By any count, the city’s tourism efforts have been a success story: In 2016, we hosted 42 million domestic visitors, and made their wallets lighter by about $6.8 billion in spending; the overall economic impact is $11 billion. While tourism is one of our major industries, the dollars generated are fed by three revenue streams.
The first is a steady flow from individual tourism — families from Peoria visiting for a long weekend to see the Liberty Bell.
The second is a stronger current — national associations bringing thousands of people to the Convention Center for a week-long gathering.
The third is a gusher — massive events like the pope speaking on the Ben Franklin Parkway in 2015, the Democratic National Convention in 2016, and the NFL draft last year, also on the Parkway.
That all takes plenty of planning and management. But does it really require two completely different — and occasionally dueling — tourism agencies to run the show?
That question is up for debate again with the announced departure of Meryl Levitz, who has been CEO and president of Visit Philadelphia since it was founded in 1996 as the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.
Visit Philadelphia, created when Philadelphia’s national image was on the rebound, was tasked with capturing two of the three revenue streams — individual tourists and really big events.
Levitz previously worked with the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB), which focuses primarily on filling the Convention Center with events.
Visit Philadelphia and the PHLCVB have been competing fiefdoms, using different campaigns to promote the city, developed by two staffs working in separate offices.
Their endeavors are bankrolled by their successes. Both have budgets — $15 million for Visit Philadelphia, $20 million for PHLCVB — funded by the city’s 8.5 percent tax on hotel room rates.
Visit Philadelphia rightly touted its accomplishments under Levitz, who has been a politically astute and enthusiastic champion of all the city offers.
Overnight leisure visits to the region have doubled since 1997. The city’s hotels have been doing great business on Saturday nights, hitting 90 percent occupancy in 2017. The tourism industry in the last two decades has supported 100,000 jobs in the region.
That’s all tremendous. But the city owes it to us all to see if it can do even better.
A 2014 report by then-City Controller Alan Butkovitz said merging the two tourism agencies could save the city at least $1 million per year. Butkovitz said at the time that money could be invested in boosting “historically weak” international and business travel in the city.
Mayor Kenney, via a spokesman Thursday, said it would be irresponsible to not at least study the potential for a merger.
Philadelphia, with the support of the surrounding suburban counties, has proven it can do big things well while also catering to casual tourism. The Convention Center is finally — for now? — under control after a long series of labor issues were set to rest with a 2014 customer service agreement that reigned in costs and turf hassles.
Now is an ideal time to show not only that we’re capable but that we can do more, grow more and shine more on a national and international stage. One tourism agency, working with a common goal, has a better chance of building on all that has been accomplished.