From Day Zero to COVID-19: how collaboration is key to the Western Cape's crisis and recovery management

In late 2017, Cape Town announced that the city was facing ‘Day Zero’ – or the day when Cape Town would become the first major world city to have to turn off the taps. We reached out to Tim Harris, CEO at Wesgro, the trade and tourism promotion body for the Western Cape, to discover how the region is responding to the pandemic and to understand how their experience of the drought has influenced their response to COVID-19.


Firstly, thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Tim. We were hoping to start with your new five-year strategy that you announced in early March – just weeks before COVID-19 hit, and the world went weird. Is your strategy going to change much in the light of the pandemic?

The main question is how do we achieve the targets we had set up previously to keep up delivery in a dramatically changed environment. We’ve been following a three-phase approach. We’re working on Containment, which means recognising that business as usual is no longer possible, not just because there’s regulatory constraints, but simply because we have to take responsibility for the work we do as a vector for the disease. So, the main thing that we’ve done is to swap all our missions into the virtual space, including things like running virtual trade missions.

The second leg is called Adaptation. It’s about us changing, but it’s also about helping our clients across the investment, exports, and tourism space to adapt. One of the things we learnt during the drought in Cape Town is the importance of an official voice of government clarifying the lay of the land, so interpreting the regulations in terms of frequently asked questions and helping companies understand what they can do within the regulatory environments has been key.

Then the third phase is Recovery?

Exactly. And recovery is about saying, well, how do we prepare for the time where we’ll be getting back to something more like normal - although it seems clear that we’ll all be living with the disease in the world and so we need to make sure that our recovery is sensitive to this new reality.

On the export side, what we’re finding is that we’re still able to matchmake exporters with potential clients; what we used to do in about 45 trade missions per year, we’re starting to achieve on Zoom and using virtual trade missions.

And then in the tourism space… it’s by far the most impacted. Tourism just had a hard stop – it’s essentially illegal with the odd exception in South Africa. We’re working to lobby around earlier safe opening of tourism, and also preparing to bring back our air route network as quickly and as fully as possible after aviation is allowed again. We’re a long-haul destination and particularly in the Western Cape; we’re highly dependent on international travellers, but if they can’t get here, we can’t do business.


You’ve spoken about the key phases that you’re using to plot out your actions for the coming months, but I was wondering if you could share what KPIs you’re using to measure your recovery?

That’s a good question. I can tell you that what we’re measuring in terms of the Adaptation phase is how many businesses are using the tools that we put in place. South Africa has a fraction of the financial support available for companies relative to the UK, but the support that is there is kind of confusing and difficult to access. We’re helping companies access this support.

In terms of recovery, we’ll revert back to our normal KPIs where we’re measuring the value of investment deals, exports and film productions landed, and the jobs linked to them. On the tourism side, we measure ourselves particularly by geographic spread. We’re the DMO for the Western Cape province, and I think getting tourists back to Cape Town is one thing, but we think there’s a particular opportunity to promote rural tourism given the way that COVID’s played out, so that will be an increasingly important KPI – geographic spread as tourism returns.


One of the opportunities you’d outlined in your five-year strategy was to establish a better destination and economic brand hierarchy. What challenges are you facing in establishing this level of collaboration that you need between your key stakeholders?

I referenced the drought earlier. It’s amazing how much overlap there is in the playbook that we used to deal with this crisis as the previous playbook from the drought. And really at that time we were feeling our way. We were looking like we would be the first major city in the world to run out of water, and “Day Zero” was a headline that was playing out all around the world. We had to deal as a DMO with the impact of that. And we did that by building a broad set of stakeholders who all communicated on the same platform and delivered the same message and it’s amazing how much we’ve been able to do the same thing in COVID.

Whenever you’re in any crisis, whether it’s a pandemic or a drought, in the early stages, there’s a huge amount of confusion about what the impact is, what is allowed, and what is not allowed. Getting the big players in business and across government saying the same thing is a way you can lower uncertainty and keep some confidence in the system, even as people are dealing with these unprecedented events. And that’s why, if you look at the stuff that we’ve done in the crisis, almost none of it is sitting on the Wesgro website, but sitting on a bespoke domain that we created called Essentially, we’re creating a space that isn’t Wesgro branded, but is the government view in the Cape as far as business is concerned - whether you’re a tourism industry or any other industry. If you look at that page, on the masthead you got the provincial government, you’ve got the city government, you’ve got Wesgro, you’ve got the other agencies… it was about replicating that single voice. I think it’s worked just as well as it did in the drought. It’s not about one agency or another owning the message -  it’s about saying across all the agencies, across all the official government voices, “This is the support on offer for business, this is the regulatory environment, and this is what you need to know in order to keep going.”

I think, if anything, those hierarchy questions around the brand are probably in a stronger place now. The crisis brings you together and it sometimes forces collaboration that might be harder when there’s less pressure.


You spoke at the 2018 Global conference about overcoming the negative associations of Day Zero and the drought, and it’s interesting to see how your actions during the pandemic have been shaped by your previous experience. Looking longer term, are there any other parallels you’re seeing between the drought and recovery post-COVID?

