Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

If we want their business, we must take their dollars

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Four hours after what happened, Eric Sawyer was still so "upset" he typed the word into the subject line of the email he sent me.

He did that late on the week a certain high-profile American visitor suggested to the world our city is a "hellhole," when if he said "pothole," no one would have been offended.

But that's not what my boyhood football teammate was upset about. It was what happened when he chanced to spot four American anglers looking lost in the mall Thursday.

He knew they were American by their accents and he knew they were sports fishermen by the way they were dressed and the ball cap one of them was wearing that read "master angler."

Eric, being a gold medallist master angler himself, approached them and asked if he could help. Turned out what they were looking for was a place to have lunch, so Eric directed them to the food court.

"Where do you eat?" one of the Americans asked.

"Famous Wok," Eric said.

That was good enough for the four fishermen, although, as it turned out, the visiting Americans -- or at least what they had in their wallets -- weren't good enough for the folks who operate Famous Wok. That's what the fishermen quickly learned when one of them asked if he could pay with American dollars.

"No American," the clerk adamantly replied.

Again, Eric felt the need to help.

"I intervened and explained to the clerk -- he was one of four behind the counter -- that U.S. dollars were worth more than Canadian dollars and he wouldn't lose money on the transaction."

"No American," the clerks repeated.

As he would again when the fishermen tried to pay with an American bank-issued Visa credit card.

"No American."

At which point the clerk asked Eric, the regular customer, what he wanted to order.

"I declined to order," Eric said, "and offered my apologies to the tourists."

Eric said the Americans were uniformly gracious.

"I was embarrassed."

Eric said he might have been able to walk away without contacting me, but for how "blatantly rude" the man at Famous Wok was.

"That was the tipping point."

Eric went on to say he couldn't help but think about how we Canadians must be seen by these tourists.

"I'd like to think that our merchants would welcome tourists' dollars and treat the customer politely."

The last time he saw the Americans, they had wandered off in the food court, looking for someone who would feed them and take their money.

Later the same afternoon, I did the same thing. I went from kiosk to kiosk in the Polo Park food court, asking them if they took American dollars.

The survey score was 11 yes, five no. Among those that don't accept U.S. currency were the franchised outlets KFC, Orange Julius and Arby's.

Then there was Famous Wok.

I asked the pleasant woman behind the counter at Famous Wok why they don't take American money.

"We don't have an account in the bank," she said, smiling sweetly.

But even among the majority who did accept U.S. dollars, the exchange rate fluctuated, from kiosks keeping 10 cents on every U.S. dollar to one that took it at par.

I contacted Chantel Sturk-Nadeau of Tourism Winnipeg and told her the story. Her initial reaction was there are kiosks in the food court at the Columbia Mall in Grand Forks that don't take Canadian dollars.

That's not the point, I told her.

We have to be better than that.

And while no one can tell any Manitoba business it has to accept American currency, tourist organizations can explain why it's important to our collective image -- plus their own bottom line -- and help them find a way to do it.

After all, American tourism is already trending down across Canada. In Manitoba, U.S. visitors spent $126.6 million two years ago, or about 10 per cent of the province's $1.2-billion total tourism take. That was down from $140 million in 2009.

But what happened Thursday at Polo Park's food court isn't just about dollars and cents. It's about being hospitable and friendly. After all, while we may not have the "supernatural" beauty of tourist meccas like the West Coast, we have what a lot of other places don't.

Supernatural people, like Eric.

Meanwhile, we can only hope the four American fishermen remember Winnipeg most for how he treated them. And that even if some small-business people don't care about their American dollar, they know the rest of us care about what matters more. Showing our American cousins they're truly welcome.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2012 B1

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