CAMPAIGNS: Mexico City looks to clean up image

Client: Mexico City Tourism Authority (Mexico City)

PR Team: KWE (New York)

Campaign: "The rediscovery of Mexico City"

Time Frame: July 1999 - present

Budget: About $500,000

Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world, with a population exceeding 20 million, has long struggled with a reputation for being dirty and unsafe. On the strength of more than 20 years' experience in tourism promotion, including Colombia and Ecuador, KWE was hired in 1999 to help change that perception, and draw more tourists.

Strategy

The target audience for the campaign was mainly sophisticated travelers from New York, Illinois, Texas, and California. KWE felt they'd be attracted to the city's archaeological treasures, museums, and luxury hotels.

But KWE also realized that there was a huge potential market in the Hispanic population of the US, which is overwhelmingly of Mexican descent, and tends to be interested in religious tourism and festivals.

Most importantly, KWE realized it couldn't build a strong new image for the city: It had to turn around a weak, old one.

Tactics

One of KWE's first actions was to commission a media audit, and the results were predictably bad. "Mexico City was disappearing from the leisure tourism map, recalls agency president Karen Weiner Escalera. "Press coverage was almost overwhelmingly negative."

KWE began targeting foreign correspondents in the city (who were the main source of stories about crime, pollution, etc.), and set up a Mexico City News Bureau to try and put a positive spin on such matters, and started inviting the foreign press to monthly "rediscovery" events.

The effort was helped by the fact that Mexico went through a severe political and economic crisis in 1995, which meant that KWE could, taking 1995 as a base, point to declining crime figures and improving air quality.

KWE also set up visits for US-based journalists, especially ones from specialist publications. "If you're talking about the restaurants in Mexico City, it's difficult to talk about security and air quality," says Weiner Escalera. But the releases on those subjects also paid off, she says: When reporters did mention such subjects, "they treated it in a positive way because we presented enough positives - there's an issue, but it's improving and being dealt with."

What Weiner Escalera didn't expect was the amount of time she would spend on crisis management. When a US tourist was killed in a Mexico City bazaar, many of the authorities wanted to issue a press release immediately. KWE advised them to wait, and in fact the story, while it did appear in Atlanta, the victim's hometown, never went national. KWE had a statement prepared, but never sent it out.

Results

The number of foreign tourists in Mexico City has risen. One set of numbers says that international visitors increased by 12% in 1999, 9% in 2000, and were flat (but higher-spending) in 2001. Another just looks at US and Canadian visitors who stay in hotels: Their numbers were flat in 1999, rose 5% in 2000, and jumped 19.4% in 2001, exceeding 1 million for the first time.

More certain is the positive press Mexico City is receiving: By KWE's count, from July 2000 to December 2001, there were 1,108 positive articles about Mexico City, and 440 negative ones. Among the positives were a 13-page piece in Travel + Leisure, the sort of thing Weiner Escalera says would have been unthinkable only two years ago.

Future

Mexico City is still not an easy sell: Kidnappings are on the rise, the air is still dirty, and the beach seems a much more attractive alternative.

But it has something of a buzz now, and KWE is continuing the city's rehabilitation in the eyes of North America.

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