On weekends when the Bills are playing a home game at Highmark Stadium, Mike Shatzel usually starts hearing plenty of Canadian accents at the bars and restaurants he runs in the Buffalo area.
But, for the last two seasons, the trickle of people heading into Cole’s, Allen Burger Venture and Thin Man Brewing have pretty much all been Western New York locals.
News that the Biden administration is set to open the U.S. land border after almost 18 months of COVID-related closure was more than welcome.
“We’ve missed you guys. It’ll be nice to have you back,” said Shatzel. “It’s great for everybody. Restaurants, hotels, malls, the Sabres and Bills. This is fantastic news.”
Wednesday’s announcement that the U.S. land borders with Mexico and Canada would open in November for fully vaccinated visitors sparked relief and near-giddiness for tourism and hospitality businesses in Buffalo, Detroit and other U.S. border cities that have long counted on Canadian visitors to bolster their bottom lines.
“My phone’s been blowing up all morning,” said an elated Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara.
In non-COVID times, Kaler estimated that 40 per cent of tourists to the region are usually Canadian. The tourism industry, said Kaler, typically adds $1.9 billion (U.S.) annually to the economy of Erie County, which includes Buffalo.
Seeing all those visitors vanish despite being so temptingly close was a huge blow to the local hospitality industry, said Kaler.
“We can see you from across the river. You’re right there. That was the most frustrating part,” he said.
For the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, Canadian hockey fans have long been a big — and vocal — part of the crowd, particularly when the Sabres are playing the Maple Leafs. The Bills also count on having Canadians in the stands.
“We’re very excited to be able to welcome our Canadian fans back,” said John Durbin, senior vice-president of marketing and business strategy for Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the company which owns both the Sabres and Bills.
According to Durbin, anywhere from 10 to 25 per cent of the fans in the seats at the Sabres’ KeyBank Center on any given night are Canadian.
“Southern Ontario, in particular, has been an extremely important part of expanding our fan base,” said Durbin. Canadian fans, said Durbin, range from Sabres fans living on the Canadian side of the border, to Leaf fans or fans of Western Canadian teams who come to town for a weekend.
“If they’re from Fort Erie or St. Catharines, people will typically come in and have dinner before the game, and maybe head out downtown for a bit afterwards before going back home. If they’re coming from Toronto, they tend to make a weekend of it,” said Durbin.
At Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Gallery, Canadians have been a key presence since the gallery was founded in 1856, said spokesperson Andrew Mayer.
“Canadians are a significant proportion of our visitors, and of our members, so this is a very good day for us,” said Mayer.
The main gallery location is currently undergoing renovations and is expected to reopen in 2022, as the newly-renamed Buffalo Albright Knox Gundlach Art Museum. A smaller temporary location across town will be more than happy to see Canadian guests coming through the doors in the meantime, said Mayer.
“And it will help our planning for the new place to know that you’ll be coming back,” Mayer added.
It was a similar feeling in the Detroit area, whose restaurants, hotels and even grocery stores have long been used to seeing Windsor residents pop across the border for anything from a few hours to a few days.
Looking out from his 10th-floor office in downtown Detroit, Claude Molinari can see Windsor across the Detroit River.
“Windsor is closer than the place I’m going for lunch,” said Molinari, CEO of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The pandemic, says Molinari, has been devastating for the economy of the Detroit area.
“It’s been almost unimaginable. I could never have conceived of the state we’ve found ourselves in over the last 18 months,” said Molinari, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has cost the Detroit area an estimated $411 million (U.S.) in direct spending on tourism and hospitality.
“Forty-one per cent of all the jobs lost during COVID have been in tourism and hospitality. In Detroit, it’s probably even higher,” said Molinari.
Having those Canadians come back will be vital to kick-starting the area’s economic recovery from COVID, he added.
“This will be such a boon for the economy of this entire region,” Molinari said.
Correction — Oct. 15, 2021: This article was updated to correct that Claude Molinari’s 10th floor office looks out on the Detroit River, not the St. Clair River.
Josh Rubin is a Toronto-based business reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @starbeer