Justin Bieber’s phenomenal profile makes for a great tourism boost in sleepy Stratford, Ontario

Published On Fri Aug 20 2010
The Toronto Star

Justin bieber fans rachel barbon, kathryn barbon and cousin samantha stand outside features restaurant in downtown stratford. The restaurant is # 12 on the map put out by stratford tourism of the singer's favourite hometown haunts.Justin bieber fans rachel barbon, kathryn barbon and cousin samantha stand outside features restaurant in downtown stratford. The restaurant is # 12 on the map put out by stratford tourism of the singer’s favourite hometown haunts.

STRATFORD—Three 14-year old girls walk into the Vist Stratford office and start to scream. The reason? It ain’t Shakespeare.

Bieber Fever is alive and well across the planet, and singing sensation Justin Bieber’s hometown is an obvious target.

When earlier this summer the city’s Tourism arm, with the blessings of the Bieber family, drew up a simple map of the town highlighting some of the singer’s favourite hometown haunts they expected some interest.

What they got was a tween and teen girl avalanche.

“They are coming in all the time,” says Visit Stratford representative Emily Chandler. “It’s mainly girls but some boys too.”

They come looking for a copy of the map and leave wearing one of the huge, round, green stickers that deem Stratford “Bieber-iffic” …and a giant grin. All are complimentary.

While sisters Rachel Barbon, 16, and Kathryn Barbon, 19, didn’t scream, they were very excited.

““We’ve been going to Stratford for years before he was even famous and so we just thought it was kind of cool that there was a correlation between the two,” says the older of the sisters. “We’ve seen him before when he would sit out on the steps of Avon playing his guitar. Someone showed us the you tube video and we were like, “oh my goodness we’ve actually seen that!””

The pair was visiting from Fontana, Wisconsin with their cousins and grandfather when one of the girls spotted the map. Soon they each had one and the afternoon’s plans were changed.

“I love Justin,” says the younger Barbon by way of explanation. “We went to the place where he practiced his skateboarding and where he hung out. I thought that was pretty cool. We took pictures of everything.”

And if the numbers who are downloading the map online (more than 10,000 so far) and walking in to the Visit Stratford office to pick them up (more than 1500 so far) are any indication, there are likely a lot of people with snaps of the place where Justin ate spaghetti (Madelyn’s Diner), stopped for ice cream (Scoopers), played hockey (Rotary Arena) and more.

The bonus: Stratford is just small enough that most people have at least a 2-3 degree of separation relationship with the rising star. Chances are almost anyone you talk to knows Bieber or his family.

Carolyn Maclennan went to school with him. She was in grade 12 and Bieber was in grade 7 at the local Northwestern school when the upper grade led the lower through a daylong camp experience in local Wildwood conservation area.

“Justin was pretty into it,” MacLennan tells me casually

She should be careful. That kind of innocent brush with Bieber can lead to a legion of fans on your doorstep.

Childhood friends of Bieber have found themselves with thousands of followers on twitter and on the receiving ends of fan gifts from girls hoping to get a little closer to the superstar. Even the tourism officials who have never so much as mentioned Bieber in their online posts are sought out simply for living in his hometown, notes Chandler.

What’s interesting is that despite the popularity and the potential for creating a tacky shrine a la Dollywood to their local-done-good, Stratford has shied away from the spotlight. Those looking for a Bieber-free getaway won’t have to work hard to get it.

Instead of capitalizing on the potential, people in this town—where no one passes you without a good morning—seem protective of their boy. It’s only the visitors it seems who have the fever.

Shopkeepers reminisce about a boy who was often on best behaviour with his grandparents and a little more mischievous when alone with his friends – but no one is anxious to have their name in the paper talking about him.

Even locations highlighted on the map aren’t bragging. At Features restaurant (#12 on the 18 point map), the young waitresses look embarrassed and one literally runs away saying “not me” when a Star reporter asks to speak with someone about his past visits.

“We all know the family, “ notes one shopkeeper on the main street. “We’re a little protective of them.”

While the map is going like hotcakes (they are currently on their third printing), there is only one shirt in the city that even references the connection.

Cathy Brubacher and Jackie Catania, owners of the Treasures gift shop, created a shirt that respects both the Shakespearean legacy of the town and the celebrity of the moment.

The shirts read: “To Bieber or not to Bieber – Stratford, Ontario.” They began offering the shirts, ordered 50 at a time from a local printer, in June. They’ve already sold more than 300. Originally sold in pink only, they’ve now expanded to blue as well because of demand.

Over the last few weeks, custom orders have come in for sizing for a 2-year old and a 30-year old man.

“ We were talking about it the other day,” says Catania with a shrug. “When our kids were two they used to sing “ABC’s” not “Baby, baby, baby,” but hey….”

Heather Greenwood Davis is a freelance writer. Her visit to Stratford was subsidized by Tourism Stratford.

Copies of the map can be downloaded at www.welcometostratford.com/justin . Bieber shirts can be ordered by phone: 519-272-1715.