Jeff Guaracino, 48, the CEO of Visit Philadelphia and a tourism leader who worked to boost the economies of Philly and Atlantic City, died Tuesday after fighting cancer.
As the head of Visit Philadelphia — the region’s official tourism marketing agency — Mr. Guaracino was in charge of drawing visitors to the city’s landmarks, hotels, and restaurants. He had led the group since 2018 and recently oversaw campaigns and partnerships to rebuild the hospitality and tourism sector in the wake of the pandemic.
Mr. Guaracino died peacefully at his Philadelphia home, his family announced in a Facebook post Wednesday morning. Through a spokesperson, the family declined to share specifics about Mr. Guaracino’s illness.
“With heavy hearts we inform you that we have lost a cherished family member, partner, and deeply loyal friend,” family members wrote. “Jeff was an inspiring leader, passionate traveler, skilled author and writer, teacher, learner, mentor, and role model.”
Before taking the helm at Visit Philadelphia, Mr. Guaracino was the chief executive of the nonprofit Welcome America, orchestrating the annual collection of July 4 events in Philadelphia. He also served as executive director of the Atlantic City Alliance, a New Jersey marketing agency tasked with promoting the gambling resort amid casino closures and Hurricane Sandy. He notably led efforts to correct erroneous reports that the 2012 storm destroyed Atlantic City’s Boardwalk.
Mayor Jim Kenney recruited Mr. Guaracino to return to Philadelphia in 2016 to run Welcome America. Mr. Guaracino extended the festival to a weeklong celebration that tied in the city’s museums, offered free movie screenings, and honored hometown heroes — in addition to fireworks and concerts — said Geoff Gordon, northeast regional president for Live Nation.
“That was a huge passion for him, to get people from around the world, around the region, and really highlighting what Philadelphia has to offer,” Gordon said. “I think that was one of the many events that he touched and reimagined.”
A Philadelphia native, Mr. Guaracino had an unstoppable work ethic that started when he was a teen, those who knew him said. He was so impatient to get out in the world that he lied about his age to be an usher in a movie theater, said Joanne Calabria, a close friend and former vice president of public affairs for CBS TV stations.
Calabria gave Mr. Guaracino his first job as a communications assistant at KYW-TV and CBS Radio. A family friend, she knew Mr. Guaracino when he was a toddler and hired him as an intern when he was in his early 20s. He excelled so much that she and her bosses didn’t want him to leave, so they created a position for him.
“He’s probably one of the best networkers I’ve ever seen, but it didn’t come from a business perspective. It came from a love of people,” Calabria said.
He was also a leader in the LGBTQ community. He wrote two books: 2007′s Gay and Lesbian Tourism: The Essential Guide to Marketing and 2017′s Handbook of LGBT Tourism and Hospitality: A Guide for Business Practice, which he coauthored with Ed Salvato. He wrote a travel column for the Philadelphia Gay News, too, and helped found the Philadelphia chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
Mr. Guaracino most recently resided in Society Hill and was a graduate of Rowan University and Camden County Community College. He also served as director of communications for the Franklin Institute. Before leading the agency in 2018, he previously spent 11 years at Visit Philadelphia, from 2001 through 2012, as a director and later vice president of communications.
“The best PR guy in town,” said Marcia Gelbart, a former Inquirer reporter who covered tourism. “He was authentic and he just knew how to deal with reporters. He knew what reporters wanted to hear and didn’t want to hear, and he didn’t cross boundaries.”
Manny Stamatakis, Visit Philadelphia’s board chairman, said the nonprofit agency is “committed to carrying on the work that meant so much to Jeff — promoting the Philadelphia region as a must-visit travel destination.” The statement did not name an interim successor.
Mayor Kenney called Mr. Guaracino “a fierce champion and promoter of his hometown.”
“Jeff had a deep love of his family and colleagues, and he left an indelible mark on the place he was most passionate about — his beloved Philadelphia,” Kenney said in a statement. “With his trademark energy, charismatic charm, and never-ending wit, he helped make Philadelphia the welcoming city and destination that it proudly is today.”
He is survived by his brother, Jerry. A visitation with Guaracino’s family will be held Tuesday at 2 p.m., followed by mass at 3:30 p.m., at Old St. Mary’s Church at 252 S. 4th Street in Philadelphia.
Hours before he died, Mr. Guaracino got to see his beloved city one last time. He asked a friend to drive him through Center City to see the Christmas tree outside City Hall, Calabria said.
“He was so happy,” she said. “It was almost as though he was saying goodbye to the city he loved so much.”