As COVID restrictions ease, Niagara businesses anticipate more visits from people around province
Special to Niagara Now/The Lake Report
The increased popularity of road trips and people visiting destinations closer to home during less restrictive summer months may be a sign of what’s to come for Niagara-on-the-Lake businesses when COVID travel rules are eased.
As restrictions ease, NOTL businesses likely will still miss the support of American visitors, who comprise a large part of their customer base.
But in past reopenings, when safe regional travel was permitted, NOTL retailers received much of their support from locals and road-tripping Ontarians. This makes many NOTL operators hopeful for future reopenings.
Going straight into a provincewide stay-at-home order and a second lockdown this winter, Pieza Pizzeria’s influx of customers dropped significantly, as did the staff’s morale. In some ways it was still a shock because the less-restrictive summer and fall months had made things feel slightly normal again.
“It’s such a weird, holding standstill pattern of like, 'Are we open? Are we not? Should we clean? What are we doing?’ It’s a lot of mixed emotions,” says Laryssa Cesta, who co-owns Pieza with her partner Maurizio Cesta.
Cesta says the pandemic and international travel restrictions also caused another phenomenon that helped their business over the summer and fall.
“It wasn’t like a black hole that we were feeling, and it really should have been if we didn’t get all of those new local tourists,” she says. “I like that development a lot, I don’t think we would have seen that if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, not at this rate.”
Cesta says the majority of out-of-town visitors to Pieza were from the GTA and surrounding areas like Hamilton, Halton and Grimsby.
“It’s funny to hear people live so close in the GTA and they’ve never been to the Niagara region,” she says. “I think a lot of people are just desperate to get outside, get out of their house or go for a drive, and they’ve discovered Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
Jovie Joki, owner of the Irish Harp, says she also saw more customers from Toronto and across Ontario when people were allowed to travel.
“We saw that more in September and October when we were open but as soon as the lockdown happened in Toronto or our area it was a huge dip in revenue,” Joki says. “We also found that more people were going up north to areas that were open.”
Across North America, road-tripping and the outdoors have become more popular distractions from the pandemic.
The 2020 COVID-19 North American Camping Report found that about half of the leisure travellers who camp would replace their cancelled or postponed travel with a road-trip, and 34 per cent of travellers who don’t camp said they’ll do the same as restrictions lift.
The report anticipates even more interest in road-tripping and camping as North Americans continue to look for safer ways to safely travel “close to home.”
Guess Where Trips owner Jessica Off says her travel company saw a 100 per cent increase every month from September to December last year, with the highest demand seen in November. The company provides self-guided road trip itineraries in Ontario.
Based in the GTA, Guess Where Trips has an itinerary that features several hand-picked Niagara-on-the-Lake businesses, including Pieza Pizzeria, The Irish Harp, Old Tyme Candy Shop and Bistro 61.
“Niagara-on-the-Lake is such a great finishing point because there are so many great wineries, flower shops, local shops,” Off says. “We actually include a whole Niagara-on-the-Lake guide at the end of our trip for people to choose from.”
Off agreed there has been a kind of “road-trip renaissance” since the pandemic began. Those who aren’t travelling to Europe or taking their typical summer trips are still looking to experience something new.
The increase in demand hasn’t been without its challenges. Guess Where Trips had to constantly adjust, increasing the number of recommended outdoor attractions and other shops so that businesses wouldn’t become overwhelmed.
With talk of possible future reopenings in Ontario, Joki and Cesta remain hopeful.
“I’m just hoping the town will be as receptive as they were last year with assisting businesses in the area and getting temporary patios or whatever the case may be,” Joki says.
“It definitely was beneficial when we were finally able to open up in August, September, October. I think everyone’s really hopeful we’ll be in that place again.”