When Karah Sambuco, M.Photog., CPP, started doing portraits with Santa in 2011 at her West Virginia studio, Foster Fine Art Portraits, it was a straightforward operation. Kids came in for quick photos with the man in red (played by her uncle), then everyone went on their merry way. “Honestly, it was just like the mall,” says Sambuco. “Come in, get your photos, leave.”
The original setup was fine, but Sambuco wanted to provide something more immersive, with more variety, similar to what she provides for her other portrait sessions. More variety means more sales, she says. “We were limiting ourselves with the one-and-done approach.”
At the same time, the experience needed to be systematic and repeatable. Sambuco couldn’t afford to reinvent the wheel with every session. She envisioned an experience that was so impressive that it wouldn’t matter if it was the same for everyone. Disney World doesn’t create a unique experience for every guest, she reasoned, but the overall experience is so good that everyone loves it. This was the inspiration for what Sambuco markets as the Santa Claus Experience.
To create a fully immersive experience for clients that serves her business purposes, Sambuco realized she needed to tell a story. Her grandfather always enjoyed writing poetry, so she gave him a list of the poses she wanted to capture for each child and asked him to write a story that would lead to each. Then she brought on her crafty aunts to help create an elaborate set that would provide options for different interactions with Santa.
“The story gives all of this a purpose,” explains Sambuco. “We need to know that each pose goes with each part of the story. I have a purpose while I’m shooting, and it also helps when we’re selling because it gives a purpose to the products we create.”
Sambuco and her team created a story with nine different interactions with Santa. Calling them interactions rather than poses lends greater authenticity to the event for children. The kids do things like find their name on the nice list, look in Santa’s bag, and view magic snow globes. At the end, there’s a bonus interaction where Santa drops some “magic snow” in the child’s hand that grows when he sprinkles some “magic water” on it. Sambuco bottles up the magic snow and sends it home with the children as a parting gift.
“The beauty is that everything is candid,” says Sambuco. “We might capture one photograph with them posing and looking at the camera. I get to sit back and photograph while the kids enjoy the whole thing. I’m not interfering. The interactions are all with Santa and the assistant. I get to see all these genuine expressions of wonder and joy; there’s no forcing things to get a particular shot. Parents can just watch and relax as well, without the temptation to jump in and interfere.”
And it happens quickly. By design, the entire storyline takes 15 minutes or less. “After 15 minutes, especially if kids are super comfortable in the setting, we start to lose them,” says Sambuco. “They are no longer star-struck and not as interested in Santa. Instead, they start to get curious and want to go touch everything in the set.”
Sambuco does a two-day test run for the Santa Claus Experience every July, and then conducts the main sessions on weekends in September, October, and November. She limits appointments to 10 per day and never accepts bookings past November so she can guarantee delivery of the artwork by Christmas.
Back when she was doing mall-style assembly line Santa photos, Sambuco was lucky to earn $50 in print sales per client. Her Santa Claus Experience sales average is in the four digits, with some big families investing upward of $12,000 on products.
The difference has been twofold: the experience story, which feeds into the products, and a more high-end menu of product options. A must-have purchase for most parents is a beautiful book that includes the story with images to go along with each interaction. This album is a focus of the sales process along with framed wall art.
The sales session happens immediately after the photo session while the children have milk and cookies in a separate room. Sambuco wants everything contained in one appointment to close the loop on the process and be respectful of clients’ time. Everything is done in less than an hour and a half.
Because of the investment involved, most clients do not return year after year for the Santa Claus Experience, though they often revisit the studio for other portraits. They treat the Santa images as statement pieces that they hang on their wall as part of their Christmas décor, not as items from an annual tradition like mall Santa photos. In part, that’s because the entire experience is a unique episode in their kids’ lives. As one client wrote in a review, “This is the experience that every child dreams of and every parent hopes for.” That sort of experience has lasting value that deserves commemoration.
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large.