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If longtime Visit Philadelphia president and CEO Meryl Levitz had been born more of a gifted musician, the tourism experience in Philadelphia would look a whole lot different today.
Levitz announced earlier this year that she will retire at the end of 2018 after a successor is hired, bringing to a close a 40-year career promoting Philadelphia tourism. Forty years of promoting a single destination is a rarity these days for any tourism official, so Levitz’s highly regarded tenure is a lesson book on the ups, and the downs, for an entire industry.
Levitz played the piano growing up and is mulling a date with a Cajun accordion that’s sitting in her study at home once she has more time to practice technique. Hence, her love of musical metaphors.
“I’m not at all musically talented but I want to make the music come on for Philadelphia,” said the 70-year-old Illinois native who has lived in Philly most of her life. “I want to make the music come on for Philadelphians, I want to make it come on for the people who work with me, and then I want to turn up the volume.”
The spin has always been, of course, that Philadelphia has what anyone could want in an urban visitor experience. Thriving arts, nightlife, diverse culture, award-winning food, walkability, public transport, and connectivity.
Located within a five-hour drive of roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population, Philadelphia and its surrounding region are easily accessible for domestic and international tourists and some 43.3 million people visited the destination in 2017, a record high.
On a recent muggy morning, it was difficult not to catch the rhythms of Philadelphia. The average walking pace on a Center City sidewalk isn’t as hurried as that of midtown Manhattan. But many people are on a mission to get somewhere, and there’s certainly plenty of things around town to get to. At a Primo Hoagies sandwich shop, part of a chain that was founded in Philadelphia, on Market Street a few blocks from Independence National Historical Park in the Old City, local businessmen and women and tourists queued up for their lunch selections. It’s a peaceful co-existence of visitor and locals that you don’t always see in different destinations.
Situated in a tall building in Center City, appropriately positioned to be in the center of the action that it markets on a daily basis, Visit Philadelphia’s office is what you’d expect on first glance from a typical large city tourism board. But what stands out behind the reception desk is the organization’s original logo from the late 1990s, juxtaposed with current logos and branding along the office’s corridors, that serve as a reminder of how far both it and the city have come in the past 20-plus years.
For the past 22 years, Levitz has been at the helm of Visit Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization that she helped establish in 1996 before being chosen as its first president and CEO. Before that, Levitz spent 20 or so years working for economic development and tourism-related organizations in Philly, including the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau.
She has had her successes, for sure, and her challenges — and even weathered a local scandal just two years ago.
When she helped launch Visit Philadelphia, the city was still known as the “City of Brotherly Love,” but tourists and local politicians alike weren’t giving the travel industry much love and didn’t believe they had a compelling story to entice people to visit from near and far.
Philadelphia’s population was larger in the 1950s than it was when Visit Philadelphia was founded 40 years later, and millennials and immigrants were the two biggest groups to repopulate the hardscrabble city in recent years.
What’s also telling is that a new Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia study found that many residents in Philadelphia’s gentrifying neighborhoods, which Visit Philadelphia increasingly promotes, aren’t being displaced. The same can’t be said for other destinations like New York City as more tourism boards promote neighborhood tourism that often leads to higher costs of living and poorer quality of life for residents.
“I would always hear that ‘Philadelphia’s in a state of permanent potential,’” said Levitz. “And I thought, ‘Oh, you know, let’s activate that.’ I felt that many of the city’s hypotheses about itself were false, such as our location is a bad thing. We’re sandwiched between D.C. and New York. I said, ‘That’s not a bad thing if you take advantage of it. It could be a really strong thing.’”
Super Bowl Win for Tourism, Too
Fresh off the Philadelphia Eagles’ first Super Bowl win earlier this year, Philadelphia is undeniably having a moment. Between the 2015 papal visit, to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and the 2017 NFL draft, the city has recently made a name for itself as a capable host of major national events and hasn’t fumbled its time in the spotlight. The city also has the most James Beard-awarded restaurants of any city in the United States, an accolade Visit Philly doesn’t let go unnoticed. In 2015, Philadelphia also became the first U.S. city to get World Heritage City status.
Levitz considers the 2018 Philadelphia Eagles’ win as the most recent turning point for the destination. “I really do feel that the Super Bowl was a tipping point in how Philadelphians themselves see Philadelphia,” she said. “It was like all of a sudden they understood, oh, that’s why there are so many articles about Philly. That’s why so many people are coming to Philly. That’s why so many people are moving to Philly. I think before that, many of them were a little befuddled. Like ‘Oh, we’ve been here a long time, yeah we had the Pope, we had the DNC, we had Made in America.’ But the Super Bowl and sports like that just went straight to the heart.”
