Simply visiting Santa no longer seems quite enough for the Christmas 'experience'

Celina Ribeiro

By 9.15am on Saturday 16 November, five families are queuing outside a tasteful gum-leaf-green wrought iron dome on the third floor of Sydney’s Queen Victoria building. Orange, red and crimson fake flowers mingled with fairy lights and greenery top what is effectively an indoor gazebo. Somewhere a classical piano plays.

There are girls in their best dresses, siblings matching, boys in collared shirts and gelled hair. Mothers with freshly blushed cheeks and blow-dried hair, fathers holding the family place in line.

We are waiting for Santa, and we are lucky. It is more than five weeks until Christmas but weekend appointments to visit the QVB Santa sold out within days of becoming available.

By 9.40am the fairies are talking to us. Two young women in bronze gold bodices and soft tutus with floral wreaths around their braided hair and braces on their teeth blow bubbles to soothe our nerves. We see Santa, who is amiable, have a photo, which turns out nicely, and then leave, passing the crest of the 24m Christmas tree adorned with 82,000 Swarovski crystals, 65,000 lights and a crystal gilded star that stretches 2.2m tip to tip.

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In many places across the country, visiting Santa is becoming more elaborate, more immersive and more experiential. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on Santa sets, ranging from actual mazes to reach Santa (Indooroopilly, Brisbane) to virtual reality trains flying to the North Pole (Myer Santalands, nationwide) and standalone Santa cottages outside shopping centres (Rouse Hill and others). It has become unremarkable for shopping centres to offer Santa pet photography. And the raised Santa stakes are not limited to Australia. In Britain Harrod’s found itself in PR hot water after limiting its own Santa’s grotto experience to shoppers with a spend in store of over £2,000 and toy shop Hamley’s Santa experience was booked out by early November.

The QVB Santa is, by comparison, quite tame – low-key, quiet “authenticity” is its selling point. It is common knowledge among local parents that the QVB Santa has a real beard. In fact there are three QVB Santas. One is flown up from Melbourne each year by the Santa and photography provider, Scene to Believe, and put up in accommodation in Sydney. Real bearded Santas are in high demand and short supply.

“The Santas there [at QVB] – they’re just the real deal,” says Prudence Hickling, Santa character manager at the company.

When Hickling speaks to Guardian Australia she is busy. As of mid-November she has 435 Santas on her books, but she needs another 31. With working with children check processing times and a very narrow field of candidates to recruit, it is looking tight.

“I would love it if we could put females in Santa suits, because it would help with our shortage. But kids pick up on it,” she says. She would also love to broaden the ethnic diversity of Santa, include blind Santas and the like, but consumers and centres hold fast to the dominant Santa image. Last year in a northern Queensland centre she placed a skinny Santa – a normal sized man, with a 80 or 87cm waist, and the centre’s social media was flooded with complaints, “calling him a crack head and all of this stuff”.

“You’re looking for a character. You’re looking for someone who is fitting that mould of Santa Claus, which is challenging.”

‘It’s all about experience’

But visiting Santa is not just checking in with a man in a costume. Hickling, who has four children under seven, remembers going to see Santa as a young child. “It was just a chair in a shopping centre,” she says. “Now it’s multimillion-dollar sets.”

Tim Clarkson, chief executive of Chas Clarkson, a Christmas “decoration and illumination” company, has been delivering Santa sets and experiences for about 25 years. “In general, upping the ante is certainly happening a fair bit. [Santa sets] are a cornerstone of these Christmas experiences. They’ve gone from simple backdrops to elaborate journeys,” he says.

The company designs sets ranging from a basic entry level, at about $50,000, to up to $500,000. The market lately is for traditional wintery scenes and old world feel, he says. But the company has just developed a set for Sydney’s Macquarie Centre with real native trees, roaming fairies and a strong Australiana flavour which made the local nightly news. Michael Whitehead, centre manager of Chadstone shopping village in Melbourne, says it is important to distinguish spending on Santa and Christmas experiences between upfront and recurring costs. A centre might spend $1m on a Santa set, but reuse it for 10 years.

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“But if you said we were spending around $1m, yes absolutely we’re spending more than $1m on our Santa experiences,” he says. “It costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars just to hang our Christmas baubles, let alone the Santa and all that stuff … They’re expensive things to do, but it’s a minimum expectation from a consumer perspective that you have Christmas decorations.”

