Santa selection a tricky process

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    Mall marketing directors know the trip to the mall to visit Santa Claus is one of the highlights of the year for many children.

    They also know the annual ritual is big business, and so they make every effort to make the experience ideal.

    Every ornament must be in place on the Christmas tree, every light must be twinkling brightly, and every elf must look the part. But most importantly, the big man himself must be perfect, from the beard to the bowlful of jelly.

    “It’s not easy to find the perfect Santa,” said Marisa Smith, marketing director for University Mall. She began the process of finding the mall’s Santa, who will sit in state beginning Nov. 27, almost nine months ago.

    Most malls locate Santa Clauses through entertainment companies who provide a Santa, elves and attendants, and a photography service in a package deal.

    University Mall faced a special challenge in that the mall had decided to shift from Polaroid to digital photography, and so had already contracted a private photo company. Since most Santa brokers specialize in finding the package deal, Smith had to start exploring other options.

    What she found was Santa University, a company based in Montana that specializes in giving “guys who have beards and want to be Santa” training and leads in finding Santa gigs. Santa University set Smith up with Chris Hahn, a Montana forester with a real beard and a history of work as the jolly old elf.

    Smith said Hahn’s children and grandchildren call him “Santa” and that he even answers the phone, “This is Santa Claus.” Hahn’s wife accompanies him to Christmas gigs, dressed as Mrs. Claus.

    University Mall asks a lot of its Santa Claus: Hahn made his triumphant entrance the day after Thanksgiving in a parade around the parking lot, then hosted a “Breakfast with Santa” for local children and parents before rushing onto the set for his first day on the job. He’ll be on the big, red seat full-time through December, posing for pictures with an anticipated 14,000 children.

    “He knows he’s going to work some long, hard hours, but he said he’s excited to do this,” Smith said.

    Mall marketing directors and Santa brokers go to great lengths to ensure selection of a good Santa with an impeccable professional history. Santa brokers do background checks on Santas and attendant elves, and many malls hire professional agencies to do extra checks, just in case.

    Smith said University Mall has never had a problem with accusations of impropriety against any of their Santas or elves.

    Their success record comes from interviewing carefully and seriously when selecting a Santa. While she has never met this year’s Santa Claus in person, Smith said she has spoken to him numerous times on the telephone and feels comfortable that Hahn is a good choice.

    “I’ve talked to him about his family and how he relates to children. I’ve asked him some questions that are really kind of personal, and I don’t anticipate any problems,” Smith said.

    The overriding goal in Santa selection, though, is to find a believable Santa, someone who really does radiate the magic of Christmas and make the annual trip to the mall one of the highlights of the year for local children.

    Smith said she has seen the difference an exceptional Santa Claus makes.

    One Santa she worked with in Denver brought his own live reindeer to the set, and made the experience so special that families came back year after year to see the most authentic Santa around.

    “He was just magical. Kids and parents both come away from him saying, ‘That was him, it was really him.’ Maybe I do believe,” Smith said.

    She’s hoping to recreate that same feeling this year.

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