Toronto businesses brace for little or no business from COVID-era TIFF

TORONTO — When the first weeks of September roll around, nearly every inch of Yvonne Yang's Pistil Flowers shops is typically covered in orders for the Toronto International Film Festival.

Hotels want fresh blooms to greet high-profile guests; production companies and sponsors like to send congratulatory florals to stars of big films; and event planners and restaurants need a touch of nature to brighten up their spaces for everyone flocking to town.

"September's generally busy because everyone's back to work and things are happening and then TIFF just drops and it's usually a lot of last-minute ordering," said Yang.

"Usually you have to make it work."

Yang's not expecting that this year. TIFF has downsized its slate from the usual 200-plus films to about 50, and while it will offer some in-person screenings and drive-ins, the bulk of the action will be online because Hollywood is staying home and COVID-19 is still lurking.

That means no red carpets or crowds packing King Street West, making a tough year even tougher for hotels, restaurants, party venues, caterers, limo services, entertainment companies and more.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses says only 26 per cent of small businesses are making normal sales and depending on how recovery from the pandemic goes, as many as 218,000 or 19 per cent of small businesses in the country could close.

Pistil Flowers has been surviving on online orders, but Yang has noticed people have pared back.

"Not having the typical wedding season, not having the corporate events season, not having TIFF is a huge blow to our revenue," she said.

"Our high seasons have been cut in half at least."

A 2013 study from TIFF and research firm TNS Canada Ltd. said the celebration of film delivers at least $189 million in annual economic activity to businesses across the city like Yang's and the Soho Hotel and Residences, a short walk from the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Princess of Wales Theatre.

"It's the busiest time of year," said general manager David Kelley.

"It's when you can count on your average rate to virtually double in size and because people come for a minimum five days — it is a strong piece of business. Some people even stay the whole time, the 10 or 11 days...Obviously that is not going to happen this year."

The hotel spent much of last year busy on a multimillion-dollar renovation that freshened up its 89 rooms, pool, fitness centre and corridors.

Kelley had envisioned capitalizing on the renovations during TIFF, but now rooms sit empty and "everything is 30 per cent of what it once was."

Ink Entertainment kingpin Charles Khabouth is also lamenting a TIFF unlike any other.

While Khabouth will host TIFF events at his CityView Drive-In at the base of Polson Street, his dozens of clubs, restaurants, event spaces and his luxury Bisha hotel will hardly be awash in their usual excitement.

The venues are typically a magnet for celebrities, splashy parties and crowds of paparazzi come September, but now Khabouth says, "TIFF is like a distant memory. There's nothing."

"It's like a trampoline that launches us like a rocket into the season. And this year — nothing," he said.

He's already had to close one venue over a rent tussle with a landlord and get inventive by turning his Cabana Poolbar into a massive, socially-distanced restaurant, but he worries about the smaller businesses, which rely on warm months and the festival to carry them through the year.

"I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but if I can't make it, nobody can," he said.

Just as concerned as Khabouth is Dan Gunam, who runs fast-casual food spot Calii Love and the Love Child Social House club.

When the pandemic began ravaging Canada in March, he watched sales plummet. The businesses are now beginning to recover, but a COVID-era TIFF isn't making things easy.

The festival usually drums up plenty of business for Gunam because Love Child Social House hosts glitzy parties and Calii Love is often home to a celebrity photography studio and lounge that have lured in George Clooney and Nicole Kidman.

"For 10 days, we do a lot of parties and this year it's zero," said Gunam. "That's a pretty big drop."

His venues will also be going without celebrity shoutouts that bolster business all year round.

One year, for example, Hugh Jackman cited Calii Love on Twitter, when a barista there handed him a latte topped with a foam portrait of the star during TIFF, driving fans to the spot long after he was gone.

Gunam's got his fingers crossed that TIFF will be back to its old self next year — a hope some are already making plans around.

Kelley at the Soho says he's figuring out how to best reach out to loyal customers in the coming months about next year because he refuses to believe the festival will be largely digital for long.

"It's just not going to happen," he said. "People want to see movies on screens. They want to see the celebrities and the various speeches and... all the things about the movies people love."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2020.

© Copyright 2020

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