Opening Of US Borders Signals Return Of International Cannabis Shoppers
The United States has reopened its doors to visitors from abroad, which could boost adult-use cannabis retailers in tourist-friendly markets as international tourists with a hankering for legal marijuana return to American soil.
Some recreational cannabis store operators with experience serving tourists told MJBizDaily that they’ve already noticed an uptick in shoppers from abroad, while others don’t expect international customers until warmer weather arrives.
When it comes to serving global cannabis consumers, those experienced retailers recommend:
- Taking extra time to engage and educate shoppers.
- Employing staff who speak a few key languages, and using digital tools to communicate.
- Clarifying price structures, including local taxes and fees.
- Carrying a product selection that appeals to on-the-go cannabis consumers.
More than a year and a half after shutting its borders to visitors from a long list of countries, the U.S. reopened to international air travel on Nov. 8.
The move applies to visitors showing proof of coronavirus vaccination, with some exceptions.
Land borders reopened to vaccinated visitors from Canada and Mexico on the same day, although Canadians can access legal adult-use cannabis at home.
Planet 13 Holdings’ director of retail, Lowell Brown, said the enormous Las Vegas Planet 13 store is already seeing demand from international visitors who are returning to the U.S.
He said a German TV news crew recently came to the store and wanted to interview a customer.
“And the gentleman that they spoke with, he said, ‘Well, hey, I’m not from here, I’m actually from Argentina,’ and he was visiting Vegas as well.”
International tourists follow domestic rebound
Travel to the United States plummeted during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing retailers in certain tourist-heavy markets to refocus on serving local customers to survive.
Still, tourist-focused marijuana retailers told MJBizDaily that as the pandemic progressed, domestic tourists helped bridge the gap.
At the Planet 13 store in Las Vegas, out-of-town visitors comprised about 80% of customers before the pandemic hit, according to Brown.
“Out of that 80%, I’d say about 8% to 10% of those customers were international travelers,” he said.
Planet 13 shifted to serve local Las Vegas customers with a curbside pickup and delivery model during the early stages of the pandemic, but Brown said the store returned to 24/7 hours on June 1 in order to start serving a growing number of domestic travelers.
In Colorado, marijuana retailer Native Roots operates a location on Tower Road in Denver, the closest cannabis store to Denver International Airport.
In normal times, the majority of shoppers are out-of-towners, said Native Roots District Manager Chad Ricketts, who managed the store until recently.
“We were very severely hit in our tourist traffic, especially at the height of the pandemic, in those initial few months,” Ricketts said.
Domestic travelers started coming back as the pandemic eased, Ricketts added.
Before the pandemic, he estimates that international customers comprised roughly 10% of the store’s business.
Since the borders reopened, Ricketts said the new manager at the Tower Road store has already noticed an increase in foreign shoppers.
“But I wouldn’t put it anywhere near the numbers that we saw pre-pandemic,” he said.
On the island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts, retail operator Nicole Campbell said last summer brought a remarkable influx of domestic tourists.
“I saw license plates from every state – I think more than half of the plates I saw on the island were not from Massachusetts this past summer,” said Campbell, co-owner of The Green Lady Dispensary.
Campbell expects a rebound in international visitors during Nantucket’s 2022 tourist season, many of whom might have never seen a legal cannabis retailer.
“It’s really new to them, it’s exciting,” she said. “They love to be able to purchase cannabis legally.”
However, Campbell expects that some of the domestic tourists who visited Nantucket last summer might take the opportunity to go abroad in summer 2022.
“It’s like a give and a take – yes, you might get more international travelers, but then, also, more U.S. travelers can go overseas, too.”
Serving international customers
Cannabis shoppers from abroad might have different needs than local customers or domestic travelers.
Campbell said The Green Lady Dispensary emphasizes education, which can be especially useful for shoppers from overseas.
“They can feel overwhelmed with the size of the menu. … They don’t have the chance, perhaps, to shop multiple times, maybe it’s just the one opportunity,” she said.
“I’ve never seen international travelers say, ‘Oh, you’re telling me too much.’ They love it,” Campbell said.
Multilingual staff can also help serve foreign shoppers, said Native Roots’ Ricketts, who speaks Spanish.
Overcoming language barriers “in the instance that there’s a really tough conversation happening – I wouldn’t say it’s a must, but I think that it assists you in creating a positive experience for that person, every time,” he said.
Planet 13’s Brown said several of the store’s budtenders are bilingual, particularly in Spanish.
Still, some international travelers don’t have a language in common with store staff.
“But during our training process, we do encourage and show our budtending staff how to use simple tools on their phone, such as Google Translate,” Brown said.
“It may be a little bit more difficult to communicate with customers on that level, but they have, at least, an opportunity and a way to communicate with some of these international travelers.”
Native Roots’ Ricketts also recommends menus that make it clear exactly what the customer will pay, particularly when it comes to cannabis taxes.
“You might quote them $20 on a product, and then they’re paying $24.50 – they’re curious as to why that almost-20% markup is happening,” he said.
Product preferences might be different for international visitors as well.
“International travelers are always interested in edibles, because that is something that is much less common outside of the American cannabis culture,” Ricketts said, adding that “convenience-driven products” such as vapes and pre-rolls are also popular.
“They’re here on vacation, so they want something to make their vacation maybe a little more exciting but not any more of a hassle.”
Planet 13’s Brown said flower is still the top seller to travelers, but he does see interest in edibles as well.
However, Brown stressed the importance of educating visitors on safe cannabis use, with the usual warning to “go low and slow.”
“Because the last thing we want to have is an international customer – or even a local, or anyone that’s visiting or trying cannabis for the first time – to have a bad or a negative experience with that product and swear off cannabis for the rest of their life.”