“And it reminded us how much [locals] count on us to be their voice,” said Levitz. “When we get a [new Philadelphia Phillies player] or a [new Philadelphia Flyers player] etc, we make sure we welcome them on a billboard. That pride is really important.”
Sports figures have also been among the most resonant personalities in her life. “The great [Wayne] Gretzky said, ‘Don’t go for where the puck is, go for where it’s going to be’,” said Levitz. “I often tell myself you’re already doing that. But the one that gets me is, ‘you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.’ So let’s take that and talk about it, and talk about some of the shots that we’re not taking.”
Marketing an Old City as a New Destination
Parallel to Levitz’s love of music is her passion for entrepreneurship. It’s not very common to hear a tourism board talk about itself as a testbed for innovation or for its CEO to call herself an entrepreneur since these organizations are often bureaucratic, highly political, and sometimes aren’t viewed as key economic drivers in communities.
“Thanks to our founders, we were founded as an independent nonprofit,” said Levitz. “If we were part of the city, or part of the state, or something else, or part of a chamber, we never would have been able to be this nimble.”
Many travel executives talk about staying in their swim lanes despite distractions, and perhaps this is one way Levitz resembles her colleagues in the industry. “I’d love to fund pre-K for every kid, but that’s not what we’re here for,” said Levitz. “We’re very generous I think, and gracious in what we can do, but we’ve kept our identity pretty strong and we’re not bureaucratic. We do have loads of meetings, and we attend loads of meetings, but we don’t get involved in the bureaucracy.”
Her desire to steer clear of bureaucracy underscores her ability to be quick-footed, collaborative, and entrepreneurial. “All these CEOs are made of Teflon and I think because Meryl is so tenacious in believing in the idea and believing in the people, it’s like the idea comes first,” said Rakia Reynolds, entrepreneur-in-residence at Visit Philadelphia.. “Meryl is always telling us, ‘I have this great idea and we will all work it out as it goes along.’ When you look at all of the greatest entrepreneurs, it’s like they did it, they didn’t have it all worked out in the beginning, but they believed in what they were doing and they believed in the people around them.”
A few years ago Levitz was keen to buy Reynolds’ business, Skai Blue Media, because she admired its own entrepreneurial spirit. Reynolds turned down the offer but saw the synergies between her work and Visit Philadelphia’s, and proposed an entrepreneur-in-residence arrangement that’s become a trend at larger companies.
“You typically see them in Silicon Valley,” said Reynolds. “Pitching it to her, Meryl was all for it. She’s such an entrepreneur because as an entrepreneur, you’re a risk taker.”
That entrepreneurial spirit has its roots in the organization’s beginning. Levitz, her original team, and the concept of promoting Philadelphia as a place people would willingly visit were all experiments at first. City and state officials and The Pew Charitable Trusts founded the organization in 1996 as a three-year experiment to prove that it could bring leisure visitation and economic development to the area.
“People who are willing to put their name on something, and really try it, they know they’re not going to get fired if it doesn’t work,” said Levitz. “That’s not the culture here. You better be sure you understand why it didn’t work. We’d very much like you to understand that, and to avoid that the next time, but nothing bad is going to happen to you if something doesn’t work.”
Visit Philadelphia was founded during the dot-com bubble but its early days predated mass consumer internet adoption. For that reason, in 1997, the organization launched its first national TV commercial as part of its “The Place That Loves You Back” campaign, and a year later it launched gophila.com (now visitphilly.com), one of the first U.S. tourism board websites.
Levitz had the support of then-Mayor Ed Rendell and a handful of local civic and economic development organizations as she set out to do what some told her was nearly impossible. But there were some skeptics.
“I remember being told early on, ‘young lady, the waterfront was designed to be a place where nothing should happen,’” said Levitz. “I remembering responding, ‘With all due respect, there are enough places in Philadelphia where nothing happens,’ and I think about that a lot because that really crystallized for me what we were here to do, which is to make more things happen and make Philadelphia more fun.”
Levitz sought advice and counsel from former colleagues. “I remembering telling the head of the waterfront, Dominic Sabatini, ‘Hey, look. This is what I really want to do and this is why I think it would work.’ He asked me, ‘Well, nobody’s shooting at you, right?’ I’d say, well, that’s a good measure. Nobody is shooting at me. I can get through this.”
