Meryl Levitz, head of Visit Philly, to step down after 21 years

Visit Philadelphia President and CEO Meryl Levitz in Duane Morris Plaza. Levitz announced she will retire at the end of the year after leading the organization since it was created in 1996.

Meryl Levitz, Philadelphia’s cheerleader-in-chief for more than two decades, is retiring at the end of the year as the head of Visit Philadelphia, the city’s marketing arm she built from scratch starting in 1996.

It will mark the end of a 40-year career promoting the city for Levitz, who previously worked for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Center City Proprietors Association, which she co-founded.

She is best known for her work creating Visit Philadelphia, which was intended as a vehicle to lure more leisure travelers to the city, which 22 years ago was hardly a hot spot.

“When we started, we were launching a new product, Philadelphia, which nobody said could be a product,” Levitz, 70, said this week. “There were a lot of naysayers, but there were a lot of people who seemed to just need permission to say how much they loved Philly.”

Levitz’s planned departure could renew debate about whether Philadelphia should merge its two marketing agencies — the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB) and Visit Philadelphia — into a single entity. A city spokesman said Thursday that the mayor would support a study of a potential merger. The publicly funded organizations have separate staffs, missions, and budgets.

Visit Philadelphia will conduct a nationwide search to replace Levitz, who makes $345,000 annually. Her contract is to end in December 2018.

“Meryl has been a part of some of the biggest milestones this city has ever experienced,” Mayor Kenney said. “And her leadership helped us shine on the national and international stage on countless occasions.”

Visit Philadelphia was launched by then-Mayor Ed Rendell in the hope that a more active tourism industry could make up for job losses in  manufacturing. He selected Levitz to run the agency.

“I think her promotion of this city has been brilliant, relentless, and dogged,” Rendell said. “She’s in some ways been the most effective public servant we’ve had in this city.”

Levitz came to Philadelphia from Chicago in 1971 when her husband, Leonard, a psychologist, co-founded the behavioral weight and eating disorder program at the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania. The couple had been thinking about where they’d like to live and put two lists on the refrigerator: “Places Meryl would live and “Places Meryl would not live.”

When the offer came from Penn, they consulted the refrigerator to see where Philadelphia fell.

“It wasn’t on either list,” Levitz said. “I think about that a lot, and I think it’s one of the things that has really stuck with me. … It’s always been my job to get Philadelphia on every refrigerator in the country.”

After Levitz took the helm at Visit Philadelphia (formerly the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.), it was not long before she made an impact.

In 1997, less than a year on the job, Levitz launched “This Is My Philadelphia, a promotional campaign featuring celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Bacon, and Ken Burns talking up the city.

A “horrible opportunity,” in Levitz’s words, presented itself after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when the hospitality industry took a huge hit, and under Mayor John F. Street the organization launched a $3.6 million marketing program to aid short-term recovery.

The result was the “Philly’s More Fun When You Sleep Over” campaign featuring smiling visitors traversing the city in  pajamas. The hotel discounts and free parking package is still sold today.

The campaign appeared to pay off. Philadelphia was one of the few cities that saw an increase in tourism in the year following 9/11. Smith Travel Research called it the country’s most successful hospitality recovery.

Levitz was an early advocate for the construction of the Convention Center, a lead spokeswoman for a campaign to get 2,000 additional hotel rooms in time for the 2000 Republican National Convention, and one of the earliest promoters of gay tourism here.

In 2004, as Congress considered an amendment to ban same-sex marriage, Visit Philadelphia launched a television ad campaign inviting gay couples to visit. The tagline: Philadelphia, Get Your History Straight And Your Nightlife Gay.

Since 1996 and the launch of Visit Philadelphia, annual overnight leisure visitation to the five-county region grew from 7.3 million to 14.7 million. Visitors booking hotels for leisure doubled from about 14 percent to 32 percent.

Those gains have not stopped questions about whether having two tourism marketing agencies is cost-effective for the city.

Four years ago, then-City Controller Alan Butkovitz recommended that the city combine Visit Philadelphia and PHLCVB. The move, according to an analysis by Butkovitz’s office, would bring Philadelphia in line with other major cities and free up at least $1 million in annual administrative costs that could then be used for promotion.

“In an era characterized by resource scarcity, we need to ask if it makes sense to have two virtually coequal agencies promoting this critical sector of our economy,” the report said.

Both agencies are funded by the city’s 8.5 percent tax on hotel room rates. Visit Philadelphia has a budget of about $15 million. PHLCVB’s budget is about $20 million.

Kenney has said he supports a study of the potential merger. “It would be irresponsible not to at least consider such a change, as other cities like Chicago have done in recent years,” city spokesman Mike Dunn said. “It could benefit the missions of both organizations, as well as the city of Philadelphia and the region.”

Newly elected City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart has no immediate plans to look into a merger but said through her spokeswoman that it’s on the list of savings ideas to explore.

Visit Philadelphia board president Manuel Stamatakis said the organizations serve different purposes and should remain separate.

“They both contribute important things….One might be called retail and one is wholesale,” Stamatakis said. “We’re retail. We’re trying to reach those 30, 40 million people within a day’s drive that like to come here for fun. The CVB, they’re focusing on the meeting planning, the large groups. It’s two different marketing specialties.”

Julie Coker Graham, CEO of PHLCVB, said both organizations have contributed to a 10 percent growth in hospitality jobs in the city over the last five years. The industry is also now the fourth largest employer in the region. She did not offer her thoughts on a merger, saying the decision would have to be made by each organization’s governing board.

Levitz, whose husband of 47 years died in July 2016, said she’s looking forward to spending more time with her two sons and four grandchildren. She’s also excited to start the day without a to-do list.

Retirement will not end her love affair with Philadelphia.

“I know this sounds corny, but one of my favorite things is being on Independence Mall at like 6 in the morning when no one’s there,” she said. “I find it really magical to think about what happened…and when the light comes up and hits, it’s amazing.”