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High demand is creating a 'North Pole' labor shortage

COVID, retirements, high demand with more events, virtual visit requests and private family sessions are driving the recent shortage of Santa's helpers.

SARASOTA, Fla. — Santa is back in business and making a return to many malls and events even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll. In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Claus are in such high demand that they might not be able to make all their rounds this year.

According to HireSanta.com, fewer people are signing up to help Santa and it has resulted in a 15 percent drop in the number of 'Santas' at stores and malls. While the traditional Santa visits are expected to return to normal, especially now that children are getting vaccinated, there could be longer waiting lines and not enough Santas to fill schedules.

Last year, the Holiday Experience industry took a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic and forced Santa into quarantine.

The typical visit with Santa during the holiday was disrupted in order to keep everyone safe. The classic photos on Santa's lap turned into photos 6 feet apart, with masks or with Santa behind plexiglass. 

Sometimes, kids got to meet Santa only behind a computer screen on Zoom as events went virtual. 

For those who didn't go virtual, events had extra safety measures like having hand sanitizer on deck, workers wiping down the holiday set and online reservations to cut down lines. 

This year as vaccinations increase and things start returning to normal, people of all ages are looking forward to his comeback.

"We got out of our cars and saw Santa across the way so we got really excited, we got really excited," said friends Joan Gardener and Joanne Burn.

The seniors who are volunteers with Venice Main Streets had just run into "Karl Kringle" who had just recently moved from Ohio.

Kringle whose real name is Karl Downing has been donning his Santa suit for years and making the rounds in different ways.

"Visiting with family, having pictures taken, breakfast with Santa, all kinds of things like that and people are just driving to have Santa Clause in," said Karl Kringle.

He said he has received more booking calls than even before the pandemic and is trying to accommodate all the requests. He said the pandemic caused many Santas to retire, leaving gaps in communities.

"Some Christmas parties that normally didn't use Santa Claus, they want to bring Santa Claus in to do those parties, to have that magical feeling of Christmas with Santa coming in and passing out presents," Kringle said.

The high demand is what is driving the recent shortage, and since there is only one Santa, he can't possibly be everywhere except with a Christmas miracle.

"The Santas are probably down 15 to 25 percent available but the demand is up over 100 percent with families, companies and organizations wanting Santa doing those visits," he said.

"We've already anticipated that potential gap in the demand that went up so much for families who want to see Santa this year," said Chris Landtroop of Cherry Hill Programs.

Cherry Hill programs provide holiday experiences to more than 700 locations including at malls in Tampa and Sarasota.

Landtroop said while some malls are seeing a shortage, their team learned a lesson from last year's shortage and expanded on their strategy.

"We are in the Santa business all year long, so we have a Santa recruitment team that is building and nurturing relationships with Santas and Santa organizations 365 days a year and that's been a part of a business model for many years," Landtroop said.

Santa's advice this year is to book early, be patient if you have to wait in line and follow the rules so everyone would get to have a great holiday experience and their time with Santa.

"If you see Christmas through the eyes of a child, the Christmas spirit will be in your heart and you'll have a Merry Merry Christmas," Kringle said.

Meanwhile, Santa would be making a grand arrival in Sarasota on Saturday where they're throwing him a big welcome party. The Mall at University Town Center will hold its 5th annual Santa's Grand Arrival Celebration. The event will feature a holiday parade, live music, a light show and a fireworks show. Kids would also get to hang out with holiday characters, of course including the big guy. The event is scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m.