In pre-pandemic times, restaurant owner Junior Sritharan would start preparing six months in advance for the Toronto International Film Festival.
Extra food would be ordered, the patio rearranged to accommodate more guests and additional staff hired and trained so the Fox on John restaurant, in the heart of Toronto’s downtown, could stay open around the clock for the expected influx of customers.
“Those 10 days in September were the busiest 10 consecutive days for us,” said Sritharan, president of the restaurant’s owner, Reign Company. “Everyone would gear up for maybe twice, if not 2 1/2 times, the revenue that we normally do… That’s like doing a whole month of sales in 10 days.”
His expectations are pared back this year. He won’t keep the restaurant — which is just north of the festival’s bustling King Street West epicentre — open 24 hours a day. But he is predicting a semblance of pre-pandemic demand that’s been missing the last two years.
This year’s return to TIFF’s typical glitz and glamour will offer a chance for restaurants, hotels and brands to boost their foot traffic, snag an extra heaping of sales and even lure in celebs, who can instantly catapult a company to success with one sighting or social media post at their venue or with their product.
The stakes have never been higher for small businesses accustomed to benefitting from TIFF’s golden touch.
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Most are still working to make up for more than two years of lost sales and bookings prompted by the pandemic.
In 2020, TIFF was held mostly online and at drive-in theatres.
Last year, fans were not invited to the red carpet and masking protocols were in place for the few in-person screenings. Fewer stars and media made the trek to Canada, translating to a disappointing TIFF for local businesses.
But this year, TIFF parties are packing calendars once more. About 1,400 media members and 3,500 industry participants — numbers in line with pre-pandemic years — are expected to descend on the event running across six theatres between Thursday and Sept. 18.
Julie Kwiecinski, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business’s director of provincial affairs for Ontario, thinks TIFF could draw out locals, too.
“After basically being in COVID hibernation for two years, some people haven’t ventured out yet, so we’re hoping, especially with the added attraction of TIFF’s movie stars, that that might get people out.”
They’ll spend even more time on King Street West because TIFF is adding the Royal Alexandra Theatre and ditching two screening locations away from the strip to make the festival more walkable.
With the Ryerson Theatre and Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre not showing TIFF films this year, that could impact businesses around the area said Kwiecinski, adding many are still hurting from the pandemic.
A June survey CFIB conducted of 2,533 small businesses found 55 per cent in Ontario are making less than normal revenues and 81 per cent have not recovered from pandemic-related stress, she said. A similar survey in January showed about 62 per cent still have COVID-19-related debt, which for the average Ontario small business totals $160,000.
Some popular TIFF hangouts didn’t even survive the pandemic. Reitman family restaurant Montecito, which sat behind the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Calii Love’s King Street West location that previously hosted a Deadline photo studio visited by George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, are both gone. Kit Kat Italian Bar & Grill across from the Lightbox closed its doors too.
Yet it’s hard to calculate how much business local companies and the city missed over the last two years.
The last time TIFF and the research firm TNS Canada Ltd. studied the festival’s financial impact was 2013. They found the event delivered at least $189 million in annual economic activity to Toronto businesses.
Those numbers likely swelled as the festival grew in the last decade and started shutting down a strip of King Street West on TIFF’s first weekend for stargazing and corporate promotions.
The SoHo Hotel and Residences — a short walk from the King Street strip — lacked the typical hustle and bustle the last two TIFFs, but general manager David Kelley predicted at least 80 per cent of business will return this festival.
“Time will tell” with the last 20 per cent, he said. “Everyone’s become so cautious.”
The SoHo hosted 18 film distributors in 2019 who booked rooms and transformed them into lounges for meetings. It has 19 distributor bookings so far this year.
Natasha Koifman’s team at public relations firm NKPR found hotels were booked up by the start of August and competition for vendors that service parties was also high as pandemic-induced labour shortages continue to rankle the hospitality industry.
“We hire staffing agencies for a lot of the events that we do and we had to book them months in advance,” she said.
“It’s a very different festival this year…because from a labour standpoint, it’s hard to find (staff) and the costs are higher.”
Koifman’s buzzy IT Lounge gifting suite and portrait studio, which in the past has attracted visits from Colin Firth, Dev Patel and Natalie Portman, is back this year. Her team’s calendar also includes TIFF-timed Artists for Peace and Justice gala, as well as Hello Canada and Toronto Life’s Hollywood North Party.
Also returning to in-person bashes this year are the TIFF Tribute Awards at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel and Twitter Canada’s annual party to celebrate a film. This year, the social media giant will fete “The Woman King” starring Viola Davis and John Boyega at Mademoiselle Raw Bar and Grill on King Street West.
The venues hosting and local brands showcased at such lounges and parties consider it a lucrative experience because one photo of a celeb at their place or holding their wares can spur reservations or cause a product to sell out.
“It carries them for the remainder of the year and into the following year,” said Koifman.
But Kwiecinski cautioned that the return of TIFF is not a cure-all for businesses in Toronto’s Entertainment District.
“We’re very positive that it will generate lots of revenue for small businesses, but it’s not the be-all and end-all,” she said.
“You can’t expect with the snap of a finger, one good summer, one good festival, that magically businesses are going to get back to normal revenue.”