At Chadstone there is an 11.5m Christmas tree with a Santa experience around its base. Visitors walk through an immersive night before Christmas-themed space, with talking reindeer and elves. Every Santa photo session results in at least 10 candid digital photos.

And each hour, on the hour, it snows.

Whitehead says Santa experiences have “absolutely” become more elaborate, but it’s not just about Christmas. “From a consumer point of view, I can buy whatever I like online. So why would I come to a shopping centre as opposed to transacting online? Really it’s all about experience.”

Experience may be just about all bricks and mortar retail has left, as consumer budgets tighten and online shopping competes with greater convenience and often better prices. The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show volume of retail sales falling, prompting comparisons to the recession of the early 1990s. Last year’s Christmas spending was far weaker than predicted, but the Australian Retail Association says it is expecting growth again in this vital pre-Christmas shopping period.

Associate Prof Tania Bucic, deputy head of University of NSW’s school of marketing and president of the Australian and New Zealand Marketing Academy, says the rise of elaborate, immersive Santa experiences reflects a general trend of retailers to become more customer centric. “Experiential exhibits provide an opportunity for people to immerse themselves, to co-create the version of the story they want to tell,” she says.

“Interactive Santa displays have always been popular, but we are becoming more aware of such experiences and the fact that children are consumers too. Delighting children is just as important as delighting their parents who are actually paying for the encounter.”

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They surprise, delight, engage and draw in. They bring magic, and footfall, to the mall.

Associate Prof Joshua Newtown, of Deakin University, has studied the effect Christmas decorations have on consumers and says they can make the act of shopping for others feel sacred. “It helps to add additional meaning to what is otherwise a fairly normal process of purchasing gifts. It is also a signal to consumers that Christmas is around the corner, we’re in this game, we’re here to help you out,” he says.

#xmasmagic

The Santa photo is the backbone of Santa experiences, a core Christmas tradition in Australia and the rest of the Anglosphere. For many it is the one reliable family photograph taken every year. With digital photography, these pictures now include fewer closed eyes and screaming infants. But photos are not what they used to be.

“Santa has always been a drawcard to a centre, but with social media it’s more so. They are all competing for the biggest, the best and most beautiful experience,” says Scene to Believe’s Hickling.

“Everyone wants this perfect photo. Packages for us have really tended towards the digital market. People just want that digital share. They wanna go: ‘Look how wonderful my kids are. Killing it as a parent. Look how beautiful Santa is. Happy Christmas.’ ”

The kids don’t care about the photo, says Hickling “They’re honestly there to make sure that Santa knows what they want for Christmas. It’s the parents who want that beautiful shot.”

Her teams are kept on short shifts to help them maintain their good cheer and character. “It’s that whole ‘Keep it Disney. Keep it magic,’ ” she says.

Beyond the official photo on Santa’s chair, many experiences are designed to build in moments where consumers will take their own photos, hashtag their own #xmasmagic, and use their own “personal brand” to promote the brand of the retailer or experience. Selfie opportunities are highly regarded by retailers, says Chas Clarkson’s NSW account manager, Jason Sole.

I found Brisbane mother Mira Smith by looking on Instagram of photos with #MyerSantaland. With her seven-year-old questioning Santa’s existence, she is going all out to eke one more magical year from, and for, her children. In November Smith, a family lifestyle Instagrammer, took her three boys to Santaland in the Brisbane Myer Centre.

They arrived early and found themselves on a mock steam train, looking out windows showing them going faster, and faster, then taking off to the toy factory (“And the elf said: ‘See anything you like?’ ”), via the naughty list, then landed in the North Pole. Exiting the train they had their picture taken against a green screen for fun shots, played with Lego and Nerf and wrote Santa letters as they waited to meet him.

Her eight-month-old cried, but the bigger boys “can’t stop talking about it. It was lovely.”

Smith grew up in a Muslim family and her husband in a Christian one. Neither celebrate the religious elements of Christmas but Santa and magic are critical to the season.

“How I look at it is, there’s so many bad things in the world at the moment,” she says. “I just want my kids to be acting like children a bit longer. To be honest, I think it’s worth it for maybe a year or two.

“At the end of the day we all know it’s not real. I just wanted to keep them, to believe.”