The business of Santa

BRADENTON — Capturing a memory with Santa Claus comes with a price these days.

The department store tradition of bringing in look-a-like Santas to visit with children at Christmas time is no longer just a strategy to drive holiday shopping.

These days, Santa has his own business — photo sales.

Malls such as DeSoto Square, operated by Simon Property Group, and Sarasota Square Mall and Southgate, operated by Westfield, contract with digital event companies to showcase Santa during the holidays.

As a result, photo packages come with prices comparable to those sold at amusement parks, and policies restrict parents from taking their own photos of their children on Santa’s lap unless they purchase a photo.

Photo packages at DeSoto Square run from $19.99 to $29.99, and Westfield’s go from $15.99 to $34.99. The cheapest package at Westfield goes for $15.99 and includes a 3- by 5-inch photo and two key chain photos.

“What is Santa being paid that we have to give him 25 bucks a pop for a photo?” asked Bradenton resident Laurie Fetzer, who recently took her nine-month daughter in for a visit with Santa at DeSoto Square.

Fetzer said she had hoped to get her own snapshot, but employees with the Denver-based digital event company, The Noerr Programs, told her that wasn’t allowed.

DeSoto Square and The Noerr Programs declined to talk about the value of its contract at the Bradenton mall or how much revenue the mall and the digital event company makes from the photo sales.

Irene Taub, a representative with The Noerr Programs’ public relations firm Ryan & Ryan, said parents can still let their children have an affordable visit with Santa.

“Children are welcome to visit Santa as many times as they’d like at no cost,” Taub said. “If they choose to mark the occasion with a photo we welcome them to take a picture with their own camera if they are purchasing a photo.”

But no photo sale, no personal camera.

Customers must understand the photography portion of the visit with Santa experience is a business, Taub said. The cost of photo packages take into consideration elaborate set designs as well as employees that digital event companies employ aside from Santas and elves. That includes photographers, cashiers, greeters and managers.

“The business side of it doesn’t allow for them to operate without the support for photo package purchases,” Taub said. “Behind the scenes, there’s a rather large cast of people who make it all happen. And with that, there’s all sorts of costs that they need to incur.”

Still, Fetzer said it’s a tough cost for some to meet.

“People are losing their jobs, yet we’re justifying $25 for a photo,” Fetzer said.

A few Lakewood Ranch businesses are offering more affordable visits with Santa in which personal cameras are welcome.

The Lakewood Ranch Cinemas at Main Street will have Santa in its lobby from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday after its free 10 a.m. showing of a “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Sherry Becker, property management assistant for Main Street at Lakewood Ranch, said the free event is intended to raise donations for its food drive as well as drive holiday shopping.

“We don’t see any reason why people can’t take their own pictures with Santa,” Becker said.

The Broken Egg in Lakewood Ranch and the Polo Grill also will have a Santa on location during breakfast Saturday. While personal cameras and photos will be welcome by Santa, the Polo Grill’s breakfast buffet will cost $15 a person and $10 for children, and diners will be subject to regular menu prices at The Broken Egg.

“We aren’t really trying to make a big profit on it,” said Shannon Harper, catering manager for Polo Grill.