Behind the door of Meeting Room One at the Hyatt Place in Dublin, Santa shouts out commands to his class like a drill sergeant.
“Give me a ho!” he cried.
“Ho!” a dozen Santas and Mrs. Clauses, clad in reindeer-themed bowling shirts and Christmas light covered Crocs, responded.
“Give me a ho! Ho!”
“Give me a ho! Ho! Ho!”
“Ho! Ho! Ho!”
“What does that mean?”
It’s not every day that you find a dozen Santas and Mrs. Clauses in the same place. To even see a few enjoying the hotel’s continental breakfast might prompt to you to do double take.
But at School4Santa, the world’s largest traveling Santa school, it’s a normal day of class.
For the last 17 years, Tim Connaghan, better known as the Hollywood Santa, has traveled the world teaching other Santas like himself the tricks of the trade.
He hosts several two-day conferences a year in hotel meeting rooms and on cruise ships to learn everything there is to know about being a Santa. For $299, the school includes 16 hours of instruction, a copy of Connaghan’s 240-page book “Behind the Red Suit,” and a Bachelor of SantaClausology diploma.
The school is held during the summer so Santas are ready to go by November. This year’s Columbus conference was held Saturday and Sunday, with an additional advanced session on Monday.
“Today’s Santa has to learn a lot more than what we did in the 1970s,” Connaghan, 70, said.
When Connaghan began his career as a mall Santa in college, he was handed a short list of do’s and dont’s. Today, he said, Santas need to be equipped in every area of the industry — from posing for pictures and styling your beard to writing contracts and answering children’s difficult questions.
“Everyone assumes you just have to be a nice grandpa or granny,” Connaghan said. “It’s so much more than just that.”
Mike Smith walked into Downtown’s City Center Mall 27 years ago and asked if they needed a Santa for the season. He was hired on the spot, but he was clueless.
“There was no one there to teach you,” said the 67-year-old West Side resident and president of Buckeye Santas.
During his nearly three-decade career, Smith has been Santa almost every mall in Columbus and has attended School4Santa a handful of times (which has earned him his doctorate of SantaClausology.)
“Every time I come, I learn something new,” Smith said.
For other Santas, Saturday’s session was their first introduction to the industry.
Randall Reed, a self-proclaimed newbie, already has a mall Santa gig lined up for the holiday season. Reed made himself a Santa Claus baseball hat — a simple red cap with a white sequined “SC” emblazoned to the front — but he had yet to wear it Saturday morning. For that, he said, he needed to learn more.
“I don’t feel worthy enough to wear it yet,” Reed, 67, of Canton, said.
Connaghan says one can only be a Santa or Mrs. Claus if they have a true desire and the spirit within their hearts.
He reminds them that Santa should not smoke or flirt on the job. Santa is not political (the only party he’s affiliated with is the Christmas party.) Santa should never deny or discipline, but he should be a motivator.
When a child asks for something far-out like a puppy or a gun, or for something intangible like fixing her parents’ divorce, Connaghan said to remind them that Santa’s magic is toys and that they are loved.
Being a good Santa, though, begins with character.
“Santa is jolly and full of life; he takes pride in his sparkling appearance,” he said. “You must know about every toy that’s out there, all of Santa’s history and legend.”
Most importantly, Connaghan said to remember, is that each person represent every Santa or Mrs. Claus. Whether you are posing for pictures with kids or mowing the lawn, he said, “you’ve always got to be in character.”
Santa can be a Vietnam veteran, a retired police lieutenant, a construction worker or a former corporate financial advisor. But when the suit goes on, a transformation happens.
Frank Chappell takes that call seriously. He and his wife, Kristin, drove nine hours in their shrink-wrapped Kia Sorento made to look like a sleigh from their home in St. Peter, Missouri, for the conference.
Frank, a retired business analyst, began full-time Santa work six years ago. Kristen runs the business, and together the two work year-round running social media accounts, networking and booking volunteer events and private parties. Frank even does video chats with kids in the off-season.
Even though the holiday season lasts only a few weeks, the Chappells and other Santas said it’s a 24/7 gig.
“It’s a challenge,” Frank Chappell, 63, said. “When you make that decision, you can’t be a bad driver anymore. When we go out, I don’t drink alcohol. I love a good cigar, but only at home.”
Kristen said her husband is in on-mode the minute he steps out the door. “Even in plain clothes,” she said, “it’s the same thing.”
But Frank said it’s all worth it in the end when he gets around the kids. Doing it all for the kids, Connaghan said, is the core of Santa’s mission.
“Rule No. 1? We’re there for the children.” Connaghan said. “Rule No. 2? Refer to rule No. 1.”
After eight hours of instruction, the Santas packed up for the day and headed out for dinner. Reed paused and picked up his hat off the table.
“I guess I’ll wear it tonight,” he said.
Hopefully he’ll feel confident enough to swap out the baseball hat for Santa’s coveted red cap by Christmas.