The Santa business, like the overall economy, is slowly bouncing back.
But while demand for Santas at malls and private and corporate parties has increased since the end of the Great Recession, salaries and benefits for many Santas remain below 2009 levels, especially for those working smaller malls or areas of the U.S. hit hardest by the recession
"We can still get jobs for everyone," said Billy Gooch, co-owner of A Natural Santa in Colorado Springs. But employers are not all paying the same amount in salaries and expenses."
Gooch and his wife, Alma, started A Natural Santa in 1992. The company helps place Santas with companies and individuals. At one point, Gooch's company helped place nearly 70 Santas. Today, the company has about 20, Billy Gooch said.
Gooch has performed as Santa Claus across the U.S., including Several Christmas seasons as the nation's Santa on the White House lawn in Washington, D.C., said Alma Gooch. This year, he is working at the Lake Elsinore Outlet Center in Lake Elsinore, Cailf., where few people appear to be shopping, Billy Gooch said.
The average Santa earns between $8,000 and $9,000 in a four-week period, said Stephen Patterson, a co-founder of the Society of Santa in Denver. The group has almost 70 members, of which nine are Colorado Springs residents. Experienced Santas who work the larger malls and corporate events can earn more than three times that amount.
"I have a friend of mine that will make close to $32,000 this season," Patterson said, "but he is at the Westchester Mall in White Plains, N.Y., and that is one of the premier malls in the nation."
Photography studios that take the portraits of Santa and the children who visit him typically hire mall Santas, not the malls, said Tim Connaghan, owner of the Kringle Group in Riverside, Calif.
His company helped place about 130 Santas across the country this year.
Santas earn from $175 to $300 an hour, depending on location, time, and day worked, according to one of Connaghan's websites, realsantas.com.
Connaghan said the recession forced photographers to reduce the price and number of photos offered in their packages.
That reduced the photo studios' profits, which in turn lowered Santas' pay.
"Those Santas in areas that have been economically impacted with higher unemployment are being paid less," Connaghan said.
Becoming Santa isn't cheap: Patterson puts the cost at between $10,000 and $15,000.
Customized Santa suits cost around $1,200 apiece, he said. Each Santa needs at least three suits because one is always at the dry cleaner.
Patterson said it can cost upward of $700 to get one's eyebrows, beard and mustache bleached. He paid $300 for his boots. There are other expenses, too, such as training classes and liability insurance.
"It is in fact a business," Patterson said. "It is not a calling as so many Santas will say."
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