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Global Conversations with: Meryl Levitz, CEO and President of GPTMC
Posted on June 18, 2012
On May 30, 2012, Zabeth Teelucksingh and Hayley Hanafee, for GPA, interviewed Meryl Levitz, marketing guru to the city of Philadelphia and CEO and President of the Greater Philadelphia Marketing Tourism Corporation (GPTMC). Originally from Chicago and trained as a teacher, Meryl has been instrumental in expanding the regional tourism economic impact to $8.7 billion.
In this interview, Meryl explains how she came to lead such a prominent organization and what she believes is most unique about Philadelphia.
How did you become involved with Greater Philadelphia Marketing and Tourism Company?
I was one of the co-founders of the Center City Association of Proprietors in 1978. The idea was to promote Center City [district of Philadelphia] as a shopping and dining destination. Because I knew so much about Center City, I was asked to join the Board of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau (PCVB) in 1982. After a few years, I left the board and joined the staff and became head of tourism. I co-opened the Convention Center, the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing, did a lot of the festivals and special events. We made tourism happen sporadically.
When Ed Rendell became mayor, he and Governor Ridge, and Rebecca Rimell from Pew Charitable Trust thought that tourism, branding, and image should happen consistently—not sporadically. They established GPTMC [The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation] and did a national search for a President and CEO and found me just a couple blocks away.
What are the obstacles to putting Philadelphia on the map as a popular destination?
Hospitality Tourism is a very competitive field. In a number of cities it’s not always left to one organization. As the Chairman of the Philadelphia Convention-Visitors Bureau, Jack Ferguson, frequently says, “They do wholesale; we do retail.” They work with meeting planners, travel agents, associations and tour operators, and we work directly with the consumer and the media.
Philadelphia really has very few hotel rooms for the 5th largest city in the America. You need the rooms not only for peak nights, but also many of these hotels have national advertising campaigns and national reservation services. It’s another way of getting Philadelphia on the map.
How has GPTMC evolved to have such a large online web and social media presence?
In 1997 we had developed a website that was called Gophila.com. We have always been one of the first to realize the power of social media, the power of online advertising, and the power of online to be today’s word of mouth wherever people will tune in and listen. We changed the name to Visitphilly.com and greatly expanded its content. Mayor Street and City Council funded us over two years to take Philly into the social media world, and the key piece of that was Uwishunu—you wish you knew—the best places as a Philly insider’s guide.
The big tipping point “With Art PhiladelphiaTM" came from the arts institutions themselves. They came to us and wanted to work together and use the Barnes not as the finish line but the starting gate to reposition Philadelphia as a compelling must-see, must-do destination. We hired Buzz Marketing Group who came up with tagline “Curate Your Own Experience.” And I came up with “With Art.” The “withi-ness” of it all; everybody coming together. When you do art, you are doing it with the city. You are also doing it with the wonderful restaurant, music, and shopping scene.
One of the big focus points will be not just the keepers of art on the Parkway, but the makers of art who are all throughout the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. A goal of “With Art” is to connect the art that is already recognized to the art that is being created today.
What do you believe makes Philadelphia a global destination?
I think one big thing is an international airport…And we have to add in sports too. Philadelphia has four major sports teams with a lot of personality. We also attract international sporting events whether being bike races, regattas, Ruby Sevens, and Major League Soccer All-Star games. These are tremendous opportunities which everyone has to get together to make it a global opportunity for global growth.
And we frequently hear from our visitors, “Philadelphia is so European.” When pressed what they mean is—the scale, the architecture, the design, the outdoor cafes, the flower boxes, the little shops, the lighting, the bike racks. All of these things strike them as European. And it helps to have trees and parks too.
How does your previous experiences as a teacher relate to your current position as CEO and President of GPTMC?
Marketing really is teaching; marketing is about changing people’s minds about something and opening them up to new possibilities. I feel like that’s what we really do at GPTMC in Philadelphia and the countryside.
Favorite Philadelphia food spots?
I am a Reading Terminal Market person. I love the vibe there, the mix of people, everyone is welcome there. Whether I go there for a duck, a pint of olives or an Amish chicken, I am pretty happy person. I like to sample a lot of little things.
What is the most useful gizmo/electronic aid that you find invaluable while traveling?
I would probably say my hand-written list, kickin’ it old school, and new wave—my iPad…It’s a 4G.
How has Philadelphia uniquely nurtured your vision, if at all?
I continue to feel that Philadelphians frequently get a little too myopic about the situations here. The city problems aren’t only local, they are national ones. There are times when things are specific to Philadelphia and other times we need to take a larger view. I think that’s true about every city, you get so wrapped up in your own world. I encourage people all over the globe to travel more.
…And starting June 1st in every seat pocket you will see a full 75-page section talking about Philadelphia in US Airways magazine. That’s something I felt Philadelphia should have. With Love, with Art, with Philadelphia. It’s the “withi-ness.” Getting people together for a beautiful page after beautiful page really gets across that Philadelphia is worth the trip.
This interview with Meryl Levitz has been edited and condensed from its original version. Edited by Hayley Hanafee for GPA.