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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Life after SARS: Toronto is back on track

By Linda White
Special to The Toronto Sun

As Toronto continues to rally against the economic and social impacts of the SARS outbreak with promotional campaigns, the hospitality and tourism industries brace for a long road to recovery.

"This is going to take a year to two years to recover from," says Rod Seiling, president of the Greater Toronto Hotel Association. "This destination has been hard hit. No one has seen anything like this."

Seiling lauds the promotional campaigns, but hasn't yet felt their impact. "Layoffs are still in place. There is no rebound to date. This hit at the worst time in terms of the planning cycle. It started at the height of convention season."

It will take time for the message to get out, believes John Houghton, v.-p. of sales and marketing with the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. "We are making progress, but it is slow. It is done in inches," he says.

"Most people aren't aware that anything has changed," says Houghton. "The further away you get from Toronto, the more fearful people are. Evidently, people have not gotten the message that it is as safe to be in Toronto today as it was a year ago."

But he is optimistic things will turn around. "The brightest minds in the industry have come together to communicate on this. There is a solid recovery plan in place and it's moving at every second of every day."

The Toronto Tourism Industry Community Coalition was formed to help shape Toronto's recovery from SARS, a public health crisis that offset a job crisis.

"No one knows what would have been had there not been SARS," says Geoff Bowlby, an economist with Statistics Canada. "However, there are some declines in some areas you would expect to be impacted by SARS."

In April, the industries that had the largest declines in employment in Ontario were health care and social assistance (down 14,000) and accommodation and food services (down 12,000).

About half of the drop in health care and social assistance in Ontario occurred in Toronto, while the entire provincial decline in the accommodation and food sector was concentrated among Toronto's restaurant workers.

"Ontario had been on a strong upward trend for the previous six months," Bowlby says. "This was the first significant downward decline in employment in Ontario in awhile."

Neither the Ontario Nurses' Association nor the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario reports any layoffs as a result of SARS. But its impact on accommodation and food services was immediate.

"This is our Sept. 11 in our industry," says Paul Clifford, president of Local 75 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. He estimates a third of Toronto's hotel employees have been laid off since April and another third is working reduced hours.

"In addition to SARS, it was a pretty slow winter season," says Clifford, noting the impact of a slow U.S. economy and the war in Iraq.

"There were already people without work who were expecting to come back. When the floor fell through after the SARS outbreak, it plunged those who were hard hit into the depths," Clifford says.

Toronto hotels are home to 33,000 rooms, and their goal is to have an average occupancy rate of 70% to 80%. "It's been down, at times, to 30% or 40%," says Clifford. "That's a lot of jobs. That's a lot of people not travelling."

Toronto's recovery plan includes numerous promotional campaigns. The Hummingbird Centre for Performing Arts, for instance, has partnered with more than 20 Toronto hotels, restaurants and attractions in a promotion called Out on the Town. The promotion offers special discounts at participating locations with a Hummingbird Centre ticket stub.

"We wanted to give Torontonians and visitors an incentive to get out on the town, especially in our own vibrant neighbourhood," says Nancy Morrison, marketing manager of the Hummingbird Centre.

"Torontonians are starting to get out," says Tricia Hosking of Tourism Toronto. "We're seeing a resurgence in media wanting to come to Toronto, but then they have to take that message to the outside community."

Despite immediate challenges, Hosking is certain Toronto will come out a winner. "It will be a long road to recovery," she says. "It's one step at a time, but we're so loud and proud of our city. We're going to come out of this as a strong destination."

(Linda White ( is a freelance writer based in Brooklin, Ont.)

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