If Not for Luck, SARS Could Have Canceled Canadian Marketing Show

The Canadian Marketing Association's annual convention scheduled for next week could have been canceled had it been held in Toronto, where fears of the lung infection SARS are chasing away visitors, the association's president said yesterday.

By the luck of the draw, this year's conference is April 28-30 at the Palais de Congres in Montreal instead of Toronto, the site of the organization's headquarters and the location of two-thirds of Canada's direct marketing industry. The CMA's annual show alternates between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. It was in Toronto last year.

Yesterday, the World Health Organization added Toronto to a list of areas it recommends travelers avoid because of the SARS threat. Other locations on the list include Hong Kong, Beijing and two Chinese provinces. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a less-strict travel advisory, saying people shouldn't postpone travel there but should be aware of SARS.

Speaking from his office in Toronto, CMA president John Gustavson said he was well aware of the impact the SARS scare was having on the city.

“We know of all sorts of people canceling meetings and conferences,” he said. “People will not travel to Toronto.”

Faced with the same prospect, the CMA would have had to consider canceling its own convention had it been scheduled to be in Toronto. Instead, the show is being held 350 miles away in Montreal, where not a single SARS case has been reported, Gustavson said.

The CMA is expecting 1,200 individuals to attend this year's annual show, compared to 1,400 at past conventions in Montreal and Ottawa. Annual shows in Toronto — the heart of Canada's direct marketing industry — tend to be larger by several hundred attendees, and last year's meeting in Toronto set a CMA record with nearly 2,000 in attendance.

However, not all of the decline is attributable to SARS, Gustavson said. Organizers were already expecting a lower-than-normal turnout because of the continuing weak economy and the war in Iraq.

The CMA bases its predictions on the pace of pre-registration rates. On-site registration — which makes up a significant percentage of the total — could be affected by the SARS scare, but Gustavson said he expects the impact to be less-than cataclysmic.

“I'm pretty pleased” with the pre-registration numbers, Gustavson said. “We haven't had a precipitous drop.”

At least 4,288 cases of SARS, which stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome, have been reported in 26 countries with at least 251 deaths. The most numerous cases have been reported in China.

Canada has been the most affected area outside of Asia, though Toronto is the only area where deaths — 16 so far — have been reported. Nevertheless, people residing in Toronto see the threat as under control and that the disease is difficult to contract and rarely fatal, and so far it has failed to spread into the general community, Gustavson said.

Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman and other officials lashed out at the WHO for being added to its warning list.

“Let me be clear. If it's safe to live in Toronto, it's safe to come to Toronto. I dare them to be here tomorrow,” Canadian press reports quoted Lastman as saying.

“The outbreak is not over but is definitely under control,” Sheela Basrur, Toronto's medical officer of health, was quoted as saying.

Still, major league baseball teams visiting Toronto announced plans yesterday to take precautions: avoiding signing autographs, visiting hospitals and using public transportation, officials said.

Meanwhile, Gustavson is expected to give conference attendees an overview of the Canadian marketing landscape, including consumer privacy, the Internet and the impact of global forces on the Canadian marketplace.

Keynote speakers include Rupert Duchesne, president/CEO of Aeroplan and Peter van Stolk, founder and president of Jones Soda Co. Van Stolk will talk about how he launched his company with virtually no money, rejecting traditional PR and marketing tactics, yet he has attracted a loyal following and endless media attention.

More information about the 2003 CMA National Convention & Trade Show can be found at www.the-cma.org/convention.

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