Tourism After SARS: Hong Kong looks to mend image

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[Hong Kong] The next step in Hong Kong's battle against severe acute respiratory syndrome involves lots of ad dollars to rebuild its shattered image as a safe destination.

Four international agency networks are pitching for the Hong Kong Tourism Board's post-SARS campaign, expected to net about 40% of the $128 million budget Hong Kong's government has already set aside to promote its overseas image, including tourism, exhibitions and trade activities.

The incumbent, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide, is pitching against Cordiant Communications Group's Bates and Market Catalyst, a local agency run by former J. Walter Thompson Co. executives. WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide has pulled out of the pitch. The review is led by Jacqueline Tong, the Tourism Board's general manager, strategic planning. "Ogilvy declined...when it became obvious that the strategy, direction, and theme had already been set, and the requirement was really for an implementation plan," said Joseph Wang, Ogilvy's group managing director, Hong Kong, and vice chairman, China.

Bonnie Ngan, the Tourism Board's general manager-corporate communications and public relations, said, "FCB will continue to be our advertising agency, but for the SARS issue, there are a lot of agencies showing interest and who want to share their ideas, so we invited other agencies to pitch for this special project."

Separately, Hong Kong's Airport Authority will spend more than $12 million on its own "Operation SkyFit" recovery package aimed at airlines and passengers. The global campaign touting the airport's measures to ensure passenger safety will launch this summer. Five unidentified agencies are pitching for the account. One safety measure, for instance, is to take passengers' temperatures at Asian airports, where a sophisticated machine flags anyone who measures a single degree above normal.

Despite the coming push, no one believes travelers will rush back to Hong Kong, where more than 6% of the economy depends on the devastated travel and tourism industry.

"People have long memories and don't understand SARS," said Eric Rosenkranz, president, Asia Pacific, of Grey Global Group's Grey Worldwide, Hong Kong. "It will be six months before people from Europe and North America return to Asia, even to countries such as Thailand where there is no SARS."

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