Julie Coker Graham assumed her role as president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau on January 1 this year, making her the first female African American in that position in the U.S.

Previous to that, Graham was executive VP of the CVB in charge of managing all departments and operations. She began her hospitality and tourism career with Hyatt Hotels over two decades ago, where she rose to general manager by the age of 30, and twice she was nominated as Hyatt GM of the year in 2004 and 2006.

Philadelphia is unusual in American tourism promotion because the city has both a destination marketing organization for the domestic market, Visit Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia CVB that services the meetings industry and long-haul markets. The primary mandate for the CVB is to fill the Pennsylvania Convention Center and 12,000 surrounding hotel rooms.

Up until the end of 2013, Philadelphia had somewhat of a perception challenge among meeting planners for its uncooperative labor unions, much like other cities in the northeast have had. But in December of that year, SMG Conference Venue Management took over operations. And then in 2014, the city and SMG initiated a sweeping Customer Satisfaction Agreement that renegotiated the draconian labor union work rules present at the time.

Convention business rebounded in 2014 with a 42% rise in convention-related economic impact based on 28 new event bookings, which the CVB directly attributes to the new labor work rules. Graham was instrumental in stewarding those changes through various stages of advocacy and negotiation. She was also on the local host committee that won the bid for the upcoming Democratic National Convention in July.

In 2014 and early ‘15, the Philadelphia CVB’s message to the meeting planning community revolved around transitional themes, including “We Heard You” and “Making It a New Day.” Now, the theme is “Progress & Partnerships,” illustrated by initiatives like the town hall event that Graham hosted in September last year. It gave the city’s major convention industry partners a platform to present Philly as one unit working in collaboration together.

A video of that town hall anchors the CVB’s comprehensive website, which sets the standard in the U.S. for online destination promotion targeting the meetings industry. Specifically, the Digital Convention Services Kit is among the most thorough set of online tools we’ve seen to engage planners.

We spoke with Graham about how the bureau is evolving and what she feels she brings to the tourism and meetings industry in general as the first female minority convention bureau CEO in the country. The following has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Skift: How do you position Philadelphia to convention organizers, especially those with international groups, in relation to your competitive set?

Julie Coker Graham: The biggest draw for us, whether you’re talking about a convention attendee or international visitor, is really our location in the northeast corridor. We’re two hours away from D.C. and an hour and a half away from New York, so we’re centrally located. Choosing Philadelphia as a convention destination gives attendees the opportunity to extend their time on the East Coast, so for the international business or leisure traveler, it really does come down to value.

Skift: Can you expound on the big jump in convention business in 2014 that has carried through 2015?

Graham: The jump in convention business is really because of the changes at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Those include the positive changes that have taken place in terms of the new management as of December 2013. And then in May 2014, the Customer Satisfaction Agreement was put into place that directly correlates to the new work rules. Once those took effect, we then saw a lot of interest and a major bookings increase.

For the future, we have close to 1.9 million attendees in future business and 2.9 million room nights that will generate more than four billion dollars in total economic impact. In 2014, the convention center accounted for 79% of meetings and convention business. In 2015, 75% of group business was directly related to the convention center.

Skift: What was the motivation behind the development of the CVB’s “Progress & Partnerships” theme, and especially the creation of the town hall?

Graham: We’re focused on partnerships, which is one of the things we bring to the convention industry that’s really starting to set us apart. We hosted the town hall in September to showcase all of the attributes and resources that convention and meeting planners have in Philadelphia to make their meetings successful. So, for example, we had a representative from American Airlines at the town hall who talked about how he works with convention organizers and some of the offerings they provide.

We also hosted an educational fam[iliarization] trip last year, where instead of just showing the hotels and restaurants, we actually had a Wharton program where planners were able to receive CEU credits. It was all on marketing and branding your organization, which can apply across all markets, from scientific, corporate, educational, technology, and that session resounded with all of them.

As part of that fam trip, we also partnered with Comcast who discussed several case studies in the city. Then we held a roundtable discussion and talked about some of the challenges that planners are facing in their markets and how Philadelphia could better partner with them.

So we’re taking our partnerships to a higher level. We’re much more strategic on how we can help meeting and convention planners get a better return on investment, whether that’s sourcing speakers and local experts, or connecting them with the government or universities depending on the purpose of their meeting.

Skift: Have there been any significant shifts in terms of how you’re working with planners booking large conventions in Philadelphia over the last few years?

Graham: Over 60% of the meetings we do now, either in the convention center or the hotels, is oriented around the life sciences. What we’ve really heard from our meeting planners in the last few years in that sector is that assistance with funding is more important then ever, so they’re looking to us to introduce them to area stakeholders to help them build attendance and find new sources of funding.

The American Academy of Neurology hosted their conference here last year along with a Brain Fair, and Bonnie Grant, the executive director of our PHL Life Sciences business development division, was able to put them in contact with the schools in the area to help promote the event. That business development arm is made up of industry leaders including people like the president of the Science Center, so now we’re able to make all of these new connections.

