Departing Visit Philadelphia CEO talks LGBT tourism efforts

Meryl Levitz, founding president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, noted what sparked the tourism-marketing agency’s campaign “Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay.”

“Our initial research had shown us that a lot of people felt that Philadelphia might mean ‘City of Brotherly Love’ but they still wanted to know that they would be welcome. It was really important to get out an [invite] beyond our normal invitation,” Levitz said of the campaign, which was launched in 2003.

Since then, the agency has attracted millions of LGBT tourists. However, after 22 years, efforts to increase LGBT tourism will be under a new leader.

Visit Philadelphia announced Friday that Levitz will depart her post by the end of the year. The agency’s board of directors established a committee and engaged executive-search firm Diversified Search to undertake the national search for a new CEO. Levitz will continue in her current role throughout the end of the year to ensure a seamless transition for the individual who will take on the CEO position.

Levitz said she made her decision upon reflecting on her husband’s death in July 2016 and her birthday in April. With her contract expiring soon, Levitz made a personal decision.

“AlI of those things came together to say to me, ‘Well, you don’t have as many decades in front of you as you had behind you.’ It might be good to see what else you might like in this world while you still have the ability to put a few brain cells together,” Levitz joked.

However, she also made the decision on a professional note.

“Visit Philadelphia is just rocking and rolling,” Levitz said. “It’s never been stronger, never been better. We have an amazing staff and an amazing board. We’ve accomplished so much and I thought, I dont have to worry about this organization. We have the biggest budget that we’ve had in quite awhile so I brought it up to my board and said, ‘I think this would be a good time.’ It had to end sometime. I think now is the time.”

Levitz said that LGBT people were representative of Philadelphia but the community was not represented in the city’s traveling population. The agency ultimately put together a tourism caucus, which included the efforts of Wawa Welcome America CEO and PGN columnist Jeff Guaracino and PGN publisher Mark Segal.

While the agency wanted to be proactive in LGBT-tourism efforts, Levitz said the leadership also wanted to do it “authentically.”

“We’re not a foam party destination. We have history. We have heart. We have culture. We have fine dining,” she said. “[We wanted to] keep it tied in with history, love, and the history of LGBT people in Philly.”

Visit Philadelphia featured the first openly gay television commercial aired by a destination. The agency also printed LGBT-inclusive brochures and marketing campaigns with help from communications and marketing experts who were experts in LGBT issues.

Since then, Visit Philadelphia has been seen as an expert in attracting LGBT tourists. Representatives from the agency have been invited to conferences and speaking engagements to consult in these efforts.

“Our feeling has always been that we want the industry stronger. We want the gay population to feel welcome everywhere,” Levitz said. “This isn’t information we want to just keep to ourselves.”

The agency has also continually supported and sponsored LGBT-inclusive efforts such as Pride and AIDS Fund Philly’s GayBINGO!

According to economic-consulting agency Econsult Solutions, Inc., tourism and hospitality efforts have seen 100,000 jobs for Greater Philadelphia residents supported, delivering $50 billion in wages. The tourism and hospitality industry also generated $10 billion in local and state taxes.

Visit Philadelphia’s websites, and Uwishunu, also have received more than 29-million page views.

Paula Butler, the agency’s vice president of communications, praised Levitz’s leadership.

“It’s very rare to find an executive, a leader like her, who listens to everyone.”

Manuel N. Stamatakis, chair for the board of directors, will oversee the search process for the agency’s new CEO. He said Levitz is leaving a “legacy of organizational excellence.”

“[The new CEO] won’t have to go through what Meryl did to get us to where we are,” Stamatakis said. “They’re just going to have to figure out how to move us beyond where we are.”

Levitz acknowledged the work of her team and looked toward the future of the city.

“Everybody is part of this story. It wasn’t one person alone. Everybody wrote this book. Philly is not done. We haven’t come to the end of the story.”