Jeff Guaracino, who brought gay tourism to television, dies at 48

Jeff Guaracino, President and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, passed away from cancer the afternoon of December 28. He was 48 years old. Known as a gregarious and kind person and for being immensely proud of his native Philadelphia, Guaracino pioneered new business and marketing strategies aimed at increasing LGBTQ tourism. 

Guaracino was born at Jefferson University Hospital and attended Pennsauken High School and Rowan University, where he majored in communications. He started his career as an intern at KYW-TV and CBS Radio in the mid-90s. Joanne Calabria, his friend and colleague at KYW, remembered him fondly.

“No one who met Jeffrey could ever forget him,” Calabria said. “He was the bright light in every room. I don’t know anyone who loved Philadelphia as much as he did. I am so grateful that he was in the position to promote his hometown and its LGBTQ community, because it was the joy of his life.”

After working at the Franklin Institute for 5 years, Guaracino joined Visit Philadelphia (then known as Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation) in 2001 as a director before becoming vice president of communications. It was there in 2003 that he helped create the groundbreaking “Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay” television campaign to bring LGBTQ tourism to the city. The commercial, which launched in conjunction with the Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus (co-founded by Guaracino in 2002), featured a colonial-era gay couple meeting for a date at Carpenter’s Hall. The spot won numerous awards and made Philadelphia the first city to market to LGBTQ tourists via television.

“That one campaign brought LGBTQ visibility to millions,” said Guaracino’s friend Mark Segal. “Jeff saw the potential in the community. He believed in it and he was a huge part of it. Cities all over the world today are learning about and developing LGBTQ tourism because of Jeff’s work.”

Guaracino, who sat on the board of directors of the U.S. Travel Association and other agencies, authored two books on his passion for tourism and travel, “Gay and Lesbian Tourism,” in 2007, and “Handbook of LGBT Tourism and Hospitality: A Guide for Business Practice,” in 2017 with friend and colleague Ed Salvato. He also wrote a travel column for the Philadelphia Gay News, covering places including Berlin, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, and most often, his hometown.

“He literally wrote the book on LGBTQ tourism,” Salvato said. “He stood as mentor to a legion of executives in Philadelphia. He lifted his friends and colleagues. He counts among his circle governors, mayors, judges, legislators, CEOs and titans of industry and even a series of Miss Americas! But he also developed friendships with his apartment building’s service team, mail handlers, the downstairs café owner, asking about their lives and being truly present with them.”

In 2012, Guaracino became the CEO and executive director of the Atlantic City Alliance, where he worked for four years. He returned to Philadelphia in 2016 to serve as President and CEO of Wawa Welcome America, and in October 2018 he became President and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, leading the organization that put him on the map.

“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,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement. “A fierce champion and promoter of his hometown, Jeff was also a proud advocate for the LGBTQ community. With his trademark energy, charismatic charm, and never-ending wit, he helped make Philadelphia the welcoming city and destination that it proudly is today.”

In a 2011 interview with the PGN, Guaracino talked about people who inspired him during his travels, including a gay tour operator in Israel and the founder of Shanghai Gay Pride.

“As gay people, they take risks every day and I admire that… I want to meet people like that who are at the forefront of a movement, who are doing it in really, really tough places and making a difference. They are the modern-day Barbara Gittings, the modern-day Frank Kameny.”

During the 50th anniversary celebration of the Stonewall Rebellion in 2019, Guaracino and Visit Philadelphia helped honor such LGBTQ pioneers by co-creating the “Road To Stonewall” float, which featured participants of the Annual Reminder marches from 1965-69 together with younger community members.

During the float’s unveiling, Guaracino talked about the role Philadelphia has played in the LGBTQ rights movement. “This is the first time that the history of the LGBTQ community will be told comprehensively and authoritatively to the world through mass media. Our city has played an essential role in this civil rights movement, and we’ve worked hard to let people know they are always welcome in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.”

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, as he battled cancer, Guaracino continued to support Philadelphia, its tourism and its LGBTQ community. In his final column for PGN, he wrote about his recent trip to Hawaii and the best ways for people to travel safely.

“We traveled this road of life together through every major milestone for 30+ years,” his friend Bruce Yelk posted on Facebook. “I can’t even possibly do him justice trying to describe what he meant to me and Philadelphia. He was a true friend: Kind, smart, caring, honest, and loyal like no other.”

Guaracino is survived by his brother, Jerry Guaracino, and his fiancé, Josh Thomas.