FIRST THERE WAS September 11, then came Sars and war in Iraq. The three have dealt a hefty blow to the hotel industry and now the task ahead is to lure clients back. This has made Arthur Kiong's job far from ordinary. The regional director of sales in Asia-Pacific at the Peninsula has been in strategy overdrive after the World Health Organisation lifted a travel advisory against Hong Kong, attempting to nurse the hotel back to health. He had already encountered the devastating effects of September 11 first-hand, as the director responsible for marketing six Ritz-Carlton hotels in New York, Washington DC and Boston. The Informer caught up with him recently to discover his experience of the industry's attempt to get back on its feet after the crises. Q: What has been the most memorable experience you have had at one of your hotels? A: In my previous company, I was posted to New York to open a hotel in the Wall Street area. I designed an advertisement with the Statue of Liberty raising both arms in celebration of the opening of the hotel. Many of my colleagues in the corporate office felt it was in very bad taste and disapproved of it immediately. I, however, did finally manage to convince the regional vice-president who, in spite of the strong objections, allowed me to run the advertisement. The advertisement was unfortunately scheduled to appear in the New Yorker on September 12, 2001 - the day after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. The phones in our offices lit up like Christmas trees with people demanding to speak to the company president. I thought, 'Oh my God'. But the callers said that the advertisements reminded them that liberty will prevail and that we displayed tremendous courage to open our hotel in spite of the devastation in the downtown area. That advertisement went on to become a limited edition collectable and won numerous advertising awards. I will never forget that timing is everything. Q: How did you respond to the September 11 attack as a hotelier? And what lessons can you draw from your September 11 experience that could be used to help the Peninsula improve business and increase occupancy? A: It's a depressed economy, there is war, and we had a disease outbreak. Overwhelming odds. We had only the local market as an income source and we are the most expensive hotel in town. Under the circumstances the team had to be very imaginative. The Peninsula is not about selling rooms and food and beverages. It is about selling an experience and to the local market ... it is to sell a dream. The local package we needed to come up with had to be non-duplicatable and we were not going to be drawn into a price war. We took a step back and really thought things through. The Peninsula came up with 'Three Wishes' - a local package that is high priced but provided a wonderful menu of eight spectacular options such as Rolls Royce transfer, upgrade to a junior suite, upgrade to harbour-view room, a daily complimentary breakfast for two, candle-lit dinner in your room and even a complimentary night in Bangkok, New York or Chicago. Q: Which of the three wishes would you go for? A: I would take the harbour-view room - it is unquestionably the best view in Hong Kong - the breakfast - because I get to enjoy it everyday - and a night in the Peninsula, Bangkok - not just because it is a great hotel but my wife and I can always get away for a short weekend break there. Q: Which crisis, September 11 or Hong Kong's Sars, was more difficult for a hotelier like you? A: Nothing compares to this Sars crisis. In the case of September 11 there was, at least, still customers driving to the destination or taking trains. Private planes were still flying. Commercial liners could take more stringent measures because they were dealing with an enemy that could be seen and detected. For Sars, it is an invisible enemy that can hide in almost anyone. There is only the local market to count on for support. There was irrational fear. Q: On May 19, Michael Kadoorie, the chairman of Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, which owns and operates the Peninsula and the Kowloon Hotel, said that only 'nine persons' were staying in the group's hotels during the worst period of the Sars outbreak. Did you work under great pressure to turn around the hotel's business and how did you cope with it? A: We are always under pressure when revenues are concerned. We had a good plan and a crystal-clear mission in anticipation of a drop in business due to the Iraqi war. We planned for the worst and hoped for the best. Q: The Peninsula has its unique points, including retaining a platoon of highly-trained security guards. Why does the hotel need such tight security? A: The heightened sense of safety and the quality of our security are big selling points of the Peninsula. It's not something we like to talk about openly but it is hugely important for our guests. When you consider the level of people that dine in our restaurants and stay in our rooms and suites it's the who's who of the world. We cannot be too careful. Yet we must do it all in a manner and style that is unobtrusive . That's a big challenge and we have decided to put our resources where our mouth is.