Very few organizations enjoy 22 years of service from senior leadership, let alone a CEO. Visit Philadelphia has been immensely fortunate to have Meryl Levitz as its president and CEO since 1996 when Gov. Tom Ridge, Mayor Ed Rendell and Rebecca Rimel touted the "golden promise" of tourism for the Philadelphia region.
The greater Philadelphia we know today — with its vibrant energy infusing Center City, its diverse neighborhoods and its close-by countryside — was not the greater Philadelphia of 1996. The end of the business day did not lead to outdoor happy hours. It led to mass exodus. Broad Street, as a friend recently said, "practically had tumbleweeds rolling down it." Even the idea of staying over for a night in Philadelphia was met with the question, "Why?"
But Meryl Levitz's focus on establishing Philadelphia as a top-rated travel destination changed the perception of the city on a global and national level, and ultimately, in the hearts of Philadelphians. As Meryl is fond of saying, "Philadelphia was an overnight sensation — 20 years in the making."
No doubt, the destination sensation was a collaborative effort, led by Rendell and Rimel, and including Visit Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, and the Independence Visitor Center. Each organization continues to play a unique and critical role in the ongoing success of regional tourism.
But what Visit Philadelphia did under Meryl's remarkable vision and leadership was create a market for leisure tourism that had never really existed. The organization highlighted everything that makes Philadelphia a great place to live, work, and play in clever and highly inclusive ways. Advertising campaigns such as Philadelphia — The Place That Loves You Back®, With Love, Philadelphia XOXO®, and Philadelphia — Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay® changed the way people viewed Philadelphia.
In 2018, visitphilly.com and uwishunu.com together are the most visited city DMO (Destination Marketing Organization) web site in the United States. And Philadelphia regularly tops accolades lists in Forbes, Travel + Leisure, U.S. News & World Report, and many others. These kudos are expected now. In 1996, it was a stretch to believe that people would come to Philadelphia and like it. But they did come. And they didn't just like it. They loved it.
Two decades in, what Philadelphia has achieved as a visitor destination surely exceeds even the wildest expectations of tourism's "golden promise." And Philadelphia continues to set records. In 2017 alone, the greater Philadelphia region welcomed a record 43.3 million visitors and delivered $11.5 billion in economic impact.
Of course, there is still more we can do.
As Meryl prepares to depart her role, and Jeff Guaracino prepares to assume it, it's important to recognize that the decision in 1996 to pursue tourism as an economic driver was not only prescient but transformative. It catapulted Philadelphia into an upper echelon of tourism destinations and created an important space for our diversity to be celebrated. No matter who you are, who you love, what you celebrate, what your passion is, or how you prefer your cheesesteak, Philadelphia welcomes you. As Meryl often says, "There is a place for everyone here."
Meryl Levitz helped create this welcoming place, and her values define the work of Visit Philadelphia today and will continue to do so well into the future. Decision-making within Visit Philadelphia is rooted in the belief that there is indeed a place for everyone. Visit Philadelphia — the staff, the board of directors and the strategic partners — reflect what greater Philadelphia is. And being able to elevate that diversity, whether in an advertising takeover of New York's Penn Station or a TV spot in Boston or on a billboard in Washington, has been a powerful tool in changing Philadelphia's narrative.
For all that Visit Philadelphia has accomplished and for all the promise still to be fulfilled, I can think of no word better than Meryl's favorite rally cry, "Huzzah."
Manuel N. Stamatakis is chairman of the Board of Directors for Visit Philadelphia.