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Did you get a glimpse of your local mall Santa Claus this year? How did he seem bored or enthused by the prospect of chatting with kids? Did his "Ho ho ho!" evoke the essence of the North Pole?

If you're paying attention, you can spot the subtle differences between good and bad Santas--and the best Santas turn their talents into a very lucrative business these final weeks of the year. Last month, Fast Company got an inside look at the secret life of the Santa Claus gig economy. The magazine's video crew boarded a cruise ship in Alaska alongside 40 Santa school students--specifically, School4Santas, otherwise known as the International University of Santa Claus.

The program offers more than just acting advice. Tim Connaghan, a longtime Santa Claus in the Hollywood area, has been teaching the business of being Santa for 17 years. One of his tenets: You need to be able to adapt your Santa experience to match the customer's needs. A Hollywood Santa appearing onstage with celebrities needs to comport himself very differently than a local mall Santa interacting more closely with children, and the more you tailor your Santa style to your client, the more likely you are to be hired again the following year.

Another of Connaghan's recommendations: Create and practice a 30-second elevator pitch. Yes, even Santas need to concisely sum up exactly why they're the right magical elf-boss for each specific job. "Most of us only work four weekends a year, so we've got to maximize the time in those four weekends to make our moneys," Connaghan said during one class on the cruise ship. "How do you make Santa's phone ring? It is marketing, marketing, marketing."

As the ship floated along the Alaskan coast, the 40 Santas on board--median age 72--swapped personal information and best practices. They took notes during lectures, tweaked their Santa résumé​s, and advised each other on the most lucrative gigs: Connaghan told Fast Company that savvy Santas can make anywhere between $5,000 and $25,000 each November and December. 

Like any good entrepreneur, the best Santas are crystal clear on whom they really work for (the kids) and what their job really is (keeping the magic alive). Connaghan even preaches the importance of embodying the spirit of Santa all 365 days of the year--so check out the full video for a fascinating look at how this seasonal gig has turned into a year-round endeavor.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Tim Connaghan of School4Santas.