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Santa has new rules
Santa's lap, Blayton King, 2 months in 2019.jpg
Blayton King, 2 months, got to sit on Santa’s lap at Three Star Mall last December, but such visits won’t be a regular part of the 2020 holiday experience due to COVID-19.

The thought of sitting on Santa’s lap may not be such a wise idea this year.

A holiday tradition that dates back to the 1800s is being rethought by retailers, mall owners and the men and women who spend their holiday season playing the part of Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Bass Pro Shops will put Santa behind plexiglass screens, while Macy’s is launching an online Santa experience. 

Mall owners are getting creative with their holiday programming to try to drive traffic to their shopping centers. One woman even launched her own business, selling inflatable snow globes to safely shield Santa and the children who visit him.

This year, “Santa” Stephen Arnold, president and chief executive officer of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, says the Santa experience is going to be “considerably different” for his organization’s some 2,000 members, who are assigned work at malls, schools, hospitals, churches and one-on-one visits to homes.

Among a number of changes, “virtual visits have exploded,” he said.

But malls, arguably more than other venues, still need the lure of Santa and Mrs. Claus — maybe now more than ever.

Traffic outlooks are bleak, for a time that typically draws in hordes of shoppers, especially around key moments like Black Friday. Only 45% of Americans plan to venture to a mall this holiday season, down from 64% who visited a mall last November and December, according to a survey released in October from the International Council of Shopping Centers.

“I don’t have any doubt that, in most cases and historically, Santa and Mrs. Claus have been a draw for the mall,” Arnold said. “And the mall has benefited from those people coming to get photographs, particularly when a husband and wife can go, and the wife is there in line and the husband can shop, and vice versa.”

Beginning Saturday, it will be rolling out a contactless visit with Santa. The hunting and fishing goods retailer, which also owns the Cabela’s chain, will be placing clear shields in front of all Santas this year. Reservations and temperature checks will be required. And the company said it will be using its parking lots to hold holiday parades and serve hot cocoa.

“With countless activities canceled and many families dealing with added stress, we feel it’s more important than ever to provide some free Christmas magic and help safely create cherished holiday memories,” said Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris.

Meantime, Santa won’t be visiting the department store chain Macy’s this year — ending a nearly 160-year-old tradition. Each year, Macy’s said its flagship in New York’s Herald Square welcomed more than a quarter of a million visitors to Santaland.

This year, Santaland will be virtual. Macy’s will launch the event on its website on Nov. 27 for families looking for holiday-related activities at home.

Mall owners are trying to get creative with their own programming, too.

“People are hungry for things in life that feel ‘normal,’ and comfortable environments for holiday shopping – places that have been thoughtfully adapted for today’s health concerns,” said Olivia Bartel Leigh, executive vice president of portfolio operations and people at Macerich.

The company, which owns Tysons Corner Center in Washington, D.C., is asking visitors to make early reservations to see Santa this year via local malls’ websites. The experience will be contactless, the company said, not offering further details. All of the Santas will also be asked to wear masks.

Taubman, owner of Los Angeles’ Beverly Center, is taking a similar approach. At a dozen of its high-end shopping malls, through a partnership with professional photography company Cherry Hill Programs, Taubman will offer reservations for prepaid photo-ops with Santa, in a socially distanced way. It also said Santas must wear masks at all times, regardless of local mandates.

Mall owners CBL & Associates and Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield have also partnered with Cherry Hill, the companies said, to set up their Santa experiences. (Cherry Hill set up its first Santa photo-op experience at a New Jersey mall in 1961, and has grown to be a leading provider of this service.)

Additionally, Westfield will for the first time hold holiday-themed scavenger hunts, using augmented reality and QR codes, at some of its properties, for the chance to unlock special discounts from retailers. And for those families feeling extra “Grinchy” this year, Westfield said, a handful of its malls will have a Grinch-themed backdrop for photo-ops.