Eight years ago, Kelly Ferrell, a 51-year-old retired cop, was sitting on a bench at a shopping mall in Texas when he was approached by an unfamiliar woman.
“Pardon me, sir,” she implored, “but have you ever considered… being Santa Claus?”
Ferrell certainly looked the part: Since stepping down from the force, he’d grown a “big ‘ol white beard.” He was a little on the heavier-set side, with rosy cheeks and kind eyes He had, the woman said, the potential for greatness.
And so, Ferrell “became” Santa — not by the grace of self-determination or the Spirit of Christmas, but the keen eye of a Santa scout.
Beneath its wholesome exterior, the professional Santa business is a complex, occasionally cutthroat industry, where top performers are sought after much like professional athletes. But once you’re in the minor leagues, how do you learn the ropes? How do you navigate the business side of things, or negotiate contracts?
You get a Santa agent.
The Santa industrial complex
As it turned out, the woman who approached Ferrell worked for the Noerr Corporation (now Cherry Hill), a Santa training and staffing agency.
“I call them Santa wranglers,” says Ferrell. “They hang out at malls or other populated areas and throw their pitch at every white-bearded guy who comes through. They really beat the bushes to find us.”
Intrigued by the adventure of it all, Ferrell agreed to give it a shot.
A farm owner in his post-cop life, he was a little “rough around the edges” — a blue jeans, boots, and baseball cap kind of guy. So, his employer enrolled him at Santa University, the equivalent of Spring Training for aspiring Saint Nicks.
He was put through an intensive training regimen involving “purple shampoo only 90-year-old women use” (to keep white hair from yellowing), beard bleaching 101, and the art of positioning a child on one’s lap.
“You don’t want the kid straddling you like a horse,” says Ferrell. “And you want to make sure both hands are visible at all times. Santa wears white gloves to avoid lawsuits.”
For his first job, Ferrell was whisked away to Fort Sill, a military base in Oklahoma, where he was put up in a Holiday Inn and given a “fancy suit.”
Here, he was introduced to the rewarding, but grueling, life of a professional Santa Claus.
“It’s incredibly demanding work,” says Ferrell. “If you’re at a big mall, you might see upwards of 3k kids per day. And with each one, you get 3-5 pictures. You’re looking at 10k bright flashes per day. When you get off, you can hardly see.”
Oftentimes, the joyous, smiling kid in the Santa photo doesn’t tell the full story: Kids are “fighting for their life” as soon as they plop down in his lap — and he has to “wrangle” them for 3-5 minutes to engineer a satisfactory result for the parents.
In the line of duty, Ferrell has been sneezed on, vomited on, peed on — “everything that can come out” of a child has ended up in his lap. One Christmas, a 6-year-old headbutted him and split his eyebrow open, speckling his white fur lapel with blood. He now carries 3 extra suits for back-up.
“You get sick almost every season,” he says. “But it don’t matter if you’re running a 102° fever: ‘Tis the season.”
The Santa life is also what Ferrell calls the “loneliest job” he’s ever had: “You’re in a town where you know absolutely nobody. You’re in a room by yourself. You eat every meal by yourself. You’re away from your family, and you miss every play, pageant, and Nutcracker performance.”
Enduring these struggles can be financially rewarding: A steady mall or corporate gig (200-300 hours of work over 6 weeks) typically pays out anywhere from $6k to $15k, and home visits can command rates of $100 to $350 per hour. Some of the industry’s all-stars, like LA-based Santa Ed, tout salaries of $100k+ per season.
And of course, where there’s money, there are Santa-preneurs.
The Santa Claus agent
Raised in the tiny “gas town” of Denver City, Texas (population: 4,871), Mitch Allen was a natural-born entrepreneur.
After securing degrees in applied mathematics and statistics, he launched a successful internet marketing company and was appointed to the board of the Dallas Entrepreneur’s Organization. Then, in the holiday season of 2008, he received a request that changed his life: He was asked to be Santa at a corporate event.
He enjoyed the gig so much that he decided to “go all in.”
Leveraging his expertise in SEO, he created a personal website and “shot up the professional Santa rankings” on Google. Soon, he was the #1 result for Dallas-based Kringles — and he found himself buried in offers for paid gigs.
“Everybody wanted the first or second Saturday in December, and I found myself having to turn down a lot of jobs,” he tells us. “As an entrepreneur, what do you do when you have more demand than supply? You go out and find more Santas!”
So, Allen snatched up a promising domain (HireSanta.com) and set out to build the greatest arsenal of Santas the world had ever seen.
How to find a Santa
Professional Santas are a close-knit group, bonded by war stories and a love of Christmas. They gather on Facebook groups, and forums like ClausNet, where they discuss things like how to answer the difficult questions children ask (ie. “Can you bring Grandma back?”), and hawk used suits for as much as $3k a pop.
Generally, they skew older (most are pushing 70), carry around a few extra pounds, and devote Gladwellian amounts of time to thinking about their beards. They must possess a jolly demeanor, a wholesome attitude, and saintly patience.
“The most important thing is they have to want it,” says Allen. “Santas come in all shapes and sizes, but the passion has to be there.”
Most of his recruits are so-called “real-bearded” Santas (who command a premium over fake-bearded Santas). Many have gone through professional training at certified Santa schools, or have taken theater courses. All must unflinchingly pass a background check.
Through connections and marketing prowess, agents like Allen can amass a formidable roster of gigs ranging from corporate events, to country club visits, to major 15-state deals with retailers like T-Mobile.
The agent feeds his Santas a steady stream of high-quality work — and in return, he gets a few nibbles from the cookie tray.
From the minors to the bright lights
Today, Allen boasts a roster of more than 1k Santas and other Santa professionals (Mrs. Claus and elfs have a place in the industry, too).
Flanked by a large group of them, he recently made an appearance on Shark Tank, where investor Barbara Corcoran agreed to invest $200k in HireSanta in exchange for 10% of the company.
“All the Santas that came with him were so jolly and well-mannered,” Corcoran told us in an email. “You would want to invite [them] into your home.”
Allen will use the funds to build out a suite of online Santa training videos, improve scheduling systems, and — most importantly — draw more Santas to his platform.
“This year alone, we had 5 Santas get sick,” he says. “One had a heart attack; another had a stroke. We need good bench strength so we’re able to fill the gaps.”
After “toiling in the minor leagues” for a few years, Ferrell decided to sign on with Allen. Now, the small-town Santa is in the “bright lights.”
“I would call Mitch [Allen] my agent,” he says. “The guy hustles. He finds the real high-end gigs. He handles all the financial stuff, all the unpleasantries of being a Santa — the dollars and cents stuff.”
His work for HireSanta has taken him all over the world, including a voyage on a Royal Carribean cruise ship and a stint in China — his first time out of the country. This year, he’s got a steady gig at the outdoor retailer Cabela’s.
Each season, before he leaves for some faraway state or country, Ferrell tells his toddler grandchildren — who believe he’s the real deal — that he has to take a trip to the North Pole for a little while.
“When we walk off the set Christmas Eve, every single one of us Santas is thinking, ‘This is it. This is my last year,’” he says. “But Santa’s in the heart, man: For a lot of us, it’s our destiny.”
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