Many Philadelphia hotels were also wary of the kind of impact the organization could have. Levitz said many general managers didn’t see how leisure travel could make as big a dent in their bottom lines as business and convention stays.
Fast forward 20 years and more than 33 percent of the city’s 3.3 million hotel room nights were for leisure in 2017 and leisure has been the fastest-growing visitor segment since Visit Philadelphia was founded. In 1997, leisure represented only 14 percent of all Center City hotel room nights booked.
Friday and Saturday nights, which the organization was in large part established to beef up for the city’s hotels, had on average 82 and 90 percent occupancy, respectively, last year.
By 1999, the organization proved its worth and showed it had staying power, as the city council that year passed a one percent hotel tax increase that established permanent funding for Visit Philadelphia.
Levitz considers securing the hotel tax as one of the biggest challenges of her tenure. “It was almost like establishing a war room,” she said. “It was easier to get people outside of Philadelphia to think it’s a great destination than people inside Philadelphia. This was a huge victory for us because we had to prove that we would be growing the pie and not taking away from it. There wasn’t joy throughout the land when we first started.”
Still, tourism marketing funding at the state level has been slashed during the last decade. Pennsylvania had more than $30 million to market the state in 2008 but in 2018 only has $2 million. Nearby states such as New York and Maryland get $37 million and $12 million, respectively, to promote tourism.
“These cuts plunged Pennsylvania towards 47th for tourism funding,” said Levitz. “Despite all the new business development, state lawmakers didn’t think it was valuable. In the last seven years we’ve still received a state grant almost every year, but the consistent funding that any DMO needs to execute a long-range campaign and build equity over time, we haven’t been able to get that to return.”
Indeed, the challenges continued for Levitz when the chief financial officer for Visit Philadelphia pleaded guilty in 2016 to embezzling $200,000 from the organization over seven years and using it for personal expenses such as furs and pricey restaurants.
Levitz said of the case: “When we discovered the problem, six years ago, we followed protocol and immediately informed our board, funders, and city and state officials. The board managed the process and we stayed focused on our mission. We didn’t miss a beat.”
Levitz claims her imagination isn’t anything special. But her former career as an English teacher and knack for knowing how to tell a story in the digital age doesn’t make that easy to believe.
“Maybe I picked it up through being an English teacher and always being given the fastest kids, the slowest kids, and the ones in between and figuring out how you had to talk differently to them, and loving them all,” said Levitz. “When I announced that I was leaving, I had hundreds of emails, phones, and texts but the ones that puzzled me most were pretty much all men who said, ‘I really admired and watched your leadership style.’ And I said to myself, ‘I’m not even sure what it is.’ One of my ex-board chairmen said to me once, ‘You have more power than you think and you’re not using it and you need to use it.’”
She isn’t trying to be remembered; rather, she’s trying to make sure Philadelphia stays top-of-mind for travelers. “When people talk to me about legacy, it’s like, are you kidding?” she said. “Can you even name five mayors who were before the ones that you had? People aren’t going to remember that. But the legacy would be in what each of these people is able to do. Some people said to me, ‘I never thought I could do that, but here I am, and I’m doing it for the third time and now I’m going to be doing something else,’ and then what they enable somebody else to do, and the instrument that the next person gets, and all of that.”
“Even though it’s human nature to feel that one person is sort of responsible for a whole world of things, I know better,” said Levitz. “It’s the team here, so I feel really good about that.”
Philadelphia hardly mirrors Disney World, but Levitz said she considers her team as cast members whom she hires for longevity.
“We’re all part of that song,” said Levitz. “And [our staff has] the words that we need to be able to put out, and we have the means to be able to get it out. And so I think that there’s a value, there’s a connection, there’s a trust, and I think our team has really heightened their sense of what’s out there and what’s new and what’s special about them. Because sometimes they’re bound by the threshold at the front door. They don’t get across it enough.”
Levitz has also been a mentor to many young professionals both in and outside the travel industry in Philadelphia throughout her career, experiences where she considers herself as a student just as much as a teacher.
A mentoring program at the Union League in Philadelphia stands out. “I was really surprised that a lot of the people in the program were 30- and 40-year-old guys,” said Levitz. “And I was really taken by that. And part of why they were there is, in Philadelphia, people can get the first job, they can get the second job, but it’s really hard to find that third job. Because the pyramid goes like that. And some of them felt, okay, well maybe I don’t need that job, but I want to be happier in this job, or if an opportunity comes along, I want to be better positioned.”
