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Businesses seeing U.S. visitors returning

Other factors can be affecting tourism visits, including inflation, and the one out of everyone's control — the weather
Queen Street in NOTL has been busy, with American tourists returning.

Business owners in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Old Town are noticing similarities between this tourist season to pre-pandemic times.  

And one of those indicators is the number of Americans spending time in the historic neighbourhood.  

“We’ve seen far more U.S. customers lately,” said Kevin Neufeld, owner of BeauChapeau, a hat store on Queen Street that has been in operation since 1997.  

But it’s not easy to say whether business is back on track entirely for local merchants.  

“It’s hard to compare because so many things have changed,” said Neufeld, who owns the store with his wife, Jana.  

Inflation has caused everything to become more expensive, and business owners struggle to find a balance between adjusting to rising costs on their end, while keeping prices as reasonable as possible for customers looking for some new headwear, he explained. 

“At the end of the day, we all see it everywhere we go,” said Neufeld, adding that BeauChapeau also saw a “window of opportunity” a couple of years ago when a neighbouring unit on Queen Street became vacant.  

They bought The Hatter, a hat business with a history on Avenue Road in Toronto that had closed, and moved its operations to their new space, which doubled in size, and allowed more traffic through their doors.

When warm weather started to arrive, Neufeld said some businesses in the Old Town were finding it difficult to keep a full staff.

“In the spring of this year, everyone was experiencing unprecedented staffing shortages,” said Neufeld. But this appears to not be as much of an issue as it was a few months ago.  

“That has started to regulate, which is good,” he said.  

Another impact of the pandemic that seems to be part of the past are shipping and procurement problems that businesses had to deal with.  

“This was the first summer in a couple of years where we’ve had on-time deliveries,” he told The Local.  

He says that commerce seems to be “slowly getting back to normal, but having grown up on a farm, he’s aware of how much weather can make or break a bottom line.  

He’s familiar with the ebb and flow of Mother Nature and pointed to a few rainy weekends in the early summer dampening crucial business days.

“When you lose a weekend to rain in Niagara-on-the-Lake, that’s money you don’t make back,” he said.  

“You’ve got to make hay when the sun is shining,” he quipped, referring to his younger farming days.  

Neufeld also said September and October are “very busy” months on Queen Street, and that the tourist season doesn’t necessarily end after Labour Day.  

Kim Hughes-Gauld owns Sunset Grill, also on Queen Street. She’s been meeting visitors from south of the border the way she used to a few years ago and sees plenty of U.S. licence plates on vehicles in the neighbourhood.  

“One of the biggest things is seeing the American tourists back,” she told the Local.  

“It’s the first summer where it’s been nice to see it back to normal.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants were faced with several obstacles, such as only being allowed to serve takeout for periods of time, or being required to separate customers by plexiglass when it was okay to dine inside.  

As those restrictions came to an end, some normalcy returned.  

“Fear from the pandemic and all that stuff — it seems to be gone now,” she said.  

She is also a director on the NOTL Chamber of Commerce board, and represents merchants on Queen Street, but she hasn’t seen any statistics related to how many visitors the area has seen this summer, or how this season compares to others. 

Hughes-Gauld said staffing shortages were never an issue at her restaurant. Asked about inflation and whether people are spending less when they go to eat — or are maybe doing so less often — she said people are definitely “watching their money more carefully.”