A new set of video-chat companies are popping up for Santas and kids who aren't going to the mall
- As an alternative to the traditional mall Santa experience, a crop of new digital services and apps are offering virtual chats with Saint Nick for children around the nation.
- "The kids are so used to it. They FaceTime with their grandparents and they talk to everybody through video calls anyways, so this is a totally natural way for them to be able to interact with Santa," said Meredith Lueck, cofounder of Welcome Santa, a service that helps kids video chat with Santa.
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The business of being Santa is going digital.
While mall Santas continue to thrive even as traditional malls continue to shutter, technology is transforming the way children interact with Saint Nick and spawning companies built for the digital age. From services like Welcome Santa, Portable North Pole, and Talk to Santa to mobile apps like Video Call Santa, it's now easier than ever for children around the world to chat with Santa from the comfort of their homes.
Meredith Lueck and her family founded Welcome Santa in 2018 to connect children and their parents to virtual Santas in the form of a five-minute web chat. The company was inspired by Lueck's own experience with Santa growing up, in which a family friend who also worked as a mall Santa would call the family's home posing as Kris Kringle each Christmas.
With the advent of FaceTime and video chatting, eventually the Lueck family - which is based in Anchorage, Alaska - switched to video chatting to see him in the full Santa suit, and the seed of an idea was planted.
Santa takes the screen
Welcome Santa works similarly to Cameo, an app where users pay celebrities to create personalized video messages, except the celebrity in this case is Santa. A five-minute video costs $29.99 and can be scheduled directly on the website, or else gifted to someone else in the form of a Welcome Santa gift card.
Lueck said Welcome Santa works with 20 individuals who are current members of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, an organization of working Santas that requires background checks and enforces a strict professional code. Once a call is scheduled, Lueck said, users can input information about the individual Santa kids will be speaking with to help personalize the experience.
Though Welcome Santa only had about 50 or so customers last year, Lueck said the company has already far surpassed that number with more than two weeks left to go until Christmas this year. Additionally, the company has started to receive international interest, especially in the UK.
Lueck said the service has also increasingly caught the eye of parents of special-needs children, many of whom are seeking an alternative to a traditional mall environment. She said she received a personal thank you from the mother of a young boy with Down syndrome who had found meeting Santa in person "overwhelming and usually unpleasant," though he enjoyed the virtual experience.
"[The parents are so] thankful to have such a unique Santa experience without crowds, noise, waiting, etc.," she said. "Their kids can talk to Santa in the place they feel most comfortable."
She said the service has been a major draw for Santas who are still interested in working, but on their own time for a limited number of hours. Santas set their own schedule, Lueck said, and typically take four calls an hour for an average of between one and four hours a day.
"They're enjoying a new way to be able to reach kids," she said. "It's great for them because a lot of Santas, especially as they get older, they love being Santa, but they can't go sit in the mall chair for eight hours anymore. It's just so hard on their bodies."
According to Lueck, the biggest challenge thus far has been the learning curve around the technology for users and Santas alike, the latter of whom tend to be of retirement age or older and traditionally work in retail settings.
"It was definitely a growing process for us, just as new business owners and the community as a whole, as this is a new way to be able to interact with Santa," she said.
However, for the digitally native children, Lueck said none "have even batted an eye" at the idea of conversing with Santa on a screen.
"The kids are so used to it. They FaceTime with their grandparents and they talk to everybody through video calls anyways, so this is a totally natural way for them to be able to interact with Santa," she said.
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