Stricken Toronto forms coalition, sets promotional effort

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TORONTO -- Tourism, business, labor and government leaders here formed a coalition to tackle the economic fallout from SARS.

The coalition said it will have a preliminary blueprint for a promotional campaign by the first week of May. The campaign is expected to include TV, radio and print ads, and packages from hotels, attractions and tour firms. However, officials said they will wait until after the health emergency passes to launch the initiative.

"Our first and overriding concern remains the health and safety of the public," said Bruce MacMillan, president of Tourism Toronto, the city's visitor and convention marketing organization.

"When we get through the SARS outbreak, our community-based tourism marketing plan will continue to position Toronto as one of North America's most desirable destinations," he said.

Although there have been no official estimates of the economic impact of SARS on the city, Toronto tourism has been particularly hard hit, with the cancellation of two major medical conferences totaling 39,000 hotel room nights.

Tourism is Toronto's second-largest industry, employing about 95,000 workers. The city hosts more than 16 million visitors a year, who contribute $5 billion to the local economy.

Hotels in downtown Toronto normally would be around 75% full this time of year, but occupancy rates have dropped to as low as 10% at some properties.

"The SARS outbreak ... has become a jobs crisis in Toronto's hospitality industry," said Paul Clifford, president of Local 75, the union representing Toronto's hotel and restaurant employees. Meanwhile, tour operators with Canada programs are monitoring the situation.

Robert Brennan, president of Brennan Tours, said the company is fielding questions from agents but not taking any other immediate action because there are no Canada departures scheduled until June. He said the company has not been hit with cancellations.

Tauck World Discovery has no tours departing for Canada for a few weeks. A spokeswoman said, "We're hoping it will all calm down."

Mary Stachnik, vice president of Mayflower Tours, said the operator was renaming and revamping its Toronto Theater Tour, substituting the Toronto theater portion for Octoberfest in Kichener, Ontario.

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