McLEAN, Va. — For more than a quarter century, they’ve been lining up, waiting hours to tell Mike Graham of Sevierville, Tennessee, about their most fervent hopes.
In northern Virginia, the heart of shopping-mall culture, there is no more familiar mall Santa than Graham.
For 26 years, he has been the one and only mall Santa at Tysons Corner Center, one of the busiest malls in the country. His photo sits on the mantle of countless homes in the D.C. region, and his face is instantly recognizable and distinguishable to the kids who have sat on his lap and the parents who bring their children to him year after year. An ill-advised attempt by the mall to replace him in 2008 resulted in massive protests and a quick retreat.
“Even though I only see them for a short time, they see me all year — I’m sitting on their coffee table. So there’s real familiarity, and it’s an incredible honor,” Graham said.
Originally, Graham had planned the Santa gig as a way to make it to Hawaii. Getting a start as a mall Santa in his native Tennessee, the photo company that employed him offered him his choice of malls if he’d keep working. Graham said he’d like to go to Hawaii. That slot had been filled, so they asked Graham to first do a year in northern Virginia, at Tysons Corner Center.
At the end of his first year at Tysons, the mall managers showed him a stack of comment cards praising his work. He’s stayed at Tysons ever since.
This year, Tysons Corner Center is tweaking the mall Santa experience. The mall has added a series of interactive experiences, called Santa HQ, to engage kids while they wait in line, and an online reservation system to help manage the line.
Dawn Banket, assistant vice president for marketing at Macerich, the mall’s owner, said that in the first week since the Santa exhibition debuted, visits are up nearly 200 percent compared to a year ago. Macerich has also seen big increases at nine other malls across the country that added Santa HQ.
While it has a sponsorship-tie-in from HGTV, brand tie-ins were generally kept to a minimum.
“We wanted to ride that fine line,” Banket said. “We didn’t want to make it so modern, so beyond the traditional experience that we’d be pushing away customers who want that tradition.”
And what does Santa think of the changes in the lead-up to meet him?
“It gives kids something to do” during the wait,”Graham said. “The line does get long sometimes, and the kids can get wound up. Here they can move around, and see other things.”
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