Jeff Guaracino: Philly fan and gay-travel guru

Jeff Guaracino

Jeff Guaracino passed away December 28, 2021. We are re-running this interview, which was done in August 2011, in his memory.

If you’re gay and live in Philadelphia, you’ve probably gotten a giggle or two from the slogan, “Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay,” an award-winning marketing campaign developed by Jeff Guaracino and his colleagues at the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation.

An avid traveler and writer Guaracino was recently nominated vice chair of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, and previously served as vice president of the Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus, an organization he cofounded in 2002. We spoke to Guaracino about some of his favorite things in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.

So you’re one of our biggest cheerleaders: Are you actually from Philadelphia?

Yes, I was born right here at Jefferson [University] Hospital.

What did your parents do?

My mother was a jeweler; she was a graduate gemologist. She had a really hard work ethic. She was also one of the first women blackjack dealers and pit bosses in Atlantic City. My father worked for the government.

What was your favorite thing to do as a kid? 

I always loved walking around Philadelphia, exploring new places and visiting favorites like the Franklin Institute and the Zoo, walking along Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Ninth Street market, discovering Chinatown and really getting to know the city. During the summer I didn’t go to camp, so my mother would let me hang out in museums and places like that while she was working. Then for a few weeks while she was working at the shore, we’d get to go to the beach. It was a very authentic Philadelphia upbringing. Oh, and my aunt had an in-ground pool, so me and my brother and all my cousins would hang out there and swim. I had a large extended family.

I’ve said before that I miss the time when kids were allowed to do things on their own and not be constantly supervised. It must have been fun exploring on your own.

Yeah, I’m 38 and it’s a different world now than it was when I was a kid. I think parents these days need to be cautious. I think the big difference is imagination. I didn’t have all the electronic and video games they do now, so I had to be imaginative and creative to amuse myself. It’s something that helps me in my job every day today.

And tell me about that job.

I’m vice president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation and the VP of communications. I started right after 9/11 so I’ve been there about 10 years. I’ve been through two of the biggest challenges facing the travel industry, 9/11 and the great recession. GPTMC started in 1997 and, since they got started, there’s been a stunning increase in overnight leisure visitation to Philadelphia. Our campaign, “Philly’s more fun when you sleep over,” was an award-winning campaign, and of course “Philadelphia, get your history straight and your nightlife gay,” which we launched in 2003, is still a benchmark in LGBT tourism. More and more, people are finding Philadelphia as a destination spot, so we’re really growing — more restaurants, more things to do. And what fun, my job is to promote this great city and region!

Do you travel a lot?

I do. I travel a lot for work and then personally I like to travel quite a bit. I wrote a book that came out in 2008, “Gay and Lesbian Tourism: The Essential Guide for Marketing.” That was the first book published on the subject. It’s been a worldwide hit and, as a result, I’ve been invited to travel the world and speak about GLBT tourism marketing. I got to go to Tel Aviv when they launched their LGBT tourism campaign and spoke last year in Buenos Aires, Argentina. They’re the first country in South America to allow same-sex marriages and I was there when the president signed it into law, which was amazing. I’ll be speaking in Hawaii soon because they are vying to become the No. 1 gay honeymoon destination. I was in Prince Edward Island to help them start an LGBT campaign there. So I get invitations to travel all over. I’m really excited because I was just named vice chair of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association and I’m working on a second book!

What’s a good travel tip?

Just get out there and do it. Really travel, not just a trip to the shore. Go places where you are going to meet different people and explore other cultures. I travel to learn about myself and other people. It’s my mantra, and I wish other people would seek that experience for themselves and their families as well.

Favorite secret spot in Philadelphia?

It’s not so secret, but I love Fairmount Park — from the new trails along the banks of the Schuylkill River to the new Race Street Pier, a great green urban space, to the Morris Arboretum, I love parks and Fairmount in particular. If I had to pinpoint a spot, I’d say the azalea gardens outside the Museum of Art.

I love driving people to the top of the steps at night to see the view of the city.

Oh, that’s an amazing view and it’s getting better with the Comcast Center and the Cira building. It’s such a nice combination of the old and the new. What people most remark about Philadelphia is that from the cobblestone streets to the modern skyscrapers, we have a really European feel. People love it.

What was your favorite class in school?

It was always social studies and current events. To this day, you’ll see me walking around with multiple newspapers and magazines under my arm, or my iPad — anything that I can use to get the latest information.

Where did you go to school?

I stayed locally and went to Camden County College first to save money, and then transferred to Rowan University. I was lucky enough to receive federal grants and loans to go to school, and I really worry about the new budget cuts that threaten financial help for students like I was. It’s scary.

