Even Santa Claus Prefers Working Remotely
It’s become second nature to log into video chat. I simply sit at my computer and check my hair before turning on the camera. But this time, I’m greeted with a jolly “Ho, ho, ho.” Santa sits in front of a bauble-decorated Christmas tree, frosted blue windows, a large wooden nutcracker and flickering candles. The cinnamon and the nutmeg are almost tangible. “Do you have any questions you’d like to ask Santa?” he says. He is an old white-bearded, well-informed man who already knows what I would like for Christmas, when I will be, how old, and even my name.
As one of over three dozen professional Santa Claus impersonators working with Santa’s Club, a Santa video visit service launched in 2020, this jovial man—real name Michael Beurer, real residence Midland, Mich., real age 51—is putting his skills as a theatrical Santa performer to use to bring holiday spirit to the homes of hundreds of families this year—for a price. Last year, Santa’s Club facilitated over 15,000 visits to kids around the world. Last year, over 300 videos were visited by Beurer. At $35-$75 per visit and little overhead, that’s significant revenue for a first year business that only operates two months a year. This year, they’re on track to repeat the success based on the rapidly-filling calendar, indicating that at least this one pandemic tradition could migrate permanently into the digital realm.
The idea of virtual Santa Claus visiting children is not new; it has been around for about twelve years. Small businessesThe model has been a success over the years thanks to the many pioneers. But for entrepreneur William Evelsizer, the founder and CEO of new entrant Santa’s Club, it was all a matter of harnessing the technology at the right time. Evelsizer was already toying with the idea for almost a decade after meeting a friend who had experienced long wait times in a Texas mall Santa experience. But it wasn’t until August 2020—as pandemic lockdowns pushed video chat into the mainstream—that he decided to put his long-gestating concept into motion. According to him, he was able fund the initial stages of his business within 72 hours using donations from family and friends. He then spent several months building the platform with his small group, which included a video conferencing system. The appeal: “It was really just this mission of preserving childhood memories and protecting the innocence of youth,” Evelsizer says.
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Like most companies in this industry, Santa’s Club staffs via a network of training programs that provide forms of Santa certification for their actors; Beurer, for instance, trained at a reputable Michigan center called the Charles W. Howard Santa School about four years ago after his wife— “Mrs. Claus,” he insists—decided to get into Santa photography and needed a model. “I already had the chubby belly like a bowl full of jelly,” he says, “so I decided to don the red suit.” He is now a member of the Michigan Association of Professional Santas and has taught at Santa trainings, which cover everything from wig and beard maintenance to information on interacting with special-needs children. Evelsizer claims that every Santa they hire is background checked to verify their trustworthiness with children. As an added layer of safety, every video visit is automatically recorded—and delivered back to the viewer within a day for posterity. It’s meant to be a digital keepsake, but it also functions as a quality check.
But while it’s a notable shift from the tradition of in-person Santa visits, Evelsizer and Beurer are certain that the virtual option is only going to grow. “Those that don’t adapt, they fail, right? Santas know this just as well. There’s a big push amongst them to say, Okay, let’s buy into this. They’re understanding that this is the wave of the future,” Evelsizer says; interest has been so high, in fact, that they turned away over 75% of Santa applicants this season. Beurer agrees: “It’s just so much fun for me.” Not only does it provide certain safety from COVID, a concern for Santas of a certain age, but it’s also physically easier than making the trek to and from far-flung locations, especially during winter. For Santas like Beurer, who keeps a full-time job at the Department of Veteran Affairs, it’s also nice to be able to switch in and out of his Santa beard between remote-work calls. And Evelsizer’s employment model ensures Santas decent payment—typically a bit more than in-person Santas make, especially after factoring in reduced travel costs—by booking them on an hourly rate.
It’s not just the Santas who benefit from virtual-visit flexibility. The benefits are not just for Santas, but also families. For one, there is no longer need to stand in long lines. The Santas receive information on the children so that the interaction of five to seven minutes is personal and magical. “The unintended positive consequence of that was that parents literally turned our Santas into psychologists,” Evelsizer says. For example, Beurer recalls a child asking him to find a treatment for COVID. His grandmother and parents were both infected. While Beurer couldn’t offer any guarantees, he did offer encouraging words and hope.
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The option to send Santa straight into the home of children and families that are physically or mentally disabled or cannot travel is an important step. (Santa’s Club also offers a pre-recorded video message option, which Evelsizer says can be preferable for special needs children, too.) Beyond offering a direct-to-consumer product, Santa’s Club has also partnered with businesses to provide Santa visits as a holiday-season perk for employees, and offered videos to needs-based children’s organizations like the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation and an orphanage in Kenya.
As the holiday season ramps up, business is in full swing; the Santa’s Club website warns that its video slots are already filling up. Not that it’s entirely smooth sailing: Evelsizer laments changes to the Facebook marketing algorithm which have increased consumer acquisition costs by a factor of four-and-a-half times in 2021. Santas such as Beurer don’t need to be put on the “naughty” list because there are a few bumps in the road. “If I could pay all my bills just doing this, I would be more than happy to keep this thing going on all year long,” he says, beaming. “This is something that touches my heart.”