John Schimmel is so busy playing Santa Claus this year that he had to bring in an elf to help.
He hired a helper to calm the excited children waiting in line to sit on Santa’s lap, play games with them, help load the photo backdrops in and out of Schimmel’s car, and so on.
“This is the first year I’ve actually had to hire somebody,” said Schimmel, 51, a Mastic Beach resident who has been playing Santa since 2019.
Business this year is booming for Santas, who had been partly sidelined when the COVID-19 pandemic put a dent in in-person visits in 2020. Not only is the demand for Santa bookings exceeding supply, but the pay for the gigs has increased, though some of that is due to inflation, Santa industry experts said.
Malls, shopping centers, corporate parties and other venues that hosted Santas required masks and social distancing for St. Nick and children in 2020 and last year, but have nixed those this year.
Santa bookings were on the upswing last year as the nation began resuming normal activities amid the pandemic but this holiday season has exceeded those numbers as people gather and socialize more, according to Santas and companies that handle placements for St. Nick.
“I think people are finally getting back into the Christmas spirit,” said Michael Adragna, 58, a Lake Grove resident who has been playing Santa for 16 years.
There has been a 30% increase in demand for Santas this year compared with last at online booking company Hire Santa, said Mitch Allen, the founder of the Fort Worth, Texas-based firm. More than 2,250 jobs for full-season Santas, elves, and other holiday entertainers are open nationwide with the company.
“Weekends in December for hourly events are already sold out in most markets. We are turning down more business than ever before,” Allen said.
It's not just the yearning for normalcy.
“More brands are reaching out to hire Santa to help associate their brand to Christmas,” he said.
Furthermore, there has been a push for more diversity in the Santa business, with growing requests for Black, Latino and deaf Santas, he said.
Rogelio Mitchell, 57, has been playing Santa casually at community and church events for a few years, but his retirement in August from the LIRR as director of terminal operations will allow him more time for the St. Nick gigs, the Wheatley Heights resident said.
Last year, he did five Santa events the whole season but, as of Friday, he had nine bookings for this holiday season, including a scheduled appearance Saturday at the opening of the outdoor RINX at Wyandanch Plaza.
Also, requests are increasing for appearances by a Black Santa, he said.
“Last year, when we did a photo shoot in Wyandanch and opened it up to the entire community, we had people coming from as far as Brooklyn and Queens because it was advertised,” he said.
Retirements, COVID thinned ranks
The Santa industry also has lost more than the usual number of Santas to retirements and deaths in the past few years, since elderly men are among the most at-risk groups for contracting COVID, Allen said.
For the 2022 holiday season, as of Monday, GigSalad had received 20,000 requests for Santa bookings nationally, the most since its founding in 2007, said Mark Steiner, CEO of the company, which is an online marketplace where people can book entertainment and event services.
The Springfield, Missouri-based company, which has 1,505 registered Santas, was able to fill 30% of those booking requests.
By comparison, last year, GigSalad received about 17,000 requests, with bookings of 29%. In 2019, before the pandemic, the company received about 14,000 requests, which resulted in a 29% booking rate.
GigSalad’s booking percentages have remained stable because the Santas are doing more gigs per day, and the company added about 25 more Santas to the registry this year, Steiner said.
“All the numbers are up significantly, including the actual rate of what they’re getting paid,” Steiner said.
Ka-Ching for Jingle Bells
Santas booked through GigSalad are earning an average of $285 per gig, compared to $253 in 2021 and $215 in 2020, he said.
Booking prices on Hire Santa have risen 5% to 10% this holiday season for professional Santas, most of whom will earn $5,000 to $12,000 for their gig work this season, depending on how often and where they work, Allen said.
Last year, Schimmel was charging $75 for a Santa visit to a home and $150 for a visit to a private party. This year, he charges $150 to $175 for a home visit and $250 for a private party, he said.
He raised his prices because he was getting more requests to travel to events in New York City.
“People are not batting an eye” at the price hikes, said Schimmel, who works full-time as an office manager for a mental health facility.
He has booked a Christmas Day event for $500, he said.
He is signed up for every weekend until Christmas, and goes to four to five events every Saturday and Sunday, including a scheduled appearance at the All Faith Soccer League’s holiday party in Mastic Beach on Saturday.
“It’s crazy. I’ve never seen it like this before,” he said.
Adragna, who works full-time as an associate at a warehouse club store, hasn’t changed the fees he charges for his Santa gigs, despite his booking numbers increasing this season, he said.
“I know what it’s like to spend your money wisely. … My customer base is comfortable with what I charge and that’s why I think I get so many referrals,” he said.