There are in terms of mindset shift and behaviour changes. That was the big victory in the drought - just the way Capetonians and visitors changed their approach to water. And that’s been sustained. We use less water in the city now, even if there’s a lot of rain around. People just think differently about their usage of water. I think what the crisis might do is highlight how dependent we are on tourism and how constraints like visas are fairly simple to resolve and remove… Hopefully there’ll be a new energy to reforming those systems. While there is no tourism going on, at least on the international front, we’re doing the work with our national partners to resolve those unnecessary blockages.

The other thing is the opportunity to position the Western Cape offer in a different way. It’s interesting that a lot of the world has been talking about over-tourism in the last few years. But this is not relevant to us at all – if anything, we have under-tourism in Africa. And I think travellers might increasingly choose under-tourism so it does present an interesting opportunity for us to position rural tourism, to position the wide open spaces in South Africa and the Western Cape. And that might be a lasting change, it might change the position of the rural offer around Cape Town relative to Cape Town. Our challenge as the DMO is then to say that Cape Town is about the winelands and the Garden Route, but how much further can you go in search of experiences that are quite isolated and completely unique?

The other thing that you mentioned during the Global presentation was your white label campaign to ensure a collaborative promotion effort across your key partners. Are you planning any similar collaborations with your private sector when you start your recovery, or does that come under the broader umbrella of the ‘Support Business’ website that you’ve set up?

We use the white label approach in most of our campaigns now, because we think it’s a good way to align our messaging behind the destination, and there’s definitely a white label approach in our business confidence campaign that we’re working on. The tourism one right now is taking a different approach. It’s the same sort of beautiful drone footage that every other DMO is using, and we’re talking about the ‘One Day’ you can come back to the Cape, but we think we’re doing it in an interesting way by spending the money directly on forty tour guides across the region who are providing video tours on YouTube of their destination. We launched a couple of weeks ago, and we’ve had 100,000 views already. The important thing is those tour guides are paid by Wesgro, but there’s also a way to tip your tour guide at the end of the tour. It’s a way of keeping the destination top of mind, but also helping the folk who usually enhance the tourist experience and keeping them going in this difficult time.

Make a donation to the tour guides


You mentioned that you’ve done the virtual trade missions as well, so it’s clear that you’ve been really successful in pivoting to a digital world – both in trade and tourism. Are you expecting to adapt your longer-term strategy based on your learnings from those initiatives?

I think there’s an interesting opportunity to scale up impact, because our clients’ expectations around face to face meetings are changing and we can deal with more of them, more efficiently. If you’re trying to land an investment deal or big export deal, the constraint for us has been a small team size. You have to focus on a couple of big deals because each one of those investors or buyers is looking for a lot of information, they’re looking for face to face meetings – you have to hold their hands in quite a high touch way. I think what’s changing though, is that client expectation. I think clients are realising they don’t necessarily need those things. They’re being forced to conduct meetings online, to get the information they need online - and that means we can really scale up the number of meetings that we’re conducting and the number of clients that we’re servicing.

On the tourism side, I don’t think there’s much prospect of actually delivering tourism experiences online. I think the virtual space can raise the efficiency of marketing while lowering the cost and opening new possibilities for the way that you market, but in the end, you need to make sure that you have an offer that is compatible with what visitors are looking for. We’ve always had a strong offer in terms of the depth and breadth of experiences across the Western Cape, but I do think that the wide open spaces and more experiences personified by under-tourism becomes an interesting way that we can potentially grow into a new market, or to grow our market share.

We also run the convention bureau for Cape Town and the Western Cape, and it’s trickier to see a short-term recovery for business and convention tourism. But certainly, the bureau’s winning bids for three to four years’ time. So, there is an expectation that business tourism will be back, though probably on a lag to leisure tourism. I don’t think there’s too many people in that sector who think they will never have another conference or bring their association meeting to a town like Cape Town. You’re probably looking at a longer recovery time, but just seeing the bids that are already coming through the bureau, you can see a full recovery projected.

There’s been a lot really creative and innovative campaigns all the way around the world. Pre-COVID, yes, but it’s also been amazing to see the imaginative ways that people have respond to this new reality we’re living in. What would you want to see in a winning entry in the City Nation Place Awards?

I think it’s a word that hasn’t come up yet, although it’s inherent in our experience of the drought and that of COVID now, and that is “resilience”. How are destination campaigns building resilience? I think resilience in COVID means adaptability. The thing about the last few weeks is that you were never able to predict at all, even a couple of weeks out.

Clearly the spend and production value on marketing has come right down and people are embracing looseness and speed over high production and craft – the interesting thing about that is that it really leaves the story as the most important element. You don’t need a high production, high cost campaign, but if you’re not going to do that, you really have to have strong content and strong stories.

I think the most effective campaigns, the most memorable campaigns, will be those that tell real stories – or even have real people telling real stories – and embrace the shared humanity that the crisis has made us all think more about. They will also highlight a destination that is resilient because it’s adaptable and it’s got something authentic that it’s offering in these changing times. These are the kind of things that I’ll be looking for as a juror.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Tim.

Find out more about the 2020 City Nation Place Awards.

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