the chance to rattle off a holiday wish list and snap a photo — one that might end up on the Christmas card.
But few kids will be sitting on Santa's lap this holiday season, due to the precautionary measures that have been born out of the coronavirus pandemic.
A holiday tradition that dates back to the 1800s is being rethought by retailers, mall owners and the men and women who spend their holiday season playing the part of Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Bass Pro Shops will put Santa behind plexiglass screens, while Macy's is launching an online Santa experience. Mall owners including Macerich and Taubman are getting creative with their holiday programming, to try to drive traffic to their shopping centers. One woman even launched her own business, selling inflatable snow globes to safely shield Santa and the children who visit him.
This year, "Santa" Stephen Arnold, president and chief executive officer of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, says the Santa experience is going to be "considerably different" for his organization's some 2,000 members, who are assigned work at malls, schools, hospitals, churches and one-on-one visits to homes.
Among a number of changes, "virtual visits have exploded," he said.
But malls, arguably more than other venues, still need the lure of Santa and Mrs. Claus — maybe now more than ever.
Traffic outlooks are bleak, for a time that typically draws in hoards of shoppers, especially around key moments like Black Friday. Only 45% of Americans plan to venture to a mall this holiday season, down from 64% who visited a mall last November and December, according to a survey released in October from the International Council of Shopping Centers.
"I don't have any doubt that, in most cases and historically, Santa and Mrs. Claus have been a draw for the mall," Arnold said. "And the mall has benefited from those people coming to get photographs, particularly when a husband and wife can go, and the wife is there in line and the husband can shop, and vice versa."
Bass Pro Shops is one retailer known for its annual Santa experience.
Beginning Saturday, it will be rolling out a contactless visit with Santa. The hunting and fishing goods retailer, which also owns the Cabela's chain, will be placing clear shields in front of all Santas this year. Reservations and temperature checks will be required. And the company said it will be using its parking lots to hold holiday parades and serve hot cocoa.
"With countless activities canceled and many families dealing with added stress, we feel it's more important than ever to provide some free Christmas magic and help safely create cherished holiday memories," said Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris.
Meantime, Santa won't be visiting the department store chain Macy's this year — ending a nearly 160-year-old tradition. Each year, Macy's said its flagship in New York's Herald Square welcomed more than a quarter of a million visitors to Santaland.
This year, Santaland will be virtual. Macy's will launch the event on its website on Nov. 27 for families looking for holiday-related activities at home.
Mall owners are trying to get creative with their own programming, too.
"People are hungry for things in life that feel 'normal,' and comfortable environments for holiday shopping – places that have been thoughtfully adapted for today's health concerns," said Olivia Bartel Leigh, executive vice president of portfolio operations and people at Macerich.
The company, which owns Tysons Corner Center in Washington, D.C., is asking visitors to make early reservations to see Santa this year via local malls' websites. The experience will be contactless, the company said, not offering further details. All of the Santas will also be asked to wear masks.
Taubman, owner of Los Angeles' Beverly Center, is taking a similar approach. At a dozen of its high-end shopping malls, through a partnership with professional photography company Cherry Hill Programs, Taubman will offer reservations for prepaid photo-ops with Santa, in a socially distanced way. It also said Santas must wear masks at all times, regardless of local mandates.
Mall owners CBL & Associates and Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield have also partnered with Cherry Hill, the companies said, to set up their Santa experiences. (Cherry Hill set up its first Santa photo-op experience at a New Jersey mall in 1961, and has grown to be a leading provider of this service.)
Additionally, Westfield will for the first time hold holiday-themed scavenger hunts, using augmented reality and QR codes, at some of its properties, for the chance to unlock special discounts from retailers. And for those families feeling extra "Grinchy" this year, Westfield said, a handful of its malls will have a Grinch-themed backdrop for photo-ops.
"There was a lot of concern in general about: was there even going to be a Christmas for Santa Clauses, where we going to be able to visit with children?" said IBRBS' Arnold. "Even beyond the money aspect of it for Santas, which is important because a lot of our Santas are retired, and that income provides them with extra money — rent money, in some cases."
Some Santa gigs can bring in up to $300 per hour, he said.
Kathryn Burgess, a professional photographer for eight years, for months has been thinking about the looming holiday season, and how the pandemic would impact kids' visits to see Santa at the mall.
She was determined to come up with a solution, and created what she calls Snow Globe Personal Protective Equipment. These blow-up igloos allow Santa to safely sit inside and still speak to visitors. On Burgess' website, one pop-up globe retails for $549, and a larger version for $749.
Burgess has also penned a book, called "The Snow Globe Santa," which is available for sale online and at some of Burgess' snow globes this holiday season.
In the book, Santa comes back to his home at the North Pole from vacation, to find his elves creating snow globes that show all of Santa's favorite places to visit. And when Santa sees a globe of the North Pole, he slips inside of it, trapping himself. By the end of the book, readers find out whether or not he is able to escape.
Brookfield Property Partners, which owns The SoNo Collection mall in Norwalk, Connecticut, will use her concept, and she'll also be bringing the Snow Globe Santa to St. Jude's Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Inflatable globes are already set up in Kentucky, Georgia, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Michigan and Texas, she said.
"Some people have said that they're going to throw Santa away," this season, Burgess said. "And I just believe that's such a disservice to the character of who Santa Claus is. Santa Claus has survived everything from the Spanish Flu to the bubonic plague. And he's not afraid of Covid-19."
The pandemic has accelerated the number of people shopping online. And it looks to be shaping a new digital experience with Santa and Mrs. Claus, as well.
"This is the beginning of an evolution," IBRBS' Arnold said.
Virtual Santa companies like JingleRing and Santa's Club, which offer real-time conversations with Santa Claus, have exploded in popularity, he said. If the trend holds, it could certainly put a damper on families' long-standing traditions. But maybe for the better.
"The Santa community will actually be able to reach more people through the virtual industry," Arnold said.
"It'll take less time, you can schedule an appointment for whenever it's right for your family ... [and] it's not just, 'Oh, I've got to take them to the mall and wait with them in line for an hour and a half, and they're falling asleep.'"
— CNBC's Amanda Lasky contributed to this reporting.