Holiday hiring: Even Santa feels the recession

Santa clausChristmas comes every year, but even that doesn't guarantee job security, even for Santa and his helpers. This year, company holiday parties may be minus a Santa, while smaller gatherings and malls are still jolly.

Like millions of businesses around the country, Carl Immediato's Santa rental company in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Your Santa Too, has felt the blow of the recession. Although bookings for small, private parties are still strong, larger business parties have dwindled to about 75%. Immediato feels that a lot of these losses have to do with guilt that companies feel about cutting back on staff. It's hard to spend money on party entertainment and look your employees in the eyes after people have been let go.

The loss of large company parties means that Immediato is appearing at smaller, private ones. But the smaller size doesn't mean he takes his job any less seriously. This Santa, who usually charges between $200 and $220 an hour, strives to provide the character, story telling and even some history about Christmas traditions. Despite the cut back in large parties, Immediato devotes about 20% of his time volunteering. He likes to lend his time to the Salvation Army, where he started as a bell ringer in 1993.

Sandy DeMore of Georgia Reindeer is experiencing similar business trends. The recession cut back on many of the family-run Santa rental's big business hires, but DeMore remains busy with smaller parties. Georgia Reindeer has reindeer for rent, as well as the big man himself. Many holiday parties, company events, malls, parades, schools and Christmas tree farms turn to the business for Dasher and his friends.

Another family-run business in Colorado has not felt the blow of the recession at all. Anthony and Anita Kilgore book events throughout Larimer County, Weld County and Northern Denver. Their Santa business charges $50 an hour and continues to thrive, even in the difficult economy. "It has not hurt the business at all," said Anthony. "If anything, it brings families together for a very special time."

Although Glenn Unzicker, who runs his own Santa rental company called Santa by Request, saw a major decrease in appointments two years ago, he says that business is back on the rise. Unzicker himself plays Santa near Madison, Wisconsin and also covers portions of Northern Illinois. He makes anywhere from $50 to $100 per half hour for shorter visits and charges hourly for longer events. He looks forward to his recent increase in requests. "Like everything else, people become numb to how bad things are, and decide that their children mean more," said Unzicker. "So they will hire for that special moment."

For those looking for a position in the Santa and elf business, look to Noerr Programs Corp., which takes on 200 naturally bearded Santas, in addition to thousands of helpers each year. Salaries are based experience, qualifications, the size of the malls, and vary from city to city. Expect to work eight to 12 hours each day and there are positions for both full and part time workers.

Noerr Programs asks potential staff members about their general attitude and ability to entertain children. "Although the role of Santa requires rigorous training, many of his traits are intangible," said Ruth Rosenquist of Noerr Programs. "They include a big heart, a warm smile and a twinkle in the eye. Above all, Santa must stay in character, be willing to learn and have a child-positive attitude."

The economy has helped Santa Central at The Noerr Pole. The company hires holiday workers to spread the seasonal spirit in malls all over the country. This year, Noerr plans to take on about 2,400 seasonal employees, a 10% increase from last year. "Santa is a tradition of great importance every year," said Rosenquist. "In challenging economic times, families gravitate to experiences that create a special memory and a sense of hope."

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