In May this year, with Hong Kong reeling from the catastrophic economic impact of Sars, the government formed the Economic Relaunch Strategy Group (ERSG). Its aim was simple - top businessmen, academics and organisations within the group would think of ways the city could bounce back when Sars waned. The idea was that ERSG would help the government prepare to act swiftly when the crisis ended. The group was to come up with a comprehensive package of activities that would help Hong Kong rebound as soon as the scare lapsed. The group was chaired by then finance secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung, since replaced by Henry Tang Ying-yen. The secretary of ERSG is Mike Rowse, director-general of the government's investment-promotion arm InvestHK. The non-official lineup named on May 7 included members of Exco and Legco, the heads of key statutory bodies covering tourism, the airport and trade, leaders of chambers of commerce and other business groups, and academics. Also on ERSG sits Jim Thompson, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce. Six months after their appointment, I tried to discover what initiatives and suggestions the 18 non-government members of ERSG made which significantly helped Hong Kong out of the disease-fuelled economic turmoil. The answers were patchy. Some organisations and individuals refused to answer and others dodged the questions. Everyone knows what Thompson came up with: the largest American business body outside the United States proposed Harbour Fest. What did the others do? One member was Raymond Or Ching-fai, listed as a member in his capacity as chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Banks. He is also group general manager of HSBC. Questions sent to Mr Or were answered by a HSBC spokesman who would not say what proposals, if any, he had made to ERSG on the grounds that it was 'confidential'. Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a lecturer in the Division of Social Studies at City University, refused to answer because he 'had no time to entertain such questions'. Bertrand Michaud, the chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, refused to comment. Philip Wong Yu-hong, vice-chairman of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce and a Legco member, hung up the phone when asked about his contribution to ERSG. Despite repeated telephone calls and e-mails, no replies were received from the chairman of the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute, Paul Yip Kwok-wah, the chairman of the Retail Management Association, Yu Pang-chun, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Chinese Enterprise Association, Zhou Jie and chief executive of the Better Hong Kong Foundation, George Yuen Kam-ho. Other members were more positive. The president of the Chinese Manufacturers Association of Hong Kong, Chan Wing-kee, said one positive action taken by the group was to suggest the appointment of public relations consultants who had helped rebuild the image of New York after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The secretary-general of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, Hiroshi Matsui, replied on behalf of his president, Ryota Honjo. He said they had concentrated on spreading the news in Japan about the true situation in Hong Kong. Exco member Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee said her main contribution had been to keep the group informed about what the Hong Kong Tourism Board was doing with its own active relaunch programmes. The chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, Anthony Nightingale, said the chamber began making concrete proposals about recovery even before ERSG was formed. In April, the chamber made a 26-point submission to the financial secretary on measures to help the Hong Kong business community. 'Many of our suggestions, divided up for the short-term, mid-term and long-term, were adopted by the government,' Mr Nightingale said. These ideas evolved in May into the chamber's 'Re-Invigorate, Re-Launch and Re-Build' drive, known as the '555 Plan' because it suggested different strategies to improve communications, boost confidence, lead a revival and relaunch business in five weeks, then five months, then five years. Trying to balance adverse publicity, the chamber also sent out 200 letters to editors of publications around the globe, telling them of the true situation. It asked members to write to all their business contacts and provided suggested sample letters. 'We constantly reminded government of the need to communicate better with the outside world,' Mr Nightingale added. In June, with the first weak gleams of recovery being seen, the chamber helped run a major conference with 400 delegates called 'Business after Sars'. The former chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries and chairman of Gold Peak Holdings, Victor Lo Chung-wing, said ERSG provided 'a most badly needed platform' during Sars. Harbour Fest was a very good idea, he said. 'The Hong Kong spirit should be that if it is a good idea, but we didn't manage so well this time, then let's learn and manage better next time. 'The Hong Kong community has become very risk-averse over the past few years, understandably so because of the tough economic environment. However, we need to be even more enterprising and creative and be willing to try out new ideas.' ERSG covered not just projects to revive tourism, like Harbour Fest, but also considered other important issues including how to handle passengers at the airport, how to make travellers feel comfortable about coming to Hong Kong and how to deal with international communications. The chairman of the Trade Development Council (TDC), Peter Woo Kwong-ching, said the TDC used international trade fairs and its extensive overseas network to help build confidence for people coming to do business. Its online newspaper, Hong Kong Trader, played a key part in sending out positive news and the latest information during and after Sars. One move was to stage a supplementary gift and houseware fair In July. Against conventional wisdom, this attracted 62,000 buyers, breaking all records. Helped by government Sars-recovery funds, TDC invited 900 key overseas buyers to the fair. Members from a global network of 22 Hong Kong business associations were invited to a forum and TDC road shows went to the trade capitals of the world. Rosanna Wong Yick-ming, chairman of the Federation of Youth Groups, remains haunted by memories of what Sars meant to the community. 'We were really in the throes of despair,' she said. 'Everything seemed so dark and we could not predict when the cloud would lift.' ERSG was tightly focused on economic revitalisation. 'It was hard to imagine what exactly could be done to revive the economy,' she recalls. 'It had to be a two-pronged approach, to encourage local people to spend and to remind investors and overseas business partners that Hong Kong remained economically viable.' Professor Chan Ka-keung, dean of the School of Business and Management at the University of Science and Technology, noted that when ERSG was formed, Hong Kong was in the midst of the crisis and 'tourism was practically dead'. 'The group was a good clearing house for local and international chambers, and assorted people like myself, to come up with ideas to relaunch Hong Kong,' he said. 'In retrospect, Sars fears subsided rather quickly and the economy is rebounding very well, particularly with aid from Beijing. The government set up an e-mail address [ firstname.lastname@example.org ] and asked for ideas from the public. This reaped 189 suggestions about how to improve the economy.'