For example, for the DNC in July, they’re looking for a health care provider because one of their initiatives is offering healthcare to attendees who may not have it. They may not be registered. So we connected them with our local network of hospitals and helped them to secure a healthcare provider. That connection with the DNC wouldn’t have been made without our network.

Skift: But where’s the shift exactly? CVBs have always connected visiting groups with local suppliers and vendors.

Graham: We have, but it’s about much more than space, dates and rates now. Our primary focus for years was to be that destination expert, and most of the time the content development and speakers really came from the meeting planners. So we would, for example, help planners set up a fun run around the city, or help secure permits for transportation. Or help with the convention center layout, and put together a hotel package. The services that we offer now go way beyond that. Over the last five years, it’s been much more of a focus on partnerships than ever before, which I think is great, because we’re taking our industry to a different level.

Skift: What would be an example of one of the most innovative services that you offer based on those partnerships?

Graham: One challenge all CVBs have is that building attendance is always first and foremost when an association is looking at a destination. So how can we help with that? What we did, we partnered with the Select Greater Philadelphia economic development agency to provide data mining services, for which we bear the cost. Convention and meeting planners can use that to either find new exhibitors that are in our area, or they can help find new convention attendees. For one event, we did 7,500 data mining calls that resulted in 1,800 new registrations for them.

For associations, their annual convention could be upward of 40-50% of their total revenue, so the pressure that is placed on a meeting planner to have a profitable annual convention is much more in the forefront of their minds, and their leadership minds, than it’s ever been before.

Skift: Associations are also having challenges attracting millennial members. Is that a conversation you have with planners about how you can help drive attendance?

Graham: In terms of millennials, we get that conversation all the time. Philadelphia is one of the fastest growing cities for millennials, so we’ve been talking to our startup neighborhoods, and we ask them what attracts them to Philadelphia. Then we collect that information and give that to our meeting planners so they can advertise and use that in their marketing tools to attract younger planners and attendees to their convention. But a lot of it is just destination appeal, such as the fact that we’re very walkable, there’s the great value, plus more than 400 outdoor cafes and world class cultural venues like the Barnes Foundation.

Skift: Let’s talk about you. Aside from Kitty Ratcliffe in St. Louis and Alison Best in Oakland, we haven’t spoken with many female CVB chiefs in the U.S., because there aren’t too many of you. As a woman, can you provide some context around what you feel your gender brings to your role in the convention industry?

Graham: I would say just coming up in hospitality in general, and being a general manger with Hyatt Hotels at a full-service property at the age of 30, I’m familiar with being in a landscape where men outweigh women in leadership roles. I do think that there is a lot of work that we’ve done in the hospitality and tourism industry over the last 20 years, but I think it’s still a conversation that we should have.

Some of that can be surrounding educational programs to help women get a seat at the table. It also speaks to the importance of choosing board members at CVBs. Are they reflective of men, women and minorities? Because oftentimes the boards are the ones who are going to recommend and/or approve a president of a CVB. So the board development is important, which means selecting a board chair who is open-minded, and who believes in diversity and inclusion as part of their work culture. And fortunately for us here in Philadelphia, diversity and inclusion is not just embedded in hospitality, but it’s a part of the city.

Skift: How so?

Graham: So our recent mayor, Mayor Kenney, named a Diversity Officer, which is the first time that position has been created in the mayor’s administration. So fortunately for me, I am managing a CVB in a city that already values and illustrates diversity and inclusion. I don’t want to discount the progress that we’ve made, because even leading up to the end of my career at Hyatt for 20 years, there were many more female general managers than when I first started with them in 1989. And there were certainly more African American female and male general managers when I left, as well.

So I’m hoping that my appointment may help open up the door for others by making sure my board is diverse. I’m sure Kitty and Alison are a big part of why this door was opened for me, because leaders open doors for other leaders.

Skift: Is Philadelphia’s diversity a selling point for the city? And do you see yourself as a role model?

Graham: It is an advantage for us because it shows that diversity and inclusion are a part of the social fabric of Philadelphia.

Now I have the opportunity to promote the city of Philadelphia to women as a woman, and me happening to be African American certainly bodes well for us, too. In terms of being the first African American, I think anytime you’re the first, there are responsibilities that come with that. Others are watching. Others are expecting and hoping that you are going to open doors for them, and be a role model for them, and all of those things I welcome wholeheartedly.

So it isn’t lost on me that I’m the first. The CVB is 75 years old this year. I wish it did not take as long as it did to have a female as a president, but certainly everything worth having is worth waiting for.

When I was at Hyatt Hotels, I was on the Diversity Council, and I’m proud to say we actually shaped the values at Hyatt in terms of diversity and inclusion. We started a mentorship program. We also tied results of what we did directly back to general manager bonuses, in terms of how we were moving women and minorities into positions of greater responsibility. I’ve always done that so I’ll continue to do it. In addition to that, I was also president of Women in Lodging, which is an initiative by the American Hotel and Lodging Association. So I understand and appreciate the importance of being a mentor, and it’s certainly something that we value and emphasize here in Philadelphia.

Photo Credit: Julie Coker Graham, president and CEO of the Philadelphia CVB. Alison Dunlap / PhillyBiz