The lessons SARS offers on how to rebound from a crisis

Peter Shier uses experience helping the tourism industry bounce back to show the approach that will help businesses looking for recovery.


By Peter Shier

In early 2003, the SARS outbreak hit the world. By April of that year, the CDC issued a health alert for travellers to Toronto, having an immediate and dramatic effect on Ontario’s tourism industry. Hotels, attractions, theatres, restaurants and most other tourism-related businesses in the province came to a virtual halt.

At the time, I was the president of FCB Toronto and our client was The Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership (OTMP). Soon after the travel advisory was issued, we were tasked with looking days, weeks and months ahead (since no one knew how long the advisory would remain in place) and develop a number of tactical campaigns with short-term impact and long-term benefit to help revive the tourism industry in Ontario, specifically for Toronto.

OTMP’s members were a mix of massive hotel chains and one-off motor inns, large multi-unit restaurant companies and cozy Main Street diners, massive tourist attractions and elaborate theatre productions, as well as small summer stock festivals. Our programs had to be applicable for all of these different constituents.

SARS2Driven by a high-energy, inviting campaign promise – “It’s Time For A Little T.O.” – we worked with Toronto tourism stakeholders to build a series of imaginative, price-point-driven packages highlighting several of Toronto’s signature attractions and experiences. Reassuring, optimistic and supported by a compelling call-to-action, the campaign forged alliances between live theatre (notably Mirvish Productions), hotels, restaurants, attractions and other stakeholders. The packages were created with as many as five different tourism industry partners and meant to be a flexible combination of passes and preferred rates, promoted by powerful, intrusive retail-oriented newspaper and radio creative.

The response was remarkable. Within the first 10 days of the campaign’s launch, 111,311 packages were sold, including 30,000 extra room nights for hotels. Over the life of the “It’s Time For A Little T.O.” campaign, more than 450,000 packages were sold, generating over $62 million in direct economic impact for Toronto. David Mirvish was ecstatic: “’Time For a Little T.O.’ single-handedly saved the summer and the year for those of us who rely on tourism.” The campaign was so successful it was repeated in 2004.

The learnings from SARS are especially relevant today, and can be translated into many businesses and categories, not just those involved in tourism.

Partnerships are crucial

You are not in this alone. Many of the partners of OTMP were direct competitors, but they were smart enough to realize this unprecedented time demanded unprecedented alliances. The industry needed to stand together for the greater good. Collectively, they were all facing the same problems: bums in seats, heads in beds and table turnovers – a consolidated, focused effort that pooled their individual strengths and resources helped ensure broader success and survival for all of them.

Clearly articulate value

Our clients at OTMP ensured we had strong commitments from the right partners to make the offers compelling for, and relevant to, the consumer. The value was simple to understand and executed in a way that made it easy for consumer to say yes.

Think big. Execute bigger

SARS2As the immediate threat of SARS began to wane and lifting of the travel ban was imminent, we believed that people in the province were going to need something – an event, a moment – to clearly signify that the bad news was behind us. And, importantly it would also send a message to the rest of the world that T.O. was open for business again.

Lots of ideas were being tossed around and debated. Someone suggested that we get the Rolling Stones to do a concert. Then someone else said, “No, let’s get U2.” Another person suggested AC/DC. How about Bruce Springsteen? Then someone very astute said, “Actually, if we want to capture the world’s attention, we need to get AC/DC to open for Springsteen and then bring on the Stones. On the same day on the same stage.” That’s where the idea for the Downsview Park “Toronto Rocks” concert came from. Over 500,000 people came to see The Stones, AC/DC, Rush, The Guess Who, Justin Timberlake, Blue Rodeo and a host of other great bands. And that story got picked up around the world and helped begin a new chapter for Ontario and Toronto.

In short, big problems aren’t fixed by limited thinking.

“Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

This quote by Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff from 2009 to 2010, has been getting a lot of airplay as of late, and for good reason. In 2003, we needed to jump start the tourism sector and our usual way of doing business wasn’t going to cut it. It’s often when we’re in our lowest moments and back on our heels that creativity and innovation flourish. During the worst of SARS, we challenged our teams to think and create differently — out of necessity — and the results of this campaign helped get Ontario and Toronto back on its feet. Don’t sideline this way of thinking once the crisis is over; integrate it into your DNA and make it part of who you are.

The aftermath of COVID-19 will frame our new normal. No one knows how that will play out, but businesses, brands and entire industries are going to require creative thinking, innovative ideas and new ways to solve problems in order to survive and prosper. And there is no other industry or vocation better suited to help with that than the marketing and creative industry. We know how to communicate. We know how to motivate. We know how to get results. This is the attitude and approach we’re taking at Naked Creative, and I challenge you and your teams to do the same. It’s our time to shine.

Peter Shier is currently president of Naked Creative Consultancy.