For those who love live theater, the Stratford Festival offers Broadway-quality productions set in a countryside arts retreat.
Located less than two hours west of Toronto, the Canadian hometown of Justin Bieber is known for productions that range from modern takes on Shakespeare plays to popular musicals. The 2024 season will deliver 12 productions, from the musical comedy “Something Rotten!” to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The season begins in April and runs through October with Halloween-themed performances. Early-bird pricing runs through early February.
More than 5% of the festival’s annual half-million visitors come by charter bus—and about a quarter of that traffic comes from the U.S. The festival tends to draw tour groups from Ontario, Quebec, Michigan, New York, and Illinois.
“Stratford has perennial appeal,” said Mindy Miller, Director of Sales for Tour Operators at Witte Travel in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This season, the Stratford Festival wowed us at Bus & Motorcoach News with several productions, “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Rent,” “King Lear” and “A Wrinkle in Time” which delivered impressive performances paired with incredible costumes and sets. We weren’t alone in our rave reviews. The musicals have been extended into November because of their popularity.
Created out of economic need
The festival was born about 70 years ago when the community’s economic engine died as the railway pulled out of the Ontario community in the early 1950s. Journalist Tom Patterson had an idea for breathing new life into his native city’s economy: a festival of Shakespearean theater.
In 1952, the City Council gave him a grant of $125 to seek artistic advice in New York. While he failed to connect with Laurence Olivier as hoped, Canadian theater pioneer Dora Mavor Moore was able to put him in touch with legendary British director Tyrone Guthrie. Intrigued by their telephone call, Guthrie visited Stratford to see if Patterson’s idea might be viable – and ended up becoming Stratford’s first artistic director.
“We needed to find something else to keep this lovely little place going,” explains Melissa Mae Shipley, festival spokesperson. “So the town went all in and created a festival and found an alternative economy for itself. So you’ll find that just about every business operator in the city is here to create a destination and to find solutions.”
The Stratford Festival is a good fit for group tours by bus because of several factors, from the abundances of theater seats to convenient parking to affordability. Here’s our breakdown.
Variety of performances and activities. Each season Stratford offers a mix of musicals, comedies and Shakespeare. Usually, there are two performances at the same time, twice a day. “There’s quite a lot that can be customized for group tours,” Shipley said. “We offer that option where everyone doesn’t even have to see the same shows. “Once you’re in the town, everything is 10 minutes away. It’s such a walkable, easy, open place. If you want to have time on your own away from the group, there’s no downside to not having your car because everything’s so accessible by foot. Workshops or presentations, as well as custom experiences, are available to groups. Prices starting from $10 per person plus tax, minimum of 20 people. “A group of retired nurses booked a “Chicago” dance workshop. They were in their 80’s and loved it,” Shipley said.
Lots of seats. Four venues host more than a dozen productions during the season. Stratford Festival’s main theater has a stage in a semi-circular arc and seats well over 1,800 people, yet no spectator is more than 65 feet from the stage. “We’re glad to have as many seats as we do so we can welcome large groups quite regularly,” Shipley said.
Affordable. For Americans, the festival’s location in Canada gives a lot of bang for the buck, giving U.S. visitors roughly a 30% benefit from the exchange rate. On top of that, the festival typically offers up to 25% savings on group tickets and one free ticket for every 20 purchased. It also has “flexi-groups,” which provide a unique promotion code so group members can book on their own and enjoy group savings.“We offer the best pricing on the weekdays because we have the most demand for weekends as a whole. So we definitely offer more promotion options on weekdays, during the spring, June, and fall. Our promotions fall on the weekdays, and that tends to be when the operators choose to come with us,” Miller said. “Our busiest time for groups is in the fall. We’ll have our early bird pricing for groups available until early into the new year, probably until about early February, and will likely be on sale in late this year. Click here to learn more about group deals.
Best times for group travel. Tour operators tend to visit during the weeks when there are more deals and the weather can be unpredictable, rainy or cold. That’s April through June and September through October. “We have such comfortable spaces and beautiful outdoors, but indoors is only just a step away, and there’s plenty of capacity,” Shipley said. The season wraps up with Halloween-inspired events, such as “Goblin:Macbeth” and haunted ghost story tours.
Bus parking and bus-friendly hotels. The festival has on-site parking, and public parking also is nearby. “We work closely with the city and their facilities to make sure that there’s places where buses can get their guests to the theater comfortably and then park their vehicle. We have a special mapping guide just for group buses,” Shipley said. Arden Park and Shakespeare Inn are among the hotels that cater to large groups with parking space for buses. Click here for more information about motorcoach parking.
No rush. The festival is orchestrated so attendees have time for leisurely meals or getting out to explore the town between the two daily performances. The riverwalk from downtown to the theaters makes for a relaxing stroll. “There’s always lots of spacing,” Shipley said.”Everything’s within walking distance. It’s a delightful day trip, but it’s a really relaxing, peaceful, comfortable place to spend a few days and sort of feel like you’re part of this artistic community.”
Strong culinary scene. Stratford has developed a reputation for a diverse restaurant scene, thanks to a local culinary school turning out talented chefs. The festival also offers the option of picnics that can be ordered in advance and picked up onsite or delivered to your bus. The picnics are ideal for lunch before a matinée or a light supper on a bus ride home.
Concierge service. The festival has a dedicated team for group tours, led by a highly trained, specialized group liaison. Additionally, the Stratford Tourism Alliance is eager to help motorcoach operators configure itineraries by phone or email. Also, a virtual concierge at visitstratford.ca can help. “Our number-one tip that we have for any operator is if you just reach out and request our group’s guide, then we’ll know that you work with groups, and we’ll stay in touch with you throughout the booking season and make sure that you receive all the offers and opportunities,” Shipley said.