March 27, 2023

By Colin Burrowes, Spoke News

Stratford Festival attendees leave a sold-out performance of The Rocky Horror Show at the Avon Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 16. Photo by Colin Burrowes, Spoke News

Founded in 1953 by local journalist Tom Patterson as the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, the Stratford Festival has helped turn the capital of Perth County into an internationally recognized tourist destination.

“We’re always in the vicinity of about 500,000 attendees,” said Ann Swerdfager, publicity director for the Stratford Festival. “Last year we were 512,000. The year before that we were around 480,000. This year we don’t have final numbers of course, because we’re still well into our season.”

According to Swerdfager, between a quarter and a third of the attendance is American and the festival has been noticing a small rise of one percentage point every year or two in recent years.

“The largest U.S. market is Detroit and surrounding area, but we also have faithful visitors from Chicago, from New York, all the border states,” Swerdfager said. “Things fell a while back because of SARS and 9/11, but we’ve been inching back up year by year on our American attendance. I think that’s where everyone’s problems arose in terms of tourism in Ontario.”

In an email, Cathy Rehberg of the Stratford Tourism Alliance, agreed that American visits to the city were higher before security issues like 9/11 and SARS, adding that when the Canadian dollar was strong and border requirements changed from simply showing a birth certificate or driver’s licence to needing a passport, that affected tourism as well.

“Americans were required to carry passports to travel to Canada, eliminating the casual day tripper from border states, seniors and student groups,” Rehberg said. “Now, more Americans carry passports and Stratford appeals to an audience that takes in more international travel and is interested in cultural experiences.”

Increased border security in the aftermath of 9/11 resulted in the cancellation of some bus trips and a train that used to run from Chicago to Stratford.

“That is just one example of the implications of that massive security issue,” Swerdfager said. “It’s everything together – protectionism in the U.S.  It all contributes to creating an atmosphere in which people are less apt to cross the border or leave their own country.”

Stratford Tourism visitor numbers have remained strong and relatively consistent throughout the last five years. Overall, Stratford welcomes more than one million visitors annually.

There has been a substantial increase in traffic on the town’s visitor website, as well as high social media engagement, as more people look to their devices for immediate information rather than using toll-free phone lines.

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