After a year of Zooming for school, work, parties and family gatherings, it seems only natural that 2020’s pandemic holiday season would mean yet another virtual experience: video chatting with Santa Claus.
It’s new territory for a lot of kids and families, but not for Visit With Santa. The Vancouver-based firm has been operating its online Santa video call platform for four years, and CEO Fred Lueck said he and his staff are preparing for a surge in demand. The service doesn’t open until Nov. 27, but the registration page is already active, and Lueck said it’s clear that the rush is coming.
“We’ve seen a fairly large uptick in traffic and sales,” he said.
Lueck’s family and a group of friends developed their Santa video call concept (initially branded as Welcome Santa) in 2016 and spent two years developing and refining their platform before scaling up for a wider rollout in 2018.
Parents can go to visitwithsanta.com and book a five-minute call for $24.99. The registration includes a form so “Santa” can learn the names of the kids in advance. Then at the scheduled time, the family logs into the browser-based video platform and the kids find themselves face-to-face with St. Nick. The family also gets to download a video of the call afterward.
That basic premise hasn’t changed this year, but the surrounding business landscape has shifted dramatically. Lueck said the company is seeing about four times the amount of traffic compared with this point last year. He declined to give a specific figure, citing competition in the industry — another new pandemic-era wrinkle.
Visit With Santa isn’t the only game in town, but the competitive landscape used to be relatively sparse. The platform only faced one primary competing service in its early years, Lueck said, but this year there are at least eight other companies that have thrown their fuzzy red hats into the ring.
Lueck said he wishes those competitors well — when it comes to spreading holiday cheer, the more the merrier — but he’s also confident that Visit With Santa can stay competitive because the company has had four years of shakedown time to refine its platform and nail down the process for screening and scheduling its roster of Santas.
“These new companies do not have any idea of the trials and tribulations that they’re going to have to be dealing with,” he said.
The pandemic hasn’t just resulted in more sign-ups from individual parents – it’s also generated a significant amount of commercial interest. Grocery stores and other retailers have sought out and worked with the company, Lueck said, to offer discounted promotional Santa visits to customers.
That part came as a surprise, he said — the new clients all came knocking in the summer, once it became clear that the world was going to spend the winter still in lockdown. Visit With Santa had to rush to bring on additional Santas to keep up.
Other clients have popped up too, such as corporations hosting company holiday parties or real estate firms looking for thank-you gifts for homebuyers. The increased corporate interest prompted the company to build a fundraising program for nonprofits this year, Lueck said.
“I don’t think that would have existed if it weren’t for COVID,” he said.
The parent company — still called Welcome Santa — has grown to a staff of about two dozen employees, Lueck said, and the number of Santas on its roster has more than doubled since 2018.
The company’s headquarters and “Santa wrangling office” are still in Vancouver, although in practice its operations are widely distributed, Lueck said – the development team is in Seattle, the security team is in Peoria, Ill., the marketing team is in St. Louis. And the Santas are everywhere.
Demand for the service was growing steadily each year even before the pandemic, he said, so he’s not concerned about customers gravitating back to malls and other in-person Santa visits in 2021.
“We were here before COVID, and we’ll be here after COVID,” he said.
Santa drops in
The Columbian spoke to one of the company’s enrolled Santas last week using the chat service. Santa Claus (secret identity: Chuck Gill) has been using the platform for three years, but he also has a long history of in-person visits to shopping malls and events, including the tree-lighting ceremony in Philadelphia.
He’ll still be doing some public events this year, he said, although some of them are going to be scaled down or filmed and streamed. But Gill said he doesn’t view the video chats as merely an invention of necessity — they allow for a much more engaging and personalized conversation, without the rush that would come with working at a retail location where the line has to keep moving.
“As Santa Claus, I feel it’s so much nicer and more genuine if you can talk to someone like we are right now,” he said.
The video service does take some getting used to, he said — it’s important to look at the camera rather than the screen, and to make sure to pay attention to everyone on the other end of the call, since it’s often a whole family.
It requires a degree of improvisation, and Gill said he’s been able to draw on his background in acting to help him perfect the routine. He’s also lent a hand to some of the Santas who are new to the service, helping them review their calls and look for tips to make the next visit even more magical.
The decline of in-person Santa events is a side effect of the pandemic, Gill said, and it’s temporary. But he said he doesn’t think the Santas — or the people who call them — are going to want to stop doing video calls.
“Will (in-person) come back? Of course it’ll come back. Santa is the eternal optimist,” he said. “But will (video calling) go away? I don’t think so, because we’ve seen it build every year. The hook, I think, is that it’s more intimate than a chair visit.”