As the U.S. and its cities learn to promote themselves to travelers for the first time, Visit Philadelphia's successes are an anomaly and a promising example in a still under-recognized U.S. industry.
Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, has played a critical role in revitalizing the image of the historic U.S. city over the past 30 years.
Levitz joined the board of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau after launching a downtown business association, but was quickly asked to join the staff as vice president of tourism to develop the organization’s marketing strategy. Levitz left the PCVB to found and become CEO of the leisure marketing group, Visit Philadelphia (then known as GPTMC) in August 1996, making her a formidable player in U.S. destination marketing for more than 20 years.
This year in particular was full of milestones for Visit Philadelphia, including a name change, mobile launch, the ten-year anniversary of its Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay campaign, and the launch of a new Neighborhoods campaign.
Visit Philadelphia is a industry leader when it comes to content marketing and uses its web presence to share content that goes beyond an ad or an image to include usefuly information that visitors and locals interact with.
Levitz says the organization’s primary website Visitphilly.com reached the 10-million annual visitor mark for the first time. Forty-eight percent of its traffic comes from mobile and 75 percent of site visitors say the website improved their impression of the city.
As part of our Skift50 launch, we spoke with Levitz about what she’s learned about destination marketing and how Visit Philly uses creativity to compete with the larger, better funded Northeastern destinations. Below are pulled excerpts from our conversation.
On using visuals to brand a city:
One of the things we did when we first did the research [in 1996] was look at how Philadelphia was represented visually. That photography was just dead and awful and video didn’t really play into anything at that time. We’ve had an early and continual interest in video and photography to drive interest and engagement with consumers.
And this year, our investment and outreach in both has really grown and people find it irresistible because it does look so good, and it gives them new ways of thinking about Philadelphia and changing their minds and giving them different trip triggers.
We launched our Instagram presence this year and it’s now the second largest Instagram account of the 10 most populated cities.
On what tourism marketers can learn from other industries:
If [other destination marketing organizations] just looked at the number of different kinds of commercials that Coca Cola or McDonalds or Miller Light throws at you, I think they would see how many different ways you have to talk to and with your consumers.
Look at how many different times retailers change their windows. Or you go inside a store and a product is in a different place or has a different accessory with it. People need to be always alerted to the fact that they need to take another look.
You have constantly be tweaking what you have, refining and defining and giving people another way to approach it or come into it.
On the importance of festivals and events as trip triggers:
The higher tech we got in the world, the higher touch was necessary. Once you taught people about Philadelphia and changed their minds about Philadelphia, then you had to give them the next step to do. What you needed was trip triggers, like ‘Why should I come now?’
On Visit Philadelphia’s biggest challenges:
It’s funding. I believe that in many ways shortfalls in funding has led us to be more creative. But we’ve been down a third of our budget for each of the last three years, because our state has crossed out all funding for tourism. We used to be supported by about $4 million to $5 million a year through different state line items and grants. This year we’re getting $850,000 from the state and I’m happy for it. It’s a special grant to promote countryside towns, but it’s still not $4 million or $5 million. All around us, New York, D.C., Boston, Chicago, Virginia, and Michigan have seen the power of travel in terms of boosting their own economies. Our state does not see it that way.
The severe funding cuts have reduced our ability to market. We’re barely on TV anymore for one thing. I know everybody thinks web, web, web, but for travel, the visual is so important and a certain mainstream presence is so important. We’ve not been able to go on TV the way we want to, we’ve not be able to expand our geographic regions the way we want to. I would say the number one challenge is the funding challenge.
On how to compete with larger well-funded U.S. cities:
We’ve become very very good at morphing content so that when we develop content we keep in mind that we’re going to need to be able to use it in many different ways and at many different times. We’ve really developed a certain cleverness in terms of the actual content development.
On developing tourism for the next generation of travelers:
Who are the next set of visitors? Not just what to do millennials want, but how about the kids that are 10 years old right now? What kind of visitors are they going to be and what kind of America do they need to be able to understand? And I think that people are starting to look at that, but it will take far more than just us.
On what role Philadelphia’s history plays in its marketing message:
For first-time visitors and history buffs, seeing the bell and the hall are at the top of their list. But you can’t rely just on the history because history is very much a day-time word. And they can’t do all the history in one day, this is the cradle of history for goodness sake. You have to give visitors the ability to make a whole trip and alert them that there are places to stay, places to eat, activities for children, things for sports fans, and things for art fans.
If I had to say what Philadelphia’s brand is in one word, I would say “independence,” because people take that concept of independence and they first relate it to history. But what we’ve found is that the promise of independence is that you can also get around Philadelphia, and get to Philadelphia, and you don’t have to spend a million dollars in here to have a good time. We’re manageable, doable, walkable, beautiful and basically what they’re saying is that they feel independent while they’re here. But I think everybody who comes here for the first time wants to do the bell and the Hall.
On finding the right message to reach international visitors:
What a number of us have seen is that American history, for an international audience, is not the main appeal. Our history seems very short to them. The history of democracy, if you put it that way, could drum up interest. America is such a vast concept. It’s like saying to an American, do you want to go to Europe?
I think [Brand USA] is off to a good start. I think it was little rough and tumble at the beginning but we felt that they made enough progress that we were happy to be a partner. This is really America’s first time with a campaign so it’s not exactly the first to market. It’s a tough go but we’ll go with them.
Discover more of the travel industry’s best marketing strategies at Skift50 – World’s Top Travel Marketers of 2013.
Photo credit: Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, speaks to media on a Philadelphia Neighborhoods trolley tour in April 2013. To her left is Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. M. Edlow / Visit Philadelphia