COVID-19 & Tourism: What Can We Learn from SARS?

COVID-19 & Tourism:
What Can We Learn
from SARS?

In March of 2003, I was the agency lead on the Tourism British Columbia account. Working closely with TBC, we were literally days away from launching the 5th Year of the award-winning BC Escapes campaign into California, Washington State, Oregon, Alberta and BC.

As we were readying our launch, this disease named SARS started to make the news.

As a group, we quickly realized that SARS was going to be different.

As the contagion spread, it became clear that a disease emanating in China was becoming a global issue. More troubling, SARS was starting to have a profound impact on the business of tourism across the globe.

For those of us marketing British Columbia to the world, it meant taking 6-months of planning and changing almost everything.

To deal with the crisis, TBC created a senior management task force of which I was a part of.

As a team, we met everyday, examining new information and details of what was a very fluid situation. 

We were confident in our brand, research consistently had shown that the brand had a sharp emotional appeal. Intuitively we knew the industry would take a hit, but we also knew we could mitigate the damage by being agile and working with industry and partners.  

We sought to rework our plans, push our media buys and shift budget away from long-haul US markets to short-haul drive markets.

In the post SARS world, Tourism revenue for Canada was down 20% in 2003, through good fortune, a strong brand and smart planning, BC was able to outperform the rest of the country by a large margin.

What lessons did I learn from SARS that can be applied to managing the COVID-19 virus?

  • Form a core communications team for the duration of the crisis. Bring key members and partners to the table and meet daily to discuss events and happenings.
  • Put your existing plans on the backburner, this is a totally different market than when you originally did your planning.
  • Create open lines of communication with industry, RDMOs and partners. We were at our best when everyone talked, shared information and understood the plan.
  • Shift budget out of markets that are under duress. 
  • Digital advertising allows us to track results on a daily and weekly basis. Monitor your activity and don’t be afraid to adjust tactics.
  • Keep budget fluid and available, opportunities will arise and you will want to take advantage of them.
  • Remember, this is a very serious short-term situation, but normalcy will return.

Crisis management is stressful, at times the situation will feel overwhelming. Communications and teamwork are critical in successfully managing your way through the issues you will face.

If you have doubts or want to discuss ideas, feel free to reach out to me at [email protected]

– John Hall
VP, Consumer Engagement