'Santa shortage' in the suburbs? Maybe, but not at malls

Reports of a Santa performer shortage may have some parents worried their children will miss out on a cherished Christmas tradition this holiday season. But despite a deficit in the supply, suburban malls say they are operating visits with Santa as usual.

Most of the “Santa shortage” reports featured on morning news shows and elsewhere in recent weeks cited data provided by Mitch Allen, the founder of Hire Santa, a service that connects performers to event hosts across the country. Allen, who pitched his business idea on ABC's popular “Shark Tank” in a December 2018 episode, says there is a 30% increase in demand for Santa performers from last year and not enough performers to cover all the jobs out there.

“For every one new Santa that reaches out to us, there are 20 people that need Santa,” Allen told the Daily Herald. “We are turning down more business than ever before.”

Across the nation, there are more than 2,250 jobs unbooked for people who perform as Santa and other holiday entertainers such as Mrs. Claus and Christmas elves, he said.

But those unbooked jobs do not seem to include major suburban malls.

“Knock on wood, we have had no problems,” said Lisa Aurand, marketing and business development manager of Yorktown Center in Lombard, where photos with Santa are offered daily. Aurand said the mall had no issue hiring Santa performers through Amuse Matte, one of the nation's major mall Santa companies.

Woodfield Mall's Santa operation in Schaumburg is run by Cherry Hill Programs, another major Santa company.

“The Santa schedule here is the same as in previous years,” said Bonni Pear, a public relations representative for Woodfield. “There are lots of people, lots of interest and no issue here at the mall.”

Cherry Hill's Santas also are at Gurnee Mills, Oakbrook Center, Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills, Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, Fashion Outlets of Chicago in Rosemont, Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee and other shopping centers in the Chicago area.

Glenn David, a Santa performer for the last three seasons, said business has been busy and there are days when no talent is available to work a party.

“I think people are feeling more Christmassy overall,” David said Thursday after finishing a full day in the big red suit at a pediatric orthodontist's office. “I think in part people were cooped up for two years and not celebrating and they're making up for lost time.”

David, a Skokie resident who has booked gigs for other Santas for the last 20 years, said he's had a lot of repeat business from clients he had before the pandemic.

Gerald Curl, who has performed as a Santa for 30 years and books parties and events through his company, Santa Services, said he has found it hard to keep up with demand.

Curl, who works only with real bearded Santas, said a lot of the older ones retired during the pandemic.

“It's been extremely busy,” said Curl, who lives in South suburban Braidwood. “Most days we are booked every hour, some events booked for 45 minutes so we have a 3- minute buffer for traveling.”

This year he's seen most Santa performers charge anywhere from $100 to $500 per hour for their services.

Being Santa for Curl is more than just a job.

“You have no idea how much influence a Santa Claus can have on a kid,” he said. “Even if a child starts out afraid of Santa, by the end I try to make it where every child has had a great experience.”

David agrees. He said the reception he's received as Santa has been just as good as ever.

“The first thing you find out is you're a celebrity,” David said of wearing the Santa suit. “Kids run up and go, ‘Santa, Santa!' but it's all people too. It doesn't matter gender, age or ethnicity — people are just enamored.”

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