Local businesses expect subdued TIFF to generate fewer sales, less foot traffic


TORONTO — Most years, Beck Taxi will have logged hundreds of fares from people preparing for the Toronto International Film Festival weeks before red carpets have even been unfurled and lines snake out theatres.

But this year is different. The company says it’s barely seen any TIFF-related trips and expects only a small fraction of pre-pandemic business to materialize when the 10-day event begins Sept. 9.

“I can’t even describe the ripple effect that this has,” Kristine Hubbard, Beck’s operations manager, said of a second COVID-curbed fest set for next month.

“For drivers, frankly, these major events really, really help maintain their income.”

The outlook is similar at hotels, restaurants and other businesses across the city that typically experience a jump in sales, reservations and attention when stars and their fans flock to the festival.

A 2013 study from TIFF and the research firm TNS Canada Ltd. said the festival delivers at least $189 million in annual economic activity to Toronto businesses.

TIFF still plans to welcome the world’s film community next month, and has promised a return of some red carpet glitz.

However, virtual screenings introduced last year will return, while in-person screenings at theatres, drive-ins and open-air cinemas will limit capacity and require social distancing, masks and proof of full-vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

TIFF accredited 1,400 journalists and 4,000 industry members, but a fourth wave of the virus has businesses lowering expectations for a return of the usual showbiz largesse of industry parties, swanky dinners and swag bags.

“We’re just a little hesitant this year to get our hopes up,” said Dean Harrison, national director of marketing at Aburi Restaurants Canada, which opened Japanese restaurant Minami in November.

Aburi thought a location by Roy Thomson Hall’s red carpet area would help Minami take advantage of TIFF and the theatre district, but by mid-August, hadn’t received any festival bookings.

“There’s no question that TIFF brings big money to Toronto’s small businesses … but clearly, these aren’t normal times and sadly, what we’re hearing is that small businesses won’t benefit fully from TIFF,” said Julie Kwiecinski, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’ director of provincial affairs for Ontario.

Even with government aid, she says the pandemic downturn forced many business owners to take on massive personal and corporate debts, and sell their homes, cars or other beloved possessions to keep their companies alive.

Those near the festival theatres have an even steeper path to recovery because they’re located in the downtown core where foot traffic has yet to rebound as many workers have not returned to office towers.

Several eateries directly across the street from the fest’s hub, TIFF Bell Lightbox, went out of business as did the Reitman family’s restaurant Montecito, around the corner.

“We’re seeing demand increasing, which is great, but we’re still probably 700 taxis short of where we were before the pandemic and that is bananas crazy,” said Hubbard.

Hubbard called a subdued TIFF a “kick in the teeth” after a tough year because the festival is normally a boon for taxi drivers. It brings out-of-town guests and attracts locals when kids are back in school and the weather is not too hot or cold.

The TIFF party scene similarly injects piles of cash into the local economy as studios, sponsors and filmmakers spend on rental spaces, food, staffing, decor and entertainment.

Many of those festivities have been scrapped this year.

Royal Bank of Canada, for example, will sponsor a drive-in and a virtual fireside chat celebrating women in film instead of its annual RBC House, where people usually gather over several nights to schmooze, enjoy live music and attend filmmaker talks.

“It’s too difficult to pull off this year,” said Matt McGlynn, RBC’s vice-president of brand marketing. “RBC House, the red carpet, has all been scaled back.”

That’s unfortunate news for Jesse Warfield, whose District Eatery sits across from the Lightbox on a stretch of King Street West that typically shuts down for a pedestrian-only street party on TIFF’s opening weekend.

The business is typically “comfortably at capacity” and doubles its sales during TIFF but Warfield isn’t sure what to expect this time around.

“The interesting question is what will capacity be?” Warfield said of public health measures for restaurants.

Meanwhile, Harrison is focused on promoting Minami’s takeout offerings to cinephiles streaming TIFF titles at home, and will peg his hopes of a rebound to TIFF 2022.

He said, “We’re gauging our expectations accordingly and making sure that we’re not going too full steam ahead.”

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press