For those who love live theater, the Stratford Festival offers Broadway-quality productions set in a country arts haven.
Located an hour west of Toronto, Justin Bieber’s Canadian hometown is known for productions that range from contemporary plays by Shakespeare to popular musicals. The 2024 season will present 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 shows. Early Bird rates valid until 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 US. The festival usually attracts tour groups from Ontario, Quebec, Michigan, New York and Illinois.
“Stratford has a timeless appeal,” said Mindy Miller, director of tour operator sales 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 featured impressive performances combined with incredible costumes and sets. We weren’t alone in our rave reviews. The musicals have been extended to November due to their popularity.
Created out of economic necessity
The festival was born about 70 years ago when the community’s economic engine died when the railroad pulled out of the Ontario community in the early 1950s. Journalist Tom Patterson had an idea to breathe new life into the economy of his hometown: a Shakespeare theater festival.
In 1952, the City Council gave him a grant of $125 to seek an art council in New York. Although he was unable to connect with Laurence Olivier as he had hoped, Canadian theater pioneer Dora Mavor Moore was able to connect him with the legendary British director Tyrone Guthrie. Intrigued by their phone call, Guthrie visited Stratford to see if Patterson’s idea might be viable—and eventually became Stratford’s first artistic director.
“We had to find something else to keep this lovely little place going,” explains Melissa Mae Shipley, a spokesperson for the festival. “So the city went all in and created a festival and found an alternative economy for itself. So you will find that almost every business operator in the city is here to create a destination and find solutions.”
The Stratford Festival is suitable for group bus tours for several factors, from the abundance of theater seating to the convenient parking to the affordable price. Here’s our breakdown.
A variety of performances and activities. Every season Stratford offers a mix of musicals, comedies and Shakespeare. There are usually two shows at the same time, twice a day. “There are quite a few things that can be customized for group tours,” Shipley said. “We offer this option where everyone doesn’t even have to watch the same shows. “Once you’re in town, everything is 10 minutes away. It’s such a walkable, easy, open place. If you want to spend time alone away from the group, it’s okay not to have your car because everything is so accessible on foot. Workshops or presentations as well as customized experiences are available for groups. Prices start at $10 per person plus tax, minimum 20 people. “A group of retired nurses book a ‘Chicago’ dance workshop.” They were about 80 years old and they loved it,” Shipley said.
Many places. Four theaters host more than a dozen productions during the season. The main theater of the Stratford Festival has a stage in a semicircular arc and seats over 1,800 people, but no audience member is more than 65 feet from the stage. “We’re glad to have as many seats as we do so we can accommodate large groups on a regular basis,” Shipley said.
Affordable. For Americans, the festival’s location in Canada provides great value for money, giving US visitors an approximate 30% exchange rate benefit. In addition, the festival usually offers up to 25% savings on group tickets and one free ticket for every 20 purchased. There are also ‘flexible groups’ which provide a unique promo code so that group members can book on their own and enjoy group savings. “We offer the best prices on weekdays because we have the highest demand on weekends in general. So we definitely offer more opportunities for promotions on weekdays, in spring, June and autumn. Our promotions fall on weekdays and that’s usually when operators choose to come with us,” Miller said. “Our busiest time for bands is in the fall. We will have our early bird rates available for groups by the start of the new year, probably early February, and will probably go on sale later this year. Click here to learn more about group deals.
Best time for group travel. Tour operators tend to visit during the weeks when there are more offers and the weather can be unpredictable, rainy or cold. This is from April to June and from September to October. “We have such comfortable spaces and beautiful outdoors, but indoors is just a step away and there’s a lot of capacity,” Shipley said. The season ends with Halloween-inspired events like Macbeth and ghost story tours.
Coach parking and coach-friendly hotels. The festival has on-site parking and public parking is also nearby. “We are working closely with the city and their facilities to make sure there are places where buses can conveniently take their guests to the theater 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 bus parking. Click here for more information on bus parking.
Do not rush. The festival is organized so that attendees have time for a leisurely meal or to explore the city between the two daily performances. The river promenade from the city center to the theaters makes for a relaxing stroll. “There’s always a lot of distance,” Shipley said. “Everything is within walking distance. It’s a delightful day trip, but it’s a really relaxing, peaceful and comfortable place to spend a few days and kind of feel part of this artistic community.”
Strong culinary scene. Stratford has earned a reputation as a diverse restaurant thanks to a local culinary school that produces talented chefs. The festival also offers the option of picnics that can be pre-ordered and picked up on site or delivered to your coach. Picnics are perfect for lunch before a matinee or a light dinner on the bus ride home.
Concierge service. The festival has a dedicated group tour team led by a highly qualified, dedicated group liaison team. In addition, the Stratford Travel Alliance is willing to help bus operators configure routes by phone or email. Also, a virtual concierge at visitstratford.ca can help. “Our number one piece of advice that we have for any operator is if you just get in touch and ask for our group guide, then we’ll know you’re working with groups and we’ll be in touch with you throughout the booking season and make sure, that you get all the offers and opportunities,” Shipley said.