Malls go all-out for holiday dollar Live reindeer, Santas are put on display to attract shoppers

Season is crucial

Some businesses make full-time job of Christmas promotions

November 29, 1996|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Santa's sleigh with eight tiny reindeer is coming to a shopping mall near you.

From Santas to Scooby-Doo to string quartets, shopping malls will do just about anything to attract shoppers during the holiday season, when retailers traditionally make 30 percent of their yearly sales.

Towson Town Center, like many other malls, will present entertainment with several singing groups, Santa breakfasts and bTC other events every weekend between now and Christmas.

And, indeed, there will be live reindeer pulling Santa in a sleigh at the Westview Mall today.

The demand is great enough that entire businesses are built on providing malls and shopping centers with entertainment between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Take Operation Santa, for instance.

Run from a 20-acre ranch in Redmond, Ore., the company will supply shopping malls from California to Baltimore with a team of live reindeer, including a baby that is always called Rudolph.

Like many entertainers, the reindeer travel by trailer, hitting malls along the way.

And like a band, many of the teams have been working together for years. In fact, they always bed down in the trailer in the same position they would take when hooked to the sleigh.

Besides a little bit of corporate party work and some community events, said Cindy Gillaspie, a manager at Operation Santa, most of the business is generated by shopping centers and malls, which pay $2,200 to $3,500 a day for the reindeer.

And the mall management has to provide the Santa and straw.

The reindeer draw thousands of people at some malls, Gillaspie said. Recently, 1,500 children arrived to greet them at an Illinois mall.

Operation Santa belongs to Western department store owner Dallas Troutman.

It has been in business for 25 years.

"It is kind of a hobby business for him," Gillaspie said. "We cover expenses and hopefully make a little profit for him."

Mall managers in search of a Santa can run an ad -- or go to a Santa supply company.

Philadelphia-based North Pole Photo "specializes in real bearded Santas," said general manager Greg Hasyn.

Operating year-round, the company has several hundred Santas who go to about 65 malls. It finds most of its Santas in professional acting guilds and church groups.

Once chosen, a Santa must be drug tested and have a police background check before attending Santa School to learn all the Santa lore.

"It takes a long time to train a Santa," Hasyn said, "because if Santa doesn't know the toys, it can be pretty apparent that they don't make them."

He won't say just how much one of his employees costs, but "a mall will pay a lot for a real bearded Santa."

After all, the International Council of Shopping Centers estimates that 23 million children nationwide will visit Santa at a mall. That's 60 percent of the under-10 age group population, the ICSC said.

But not all of the entertainers are out to make money.

Port of Call, a barbershop singing group that will rove around Towson Town Center for two hours on four Saturdays, charges (( $150.

The oldest barbershop singing group in the state has performed at White Marsh and Glen Burnie in other years.

"It's not a big money maker for you," said the group's leader, Bill Malstrom.

He does it, he said, because "I love to sing."

Pub Date: 11/29/96

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