CAMPAIGNS: Toronto looks into tourism recovery after SARS scares

PR Team: City of Toronto and Fleishman-Hillard (Toronto) Campaign: Toronto: You Belong Here Time Frame: July-September 2003 Budget: $2 million

PR Team: City of Toronto and Fleishman-Hillard (Toronto) Campaign: Toronto: You Belong Here Time Frame: July-September 2003 Budget: $2 million

Just as the city of Toronto finally seemed to have SARS contained, a second outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome was confirmed in late May. Hopes of salvaging the all-important summer months of the tourism industry in Canada's largest city looked grim. In April and May alone, SARS was blamed for sucking $190 million out of Toronto's tourism industry, according to a report by consulting firm KPMG. During that period, hotels reported occupancy rates of 30%, a steep drop from the usual 80% in previous years. Worth $3.4 billion annually (making tourism the second-largest revenue generator in Toronto), the summer months are crucial. The season is filled with the city's most popular tourist events: the Molson Indy car race, the Caribana cultural festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival, just to name a few. Strategy Although the city's last new SARS case was reported in June, tourists coming from afar had probably already changed their summer vacation plans. "We targeted people living within a two-hour radius of Toronto who were commuting into the city to work and could see everything was normal," says Jane Shapiro, SVP and partner at Fleishman-Hillard. "It wasn't as difficult as selling the city to people who were unaware that life was going on as usual." That meant turning Torontonians into tourists of their own town. "We were looking for economic reconstitution because we knew tourist numbers were going to drop," says Winnie Li, manager, promotions and communications for the city's Economic Development, Culture and Tourism department. "Most Torontonians go to tourist attractions because they have friends in town. We wanted to make them go on their own." Tactics To boost attendance of local events, staff at the city of Toronto and Fleishman teamed up with event organizers. They combined media lists, and Fleishman offered its six-person team as an extension to event organizers' own in-house PR departments. Toronto also hired 20 young people to act as ambassadors of the city. They toured the city handing out a book of coupons called Playbook, which also acted as a guide to signature events taking place throughout the summer. One million copies of Playbook were also distributed in The Toronto Star newspaper, as well as in McDonald's and Sears locations. Ambassadors attended various events, handing out flyers tailored specifically to the following week's happenings. "The term that we used was 'leapfrogging.' If you're at one event, we had ambassadors encouraging you to go to the next one," says Li. "Typically, Torontonians go to one of eight major events in the city, so we were trying to increase that number to two or three." Backing the PR effort was a $3 million ad campaign created by Toronto's BBDO. TV spots featured such Canadian celebrities as actor Jason Priestly and rock band Barenaked Ladies. Results Events were heavily promoted in the Toronto media. In leading up to the July 18 launch of Caribana - the largest cultural festival in North America - the event generated over 7.5 million media impressions, including those in the four Toronto daily newspapers. That helped Caribana sell more tickets to certain events than it did last summer. Other event organizers have reported ticket sales and attendance numbers only slightly down or on par from last year. In the case of the Molson Indy held July 11 weekend, attendance was 167,352 - just 2,000 short of the annual car race's record. Area businesses including restaurants and hotels have also reported substantial increases in business during these events, says Li. Future "Toronto: You Belong Here" will be evaluated at the end of September. The major question is whether to budget for a similar effort next summer. "We want to change behavior," says Shapiro. "We don't want this to become a one-time thing."

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