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French Version

Downtown Beirut moves to salvage holiday season

Promotional campaign aims to bring customers back by promising deep discounts

As the anti-government demonstrations in Downtown Beirut enter their third week on Friday, embattled businesses from the hospitality, trade, and tourism sectors are striking back with a campaign aimed at boosting consumer spending and luring shoppers back to the commercial centers of the capital.

Some of Lebanon's leading luxury retailers convened at the Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel on Thursday morning for the launch of the seasonal print, billboard, and television advertising blitz-"Bhebak bil Chiteh" (I love you in Winter) - conceived by H&C Leo Burnett.

Some stores, especially those in the Beirut Central District (BCD), are also offering discounts at locations in neighborhoods particularly hard-hit by the demonstrations in the hopes that shoppers might loosen their purse strings in honor of Christmas, the New Year, and Eid al-Adha.

Aishti chairman and CEO Tony Salame, Middle East Airlines (MEA) president Mohammad Hout, Lebanese Hotel Syndicate president Pierre Ashkar, and ABC director Robert Fadel each spoke at the event - and each pleaded for a political truce so that the economy could recover.

Merchants will request VAT exemptions from the government, Salame said in his speech, in an attempt to give consumers a stronger reason to spend. Hotels and MEA will be offering package deals to woo foreign visitors back to Lebanon to celebrate the holidays, and the Ministry of Tourism has agreed to exempt foreigners from temporary visa fees.

According to a statement released after the press conference, a delegation of businesspeople will soon meet with President Emile Lahoud, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Speaker Nabih Berri, Finance Minister Jihad Azour and Central Bank Governor Riyadh Salameh to ask that they "live up to their historic responsibilities."

"The business operators will also ask all political parties and forces in Lebanon to prevent any negative repercussions on commercial establishments due to their actions and to actually support economic activities in Lebanon," the statement added. "The commercial establishments also plan to give special offers and major economic incentives to Lebanese customers and foreign visitors throughout the duration of the campaign."

The details of the particular incentives will be released later by individual retailers.

Indeed, many BCD merchants give every appearance of not being able to sustain poor business for much longer. The owner and manager of the Lina's sandwich franchise, Sammi Hochon, said he will give the situation three or four months to recover before he shuts the Downtown branch.

"None of my locations are doing as well as they should because people just are not spending much right now," Hochon told The Daily Star on the sidelines of the press conference. "But business in Solidere has dropped 80 percent from this time last year. Lunch is just starting to pick, but for the rest of the day we are empty."

In 2003 and 2004 consumer traffic was consistent enough to offset the high rents in Solidere, but things have not picked up since their decline two years ago, Hochon explained.

Virgin chairman Jihad Murr told Agence France Presse last week that if the situation persists he may have to close his flagship location in Martyrs Square, which reopened last Monday after more than a week of remaining shut due to the opposition demonstrations. Murr said he has laid off 20 percent of the total staff since the July-August war with Israel, and estimated that each day of closure costs the company $50,000 in losses.

Red streamers now hang from the windows of the former movie theater, presumably in place to offset the coils of barbed wire blocking off access to the site of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's gravesite. Though protesters are still forbidden from erecting tents in the designated demonstration zone of the capital, consumers are welcome to bypass army checkpoints to do some Christmas shopping.

Virgin circulated a mass email this week to this effect.

"In an effort to revive our beloved Virgin and all other stores and restaurants at Downtown striving to overcome this dire situation that threatens the very stability of our country's economy, we invite all of you to visit Downtown on the 14th of December starting 5:00 pm and participate in restoring life to the heart of Beirut," the email read.

City Mall in Dora hired advertising firm BBDO Impact for an outdoor campaign of its own to promote the mall during the holiday season. Mall manager Rony Aoun insists that the Christmas-themed billboards - depicting a scantily clad, elfish women spraying perfume into an already blazing fireplace, and emblazoned with the slogan, "X-Mas Folly," presumably an ironic take on the current conflagration gripping the country - are part of a purely commercial campaign.

"There is nothing political about it," Aoun said of the image in question, which also carries the words, "dreaming of a warm Christmas."

"The fireplace gives the feeling of warmth," he said. "We tried to recreate the mood last year by decorating, putting up children's animation, and offering some holiday activities."

Beirut 17-12-2006
Lysandra Ohrstrom
The Daily Star

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