The soon-to-reopen Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia in Center City, which closed in 2015 to reopen on the top 12 floors of the new 60-story Comcast Center in early 2019, has watched the area transform since it originally opened in the 1980s to a place people want to hang around at night. The hotel will be the tallest in Philadelphia and has been influenced by the growth of luxury products elsewhere in the city.
Some 15 new or renovated hotels are coming online in the city in 2018 and 2019. The nine new hotels that will open will add nearly 2,000 more rooms to Philadelphia.
“From a guy who was running the [original Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia] restaurant years ago and would have engagement on that level to then have traveled throughout the U.S. for the last 13-plus years at other Four Seasons Hotels, but always keeping my eye back on what was happening in Philadelphia, it was so neat to me to see the continual growth, the continual exposure, the continual story that was being told about the city and now to come back and be part of that,” said Ben Shank, the hotel’s general manager.
Shank told the story of how Levitz would frequently have lunch meetings at the hotel, which is only a few blocks from Visit Philadelphia’s office, but would often forget to return her coat check tag (pictured below). The hotel decided to gift Levitz her tag as a token of appreciation as she looks ahead to retirement.
The moniker Visit Philadelphia, it turns out, is a slight shortcoming Levtiz feels as she reflects on her career.
“Many people call us ‘Visit Philly’ and if I was really good at this I could have done a better job at branding my own organization,” she quipped. “But if people decide after seeing Philadelphia that they want to come back and they think of us as ‘Philly,’ we’re thrilled.”
Unlike many tourism board CEOs, Levitz said she kept a distance from state and national industry associations. “I generally delegated that kind of networking to people who were better networkers than I,” she said. “I sometimes thought that I should be more active. I guess I’m one of the DMO people who are in the office more than being out except I do meet locally and regionally with tons of organizations.”
The organization was also a little early in telling travelers to stay for three nights when it started its ongoing hotel package campaign nearly 20 years ago, said Levitz. “The leap from two nights to three was too fast, but now the idea of three nights is not unthinkable,” she said.
Telling a Story
Marketing to African American or LGBTQ travelers may seem commonplace at many U.S. tourism boards and others around the world in 2018. But when Visit Philadelphia began talking to both groups more than a decade ago, it was seen as one of the biggest risks Levitz’s team had taken to date.
“In my head, I was thinking, ‘well, who might be for us, who might be against us,’ and I always kind of evaluated that,” said Levitz. “The horrific tragedy of 9/11 gave us the opportunity to take that risk. We had people calling after seeing our first commercial promoting the new LGBTQ hotel packages and asking, ‘I’m not gay, but I really like that hotel package. Can I book that?’”
Reynolds recalled how Levitz constantly reminds her team that every story and piece of content regardless of what medium it appears on must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
When the New York Times writes a story about Philadelphia as the sixth NYC borough, that’s because someone had a great idea, said John Grady, president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, who has known Levitz for decades. “It takes 20 years to build a city’s brand,” he said. “Meryl made the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ slogan relevant. It’s not just a slogan at the airport. We’ve also worked with her a lot this past year about Amazon’s HQ2 and how to brand the city for that bid.”
Grady said that Levitz saw the difference between being a marketing organization and building a broader sense of what Philadelphia had to offer. “When Mayor Randell wanted to target a major political convention and build a new convention center 25 years ago, the major rally cry was to build 2,000 new hotel rooms in downtown, at the time only had about 5,000 rooms downtown,” he said. “Today we have more than 11,000 hotel rooms downtown. Tourism and hospitality is probably 10 percent of the jobs in our city. Opening up tourism as other industries declined have replaced manufacturing jobs from 50 years ago.”
One story Levitz will miss the most when she leaves later this year is the one she gets to tell at local stores when she’s asked to enter her email, firstname.lastname@example.org, at checkout counters and sales associates instantly recognize Visit Philly and what it stands for.
But the act of checking her email won’t be missed, said Levitz. She’s agreed to continue to do just that and lead leisure marketing efforts for Philadelphia until her successor is named (the search is still ongoing but has narrowed), and intends to stay involved in the organization in some capacity.
Levitz is not exactly sure what she’ll do once her tenure ends, but she is confident that the music won’t cut out as soon as her inbox does.
Editor’s Note: On September 6, 2018, Visit Philadelphia announced it hired Jeff Guaracino as its new president and CEO effective October 29, 2018. Guaracino previously held leadership roles at Visit Philadelphia for more than a decade and is currently the president and CEO of Philadelphia’s Welcome America.