What was your major?

Communications. I was going to be a journalist, but in my sophomore year I was introduced to public relations and communications and decided that it was for me.

What was your first job?

I did an internship at KYW-TV, which is now CBS3, and then went to the Franklin Institute for five years, which was a great place to work. And I’ve been with GPTMC for the last 10 years. It’s been a privilege to work there.

What’s the biggest misconception about Philadelphia?

I think people don’t quite know how to visualize the city. They’re a little confused: Is it old, is it modern? They might have skewed images from watching something like the “Rocky” movies. They don’t know how much we have to offer, which makes it even more important to market through pictures, through video footage, the Travel Channel, through Facebook. We want people to see just how great Philadelphia is.

What’s a favorite event here?

That’s hard; there are so many. I’m a festival guy, so I guess I’d say the many amazing festivals we have here. I love New Year’s Eve weekend with the Mummers parade and the whole Welcome America! festival leading up to July 4, the Fringe Festival and all the gay Pride events from Equality Forum to the Gay Pride Festival to QFest. It’s hard to pick just one. In fact, I just went to a new one recently, the Northern Liberties Festival and it was really well done, a lot of fun.

Any hobbies?

Primarily travel, but I’ve recently taken up cycling and I enjoy being out there with nature.

Something or someone who really inspired you during your travels?

Russell Lord is an inbound-tour operator in Israel. He and his husband were the first couple to have the country recognize their marriage. They have to worry about safety but they’re so courageous about promoting the country that they know and love to people all over the world. As gay people, they take risks every day and I admire that. They also have a marvelous array of friends from Jordan and all over the Middle East. Those are the people who inspire me. There’s a woman that I want to meet who cofounded Shanghai Gay Pride. They had their first LGBT film festival during the gay Pride event under scary circumstances. 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.

Somewhere you’d like to visit?

The country of Bhutan is on my list. They actually do an official measure of “Gross National Happiness.” They use it as an indicator to measure quality of life or social progress, and any proposed policies have to go under a GNH review to see how they will affect the people. Gotta love a country that cares about happiness! You have to have an official invitation from the government to go there and then you pay a fee and all your expenses are taken care of. I’m hoping to go soon. But, you know, there are so many places to visit and discover, even here in the States or just in Pennsylvania, there are amazing places your readers would be surprised to discover.

I agree. Just here in the city, I love to take people over to the Japanese House or the Wagner Institute and they’re amazed these places are right here under our noses. So back to you: What’s the best advice you got from your parents? 

Be who you are, do what you say you’re going to do, follow your instincts and trust in God. That was passed from my grandfather to my parents to me. Honesty and integrity were not negotiable. No gray lines: Either you are or you’re not.

So speaking of being yourself, when did you come out?

I knew I was gay early on, but I didn’t know there was a word for it until my teenage years. I had a good coming-out experience with the family and I’ve been out at the workplace almost all of my professional life.

An early sign that you were gay?

I was a kid and watching Phil Donahue do a program on gay and lesbian people. I’m sure at the time it was groundbreaking, right? Well, I don’t know that, but I know it was the first I’d seen of gay people. Watching the program, I knew there was something about it that connected with me. I think it’s really important for people like Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen and other straight people like Phil who bring/brought our community out of the darkness to do what they do. It’s important for anybody with a platform, whether you’re a blogger or an artist, to help bring us to the masses.

Describe a favorite relative.

My brother. He’s raised four wonderful kids and that’s not easy to do in today’s environment.

You’re a snappy dresser. Whose wardrobe would you want?

Well, I have help, but probably George Clooney’s. He’s always impeccably dressed.

If you could un-invent any invention, what would it be?

E-mail! [Laughs.] E-mail for sure. I prefer when people call me.

Last good meal?

I went to the farmer’s market at Head House Square on Sunday and had a delicious salad with all locally grown produce. Locally grown is the best.

Are you a green aficionado? 

I think the health of our communities is important to all of us. Everything from the environment to education to healthcare to equal treatment are issues that are important to the LGBT community, but they’re concerns that are important across the board. We need to care about everyone. We need to fight these issues together and make a better city.

What’s a historical event you wished you could have witnessed? 

That’s easy. The Annual Reminder outside of Independence Hall. It was the first public demonstration for LGBT rights, and it happened right here in Philadelphia years before Stonewall. It was designed to remind the American people that LGBT people did not enjoy basic civil-rights protections. There’s a state historical marker commemorating the event in front of Independence Hall. Yeah, that’s an easy one, I would have loved to have been there with Barbara [Gittings] and Kay [Lahusen] and Frank [Kameny] and all those brave people.