Tourism in Philadelphia: The End of an Era
After spending decades putting Philadelphia on the map, Meryl Levitz is stepping down as President and CEO of Visit Philadelphia.
Meryl Levitz remembers a different Philadelphia.
Levitz fell in love with City of Brotherly Love when she arrived more than 40 years ago, relocating with her husband when he accepted a position in the psychiatry department of the University of Pennsylvania. She loved Philadelphia’s exceptional diversity, its unique architecture and design, its walkability.
However, people then didn’t consider Philadelphia an attractive destination, and Levitz admits the city was lacking in some regards.
“I didn’t love how there was no place to eat, no place to shop, nobody on the streets...” Levitz recalled during an interview with AL DÍA. “I really felt somebody could do something about that.”
Then came the 1980s, when developer Bill Rouse proposed constructing a skyscraper that would reach high above the William Penn statue standing atop City Hall, a project that would break Philadelphia’s traditional height limit for the first time. Citywide, the suggestion ignited a heated debate.
“I thought, ‘This city’s coming alive,’” Levitz said.
Rouse succeeded in his mission and went on to begin construction of Liberty Place in 1985, symbolizing the dawn of a new era in Philadelphia.
“(Rouse) said, in a way that I couldn’t, ‘Philadelphia can change,’” Levitz said.
Levitz went on to help accelerate and guide that change as a champion for tourism in Philadelphia. She became the President and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, the region’s official tourism marketing agency, when it was started in 1996. Prior to this role, she served as Vice President of Tourism for the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau and co-founded the Center City Proprietors Association.
Now, after more than 40 years working to put the city on the map, Levitz announced on January 19 that she has made the difficult decision retire from her post with Visit Philadelphia. Despite her unending passion for the Philadelphia region, Levitz said she wants to “pass the baton” while the agency is in a good place, and while she has “energy and ability.”
The Board of Directors of Visit Philadelphia have launched a nationwide search to find Levitz’s replacement. Levitz said she expects to retire within the year but will remain President and CEO until she and the board have identified and hired the right person for the job.
To determine the impact that Levitz has made on Philadelphia’s tourism industry, you only need to check out the numbers. According to statistics compiled by Visit Philadelphia, the area’s tourism business has come a long way since the agency began its advertising efforts (with Levitz at the helm):
In the past two decades, overnight leisure visitation in the region has increased more than 100 percent, growing from about 7 million in 1997 to nearly 15 million in 2016.
In 1996, leisure tourism accounted for 14 percent (250,000) of hotel room nights booked in Center City that year. Now, the number has jumped to 32 percent, comprising more than one million bookings.
Fourteen years ago, Saturday became and has remained the busiest night for Center City hotels. In 2017, Saturdays saw for the first time an average hotel occupancy of 90 percent.
The Philadelphia region enjoyed 42 million domestic visitors in 2016, 88 percent of which were leisure travelers.
The tourism industry has supported more than 100,000 jobs in the region over the past 21 years, accounting for $50 billion in wages.
Under Levitz’s leadership, Visit Philadelphia contributed to this tourism boom in various ways. The agency began by emphasizing visuals in advertising to correct widespread misconceptions about Philadelphia.
“All of our campaigns are extremely visual because we found that people had old pictures of Philadelphia in their heads,” Levitz said. “(They) had no idea what it really looked like.”
In addition, the agency understood that websites “would be a big deal,” Levitz said, so Visit Philadelphia made the region one of the first destinations to have a tourism website. To that end, the group realized early on the importance of blogs and social media in promoting tourism.
Visit Philadelphia also launched some of the nation’s highest-rated tourism slogans, bringing in visitors as well as boosting hometown pride, notably “Philadelphia: The Place that Loves You Back,” “Philly’s More Fun When You Sleep Over,” “With Love, Philadelphia XOXO” and “Philadelphia: Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay.”
“The goal always was to put ‘Philadelphia’ and ‘fun’ in the same sentence,” Levitz said.
Considering the numbers, mission accomplished.
“42 million visitors last year can’t be wrong,” Levitz smiled. “Philly’s fun.”