Destinations

The Fight in Philly Over Two Tourism Boards

Mar 09, 2014 5:00 pm

Skift Take

VisitPhiladelphia has been a model for how destinations market itself. There’s no question that it should be in charge of marketing the city.

— Jason Clampet

Free Report: The Changing Business of Extended-Stay Hotels

afagen  / Flickr

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the city's top tourist attractions. afagen / Flickr


When it comes to selling itself, Philadelphia is a bit like Noah’s Ark: it has two of everything.

There are two marketing agencies, two websites, and two slogans. There are two chief executives, two finance officers, two marketing staffs — all taxpayer supported.

Which, for some, is one too many of everything.

“We in the hotel community never truly understood it,” said William Walsh, who managed the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown for 10 years. “We always asked if it would make more economic sense to combine talent and resources.”

Bill Gullan, president of Finch Brands, a local firm that counsels companies on how to brand themselves, is more pointed.

“The structure of our regional marketing apparatus is nonsensical,” he wrote in a recent blog post, “and ultimately self-defeating.”

At issue are PHLCVB (Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau), the marketing arm of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and VisitPhiladelphia, a nonprofit created in 1996 at the urging of then-Mayor Ed Rendell, who thought more should be done to boost non-convention tourism.

PHLCVB is contractually answerable to the Convention Center. VisitPhiladelphia, formerly known as Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corp., answers only to its board.

Each is funded by the city’s hotel tax. PHLCVB pays its CEO, Jack Ferguson, 66, about $356,000 a year. Meryl Levitz, 66, VisitPhiladelphia’s head, receives about $425,000 a year.

On paper, each organization has a different mission — one to pursue conventions, the other leisure tourists. Despite that division of labor, there has been 18 years of funding disputes, turf battles, and consultant reports urging more cooperation.

The latest snit? PHLCVB’s announcement last month that it was promoting a new slogan for the region: “PHL: Here for the Making.”

The tagline was rolled out with much hoopla at a news conference that included Mayor Nutter and a number of prominent business leaders.

Missing from the dais, but watching from the edges of the crowd, was Levitz, who was dismissive of the slogan.

“People don’t understand what it means,” she said.

VisitPhiladelphia would keep its own, thank you, was Levitz’s message. So it continues to market the city with its signature “With Love, Philadelphia, xoxo” campaign. Which is significant, since VisitPhiladelphia spends about $5.5 million of its $12 million annual budget on paid advertising. The bulk of PHLCVB’s $12 million budget goes to sales efforts.

“You have two different messages from two different organizations that are delivered in two different ways,” Gullan said. “The bottom line is, our budgets don’t go far enough, and the voices are dissonant.”

Nutter, too, was less than pleased.

“My concern is about potential confusion in the marketplace and inefficiency in our efforts,” he said.

Nutter and others point out that Philadelphia is nearly unique in the nation: Only New Orleans and Atlantic City have dual marketing agencies. The rest rely solely on their convention and visitors bureau (CVB).

One reason is accountability. A CVB can provide hard numbers on hotel bookings that directly result from conventions. When bookings are down, adjustments can be made, managers can be held accountable.

Agencies like VisitPhiladelphia have a harder time directly linking visitor numbers to marketing campaigns, making it more difficult to measure success.

VisitPhiladelphia, for instance, points out that total leisure visitation has gone up 45 percent from 1997 to 2012, but cannot say definitively how much of that is a result of its efforts.

Walsh, now general manager of the Wardman Park Marriott in Washington, said that because of that, he questioned the “integrity” of the numbers VisitPhiladelphia puts forth.

Asked to choose which organization should handle the city’s marketing, Walsh said: “No question. CVB.”

Levitz, not surprisingly, held a different view, seeing no reason to change things.

“It absolutely has worked,” she said of the dual arrangement. “There is no way the Convention and Visitors Bureau would be able to get the resources for a full-fledged tourist campaign and zoom leisure the way we have.”

She was supported by her board chairman, Manuel N. Stamatakis, PHLCVB chairman Nicholas DeBenedictis, Rendell, and Rebecca W. Rimel, chief executive officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which originally recommended the creation of Levitz’s agency.

Stamatakis and DeBenedictis said they were skeptical that a merger of the groups would yield any real savings.

“Sometimes a merger works out for the better, sometimes it’s worse,” Stamatakis said. “I’ve seen it go both ways.”

Levitz said it might take “years” to smoothly meld the two groups.

“This has been spectacularly successful,” Rimel said of VisitPhiladelphia. “There would be nothing that would suggest it would not be successful going forward.”

Rendell went further, saying it was PHLCVB that should be shuttered, turning over convention marketing to the convention center’s professional managers, and all city marketing to VisitPhiladelphia.

For the moment, that unified support most likely settles the issue. With no oversight per se, VisitPhiladelphia’s direction is determined solely by its board, which has shown itself to be firmly behind Levitz.

For instance, last year, her contract was extended until 2018. She will be 71.

“The board voted unanimously to extend Meryl’s contract because it felt she was the best person in the country to lead the organization,” Stamatakis said. “Meryl has led the way in redefining leisure tourism in our region, and her success . . . is unparalleled.”

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