The Search for Mr. Clause

 Finding the right Santa seasonal scenario is key

By Ted Carter
Mississippi Business Journal

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Here’s a seasonal scenario: The boss just told you to go get a Santa — and fast.

You think to yourself: No problem. Those guys are everywhere this time of year.

That, you’ll soon discover, is precisely your problem.

Demand is high and supply is static. Forget that “dime a dozen” cliché.

Even if you can find a suitable Santa, that girth, those ruby red cheeks, white hair and beard complete with Clausian charisma will most likely set your boss back $250 an hour — or even more.

For retail centers, it’s money well spent. Even a second-tier, fake-bearded Santa is a draw like no other, Paco Underhill, founder and CEO of Envirosell, a New York City retail research and consulting firm, said in an interview with Entrepreneur magazine,

“They need to give their customers a reason other than shopping to come to their stores. In particular, suburban America goes to shopping malls to look at people and whether you’re standing in line for Santa or watching a fashion show, that’s an excuse to look at each other.”

And, of course, the more time people spend in a store, the more they spend, Entrepreneur notes.

For big retail centers, the Santa search is typically left up to photography companies. They provide the Santa with all the trappings and cash-in by selling photo-ops with the Jolly One.

Northpark Mall’s parent the Simon Co. secures top of the line Santas for all its retail properties, says Megan Bailey, director of mall marketing and business development.

“We seek out real bearded Santas. We want them to look and feel like the real thing,” she says.

“From a marketing standpoint, the mall is the social center of the community. It’s important that we provide quality entertainment and retail.”

With the short post-Thanksgiving holiday season, Northpark’s Santa arrived on Nov. 7 and has been greeting visitors from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Commercial real estate broker and property manager Scott Overby was on his own when the holidays a couple years ago found him needing a Santa for Jackson’s Metrocenter Mall. Returning a Santa to the mall’s newly refurbished center court after a three-year absence would validate the mall’s resurgence, Overby said.

“I’ve got to find a Santa,” he told himself. The search led to Atlanta, where he could get one with a genuine beard for $250 an hour, plus expenses. But he’d need more than one — their knees get tired — and would have to pay out more than $20,000 for the duration of the holidays, he discovered.

Happily, he lucked into finding a less expensive one in Clinton, he says. The same Santa will return for the weekends this season leading up to Christmas, said Overby, principal of the Overby Company.

Likewise, both the Clinton Chamber of Commerce and Vicksburg’s Main Street Association have the good fortune of having home grown Santas who volunteer their services every holiday season. They even bring their wives along as the Mrs. Claus.

December marks Jimmy Glenn’s 27th year as the Clinton Christmas parade’s official Santa, a role he got after the previous Santa fell ill before the parade. The job came easy to him, having always had that Santa look and a fondness for providing however many ho-ho-hos the occasion called for.

“It just kind of stuck,” he said of the years that followed his inaugural parade.

Along the way the longtime Miskelly Furniture worker married Meg, who ever since has joined him as Mrs. Claus.

“The main goal for Meg and me is to light up the kids’ faces.”

The favorite part, he says, “is being on top of the fire truck. We can look at every single child on the parade route.”

In Vicksburg, it’s Jerry and Lynn Boland in the role of Santa and Mrs. Claus.

“They do our open house and Christmas parade,” says Kim Hopkins, Main Street director.

They worked the Vicksburg’s Main Street Association Holiday Open House and headlined the city’s Christmas parade, Hopkins says.

Kennison Kyle, a second-generation Santa based in Memphis, Tenn., has had several outings so far this year, including Le Bonheur’s Enchanted Forest at the Pink Palace Museum.

Kyle took over the prestigious Enchanted Forest appearances after the 2011 death of his father, Jim “Tully” Kyle, a Santa fixture around Memphis for decades.

Kennison Kyle has done plenty of mall appearances, including stints at the Greenville Mall, but he is not especially fond of all the down time that sort of gig entails.

“If you get there at 10 in the morning you’re just going to sit. You’re not going to have very many kids.”

It’s his 16th year in the business, Kyle says. “I got my start working the Memphis Fire Department. The local firefighters union was doing Santa visits to raise money for scholarships.”

His hourly fee starts at $150 and goes up to $300, depending on the time and distance involved. When Kyle is too busy to take an assignment, he has a couple of “Subordinate Clauses” he can provide, he says

He’ll do neighborhood bookings on week nights for as little as $60 to $75 an hour.

He was to travel to Tunica recently for a return engagement at the Gold Strike Casino.

“I was there last year,” he says. “The adults had a great time having their pictures made with me.”

At 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds, Kyle is a bit tall for a Santa, who, after all, is an elf. But since he’s sitting most of the time, his height is not a big issue, Kyle says. He also has to wear belly padding because his 300 pounds are not distributed in ideal Santa fashion.

“I’m told I’m a skinny Santa, but not by my doctor.”

At 44, he’s a little young for the Santa demographic.

“I do help lower the age a little bit,” Kyle says.

He also lacks a key Santa trait — white beard and white hair. He remedies that with annual beard bleaching and hair coloring. In a pinch, he’ll don a fake beard and wig.

“Appearance matters,” he says. “But the best thing is to be the Santa you are, because most of it comes from the heart.”


The Santa Claus business 

Things you may not have known about the Santa Claus business:

— Santas avoid each other while on the job. “It’s professional courtesy,” says Kennison Kyle, a Santa who works out of Memphis, Tenn. Even in their civvies, Santas stand out, he notes. “A lot of guys I know avoid malls and other places where they know Santas are going to be. They don’t want to be an unnecessary distraction.”

— What Santas tell children who see a half dozen Santas and ask which is the real one? “Tell them you’ll know him when you see him,” Kyle says.

— What Santas tell children who ask why the reindeer aren’t flying? “Tell them the reindeer can only fly on Christmas when good boys and girls are in bed,” Kyle says.

— What to tell a child if no reindeer are around? “Not cold enough yet,” Kyle says.

— What do Santas do when they get together? “Talk shop,” Kyle says. “How to keep up with bookings. How to deal with real shy kids.”

— What can Santa deduct from his taxes? “I deduct hair spray, my boots, the fabric for having my suit made, salon charges for getting my hair bleached,” Kyle says. He also deducts his mileage — provided he can prove they were by a vehicle with wheels.